Refugees escaping post-war Europe as displaced persons or as political refugees, were permitted entry into Australia, on the condition that they agreed to a 2 year contract to work on Government-approved schemes. These included rail and road construction, building infrastructure for future travel and transport systems, communications and industry. Schemes established for the control of water for Power and Irrigation were the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme and the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Project. Other jobs were secured through friends or acquaintances, including working in Hospitality, Nursing or Factories where unskilled labour was required. Work could also be found as Farming labourers. Generally, qualifications acquired in non-English speaking countries were not recognised in Australia and many professionals had to resign themselves to working as unskilled labourers. Men were assigned blue-collar, outdoor manual work and women worked in domestic or health care positions. Despite difficult working conditions and at times, sub-standard accommodation, the language barrier and adapting to foreign systems of work, they worked mostly uncomplaining, in the knowledge that eventually, when their contract was complete, they would find suitable employment where their qualified skills would be utilised.

Hinko recalls:

When we came to Australia, we got off in Melbourne and then they put us on a train and took us to Bonegilla. We stayed at Bonegilla for about two to three weeks. We knew we had to start working.  There were differences in the measurements used and because of the language barrier we couldn't understand English so we decided we had to do manual labour.  When we were told by a man from Queensland about going to Brisbane, where there was work cutting sugar cane, the four of us friends decided to go.

We went to Queensland by train, it took two days and two nights to get to a station at Merinda, up in Queensland, somewhere near Innisfail and McKay. The four of us went because you worked four to a team. We worked there for one and a half months. We left because we were being cheated on tonnage. We lived in a shack, it was one of two which were probably owned by the local council. One of the shacks was empty and we lived in the other one. It was next to a creek where we had to wash because there were no showers. There was one wood stove. One of the chaps in our team wasn’t much good for cutting. He had been a dental technician in Slovenia but he was a very good cook, so we let him go home about an hour earlier so he could prepare dinner for us.

The weather was shocking for us, coming from cooler regions. It was already hot by 10 in the morning. We had blisters on our hands from the work which we weren’t used to doing and had to keep them wrapped up with handkerchiefs. We had a special container for water, which had to be kept out of the sun to keep the water cool. Lunch was sandwiches which we brought from home and we didn’t go home till the end of the day. We had a break for about ¾ hour to have lunch, then we went  back to cutting. The job was cutting the sugar cane in bunches, which went onto a small wagon which the farmer brought. When the wagon was full the farmer would put it on a truck and take it all to the local station, where there was a single track. There, a small locomotive would take it all to the sugar mill. That’s where they cut up the cane, refined it and pressed out the juice. …… the cane was half eaten by rats. When you put the cane on your shoulder to shift it, the rats would grab you. We would get blisters and it was very sore. The work wasn’t easy. We didn’t work with anyone who spoke English so that we could learn to speak the language. We only had a little dictionary. We tried to find what someone said in the dictionary. It was complicated. Some of the words that were spoken weren’t even there in the dictionary – it was probably slang. But people were generally good to us………

Anton told us about cutting the sugar cane:

Lucija recalls:

.…a few months after arriving in Bonegilla, my husband got word from a friend about some work in Beechworth at a tannery. A couple of other families and he went to that job straight away. We had been in Bonegilla for three months.  I stayed on at Bonegilla for another month with our daughter, until he found accommodation for us……

In Australia things were difficult because we couldn’t speak English. Mainly we were around people who spoke Croatian and in the factory in Melbourne, the women I worked with were Italian and we all communicated in Italian as I had learnt to speak it in Italy. In Melbourne there were mostly Italians, so communication was easier. Later we moved to Myrtleford to the tobacco farms where there were many Italians and some Slovenians. Apart from the Flemings in Porepunkah, who were very patient with us as far as language went, we learned English from the children after they began school.

Marija explains:

We stayed in Bonegilla until Frank got his first job in Porepunkah on a dairy farm. I got my first job at the mental hospital because I wanted to do something. There was not much money.  I had to make thirty beds and look after the patients. There was no training in those days - you learned on the job. It wasn’t hard work because we knew how to clean and sometimes we had to prepare food for the nurses. I also had to go to classes to learn to speak English…..   At the hospital, one staff member who was an Australian girl, was very good to me and showed me what to do and taught me some words. I was happy to be doing something. One day the matron saw me doing my work and asked why I was doing the other girl’s work. I told her that I didn’t mind. I wanted to work. I was at the hospital for six months and two weeks.

Vida tells:

We arrived at Melbourne. We went by train to Bonegilla. Women had the children. I stayed in Bonegilla with the children. The men had a contract. My husband was in the army so he was sent to work with the army. He found accommodation in Ivanhoe for me and our son. My husband was a chef or a cook in the army and he stayed and worked there through to the end.

Liliana Eggleston-Tomažič



more coming soon . . .

Liliana Eggleston-Tomažič


  • Ivan Kobal: The Snowy - Cradle of a New Australia
  • John Adams: Slovene migrants in Australia: The reasons for migration and the nature and distribution of social and cultural activities
  • Draga Gelt and Veronika Ferfolja: Pax et Bonum - Mir in dobroThe Presence of Slovenian Franciscan priests and nuns in Australia from 1951 to 2001
  • Glenda Sluga: Bonegilla "A Place of No Hope"
  • Viktorija Zabukovec: The Second Landing

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