Machteld Hali came to this country in the middle sixties and experienced the scale of our racism. Now, she’s doing something about it.
“The first time we were in Moree, people tried to kill us. They threw eggs and stones at us and pushed our bus off the road. The second time, 50 years later, there were hundreds of children lining the street into town. They were singing and welcoming us with open arms. ‘You have changed our lives,’ they said. ‘You made us feel like we mattered and we’ve never forgotten that.’” Machteld Hali is one of those very few people who have made history. In 1965 she was 18 years old, a student at Sydney University, and one of the Freedom Riders. I have spoken to you about the Freedom Rides before, but just in case you don’t remember, a tiny history update: In the early 1960s, Aboriginal people were not considered Australian citizens. They were ruled by the government, a little like Saudi women now. When they wanted to get married, or visit the children that had been taken away from them, or get a job, they had to ask permission. And often they were refused. Racism was normal, especially in rural areas. So an Aboriginal man called Charles Perkins organised a bus-ride through NSW, visiting places like Walgett, Moree and Kempsey. The Freedom Ride had already been a tool of protest by the American civil rights movement of Martin Luther King, and it did something similar here. It showed ordinary Australians what an Aboriginal life looked like. When the students were thrown out of Moree, shouts went up that “the only good Abo is a dead Abo” and that it was time to “string ‘em up”. It was ugly, and the Freedom Ride had put it out in the open.
Machteld Hali had a good reason to be on that bus. She understood discrimination, although it was a less ugly version of it. As a recent Dutch migrant, she had been at the receiving end of quite a bit of it. This is her story, and the story of what came next. And how you can help. “I was born in Scheveningen, in Holland, in 1946, just after the war. My father was an electronic engineer, my mother a teacher. Both had been under enormous pressure during the Occupation. My father had been hiding for four years, then he was locked up in a camp. They had survived, but that was all. After it was over, their main concern was to get out, leave, go somewhere else. Crazily enough, they chose Indonesia. I say that, because in 1949, when we went there, Indonesia was in the last stages of fighting a war of independence against Holland, the coloniser. So being a white Dutch person in Indonesia at that time was not the best. But to my parents it must have sounded like a tropical paradise, all mangoes and nice heat. After the cold and famine of the war in Holland, that was what drew them to the other side of the world. I was three, my younger sister was a baby. My parents had very little money and the war against the Dutch had turned into a civil war by the time we got to Indonesia. It was absolute folly. Nevertheless, they were still able to carve out a very reasonable existence. My dad got a job as an engineer and a teacher at the agricultural college and my mother worked in a Dutch cultural centre, where she ran the library and organised events. And in a way, the colonial existence was still not over: we had servants, people who cooked and cleaned for us. But there was a price to be paid. We were hated because we were Dutch. And we were in danger because we were white. That is why we left to come to Australia in 1956. I was ten by then, and there had been kidnap threats. Young white girls were considered sexually attractive, so I was a hazard to the family. Then my parents also had twins and one of them died. Enough was enough.
“When we arrived in Australia, the attitude to migrants was appalling. I was ten and I was smart, but I was treated like I was either deaf or stupid or both. I didn’t speak any English yet, but people thought that if they yelled loud enough I would understand. I remember trying, one day in primary school, to show that I was good at maths. The teacher didn’t even let me finish, but said to my classmates: ‘I think she needs to go to the toilet,’ and ignored me after that. They gave me Golden Books to read, meant for 4-year olds. It was demeaning, and even as a child I felt embarrassed. This is when I developed an acute sense of otherness, I think, and a compassion for others who were treated as different. In Indonesia I had gone to a Dutch school. In Holland, corporal punishment in education had been abolished in 1820, so when I arrived here, I was horrified at the behaviour of teachers. Not just the beatings, but also the way they treated their pupils. I was used to being seen as a person, somebody of value, but that was not how things were organised here. I had always loved school, because it had been about learning, not duty and discipline. Now I was being forced into a straightjacket I hated. What was amazing was the sense of freedom and safety. After being guarded and protected minute by minute in Indonesia, it was lovely to be able to roam. I taught myself English in three months, because it was clear that what was expected of me, of us, was assimilation. Forget about who you are and what you are and become like everybody else. I was ten, I wanted to belong, to be accepted.
“I remember it as a difficult, confusing time. My parents were busy adapting too. They had to find a house, jobs, look after my four little siblings. It was clear to me that I was on my own. I had to learn another language, get used to different food, to other mores and mannerisms. The Dutch are forthright and matter-of-fact, something that is seen here as rude and insensitive. So that had to change. And I had to accept a different name. Australians find Machteld difficult to say, so they changed it to Michelle. Only when I went to university did I ask people to call me by my real name. As a consequence, for a while nobody spoke to me. So I told them to call me ‘M’. That helped, a little. I had to become another person, and that is not easy. I was very angry, especially the first couple of years. But because I was a child and nobody was listening to me, I organised these little protests. One day I stole one of my mother’s cigarettes and smoked it in class. When that didn’t work I decided to show them I was better than anybody else. In my second year of high school I became dux of my class and remained that for the rest of my schooling.
“So when it was time to go to university, I was exhausted. My mother had told me that if I wanted more education, I had to see to it myself. I was the oldest, I looked like I could take care of myself, so that is what I needed to do. It was benevolent neglect, I think. They were flat-out keeping us safe, fed and housed. The rest was up to us. Looking back now, it was lonely. But also empowering, because it showed me that they trusted that I could handle myself. I was more like another adult than a child, and I rose to that challenge. You cope so you have to cope, something like that. Over the years, I schooled myself in being different. As in: work harder, read more, try not to mind the loneliness. Then I left high school and enrolled at university. There were six of us, out of 100. 1964, that is how it was. It was still the time of the White Australia Policy too, so one of the prerequisites to be accepted for a scholarship at Sydney University was to give up my Dutch citizenship. I did that, begrudgingly. Thankfully, the Dutch didn’t accept my renunciation. They thought an 18-year old was too young to decide something important like that. Which is great, because it means that I am the only person in my family who is officially both Dutch and Australian.
“Not long after I had started my degree I ran into the Freedom Rides. It appealed, because it was something new, something adventurous. With hindsight I also think that it was attractive because I felt a connection with Aboriginal people, who were also treated as outsiders. I had ideas about discrimination, politically as well as personally. But on that trip I soon realised, as most of us did, that we had no clue what real discrimination, real racism, looked like. The goal was to create public awareness in the broader Australian population, but in the process we also educated ourselves. The living conditions of most Aboriginal people we met in those rural towns were horrendous. They tried to stay alive in humpies on what was basically a rubbish dump, 20 kilometres out of town. They had to buy water at extortionist prices and were refused in public places, from swimming pools to shops and pubs. I had never seen anything like it. They were abused, the children had eye disease, there was no understanding or appreciation for who they were. It changed me profoundly. I realised that the way I had been treated was in no way comparable to what I saw here. I had the right skin colour, came from a northern European country. I had nothing to complain about. Nevertheless, for migrants, discrimination is their Achilles Heel. It is our sore spot, so when others are at the receiving end of it, we tend to yell out. That is why I am so interested in helping out Aboriginal people, especially in the country towns we visited more than 50 years ago.”
So, after that 50-year reunion, Machteld started an Aboriginal Scholarship Fund. She runs workshops for Aboriginal people so they can learn how to make art prints. Those prints are then sold, and the proceeds fund the training of an Aboriginal art teacher, who can go back to teach their community. Recently, she has extended the project by asking artists to donate their work for an upcoming auction. If you want to become part of history too, you can contribute, by giving money, or a work of art for sale. You can reach Machteld on: [email protected]