The wind was howling like the wolves of her homeland, and the rain was pelting down on the tin roof. The corrugated iron shack rattled and clattered under the heavy tropical storm; the hessian sugar-bag doors and windows were drenched already. As the storm rampaged on, the sugar cane around the shack bend and broke – becoming a worthless crop.

Inside the shack, the furniture was sparse and basic; a candle on an upturned packing crate spilled its beacon of light out into the darkroom. The cane cutter’s wife and her children huddled in closer around the box and prayed as the storm outside battled to burst into this small oasis of comfort. 

In her husband’s enforced absence, the young wife and her little ones have been left here alone to fight the imminent danger. This young woman is not used to being left alone to carry the family burden; however, recent events have brought about this kind of isolation. The cane cutter, along with many other Italian men, has been arrested and imprisoned in the Innisfail detention centre where they are held as ‘enemy aliens’.

“Mama, everything gonna be oright?” whispered the youngest.

The girl is not even five, yet there was something about her which drew people to her. Her eyes spoke of a beautiful soul and her movements told of a nurturing being.

Mother: “Everything’s going to be fine, sweetheart. It’s just a storm – we’ve been through worse.”

In some ways, that was true. The war had been worse. It had terrorised and ripped apart their homelands; still, this was more challenging somehow. At least during the war, there had not been the isolation that she felt here. In those war years, there had been the comfort of her family and the neighbours she had known all her life. Times had been tough but they had all been in it together.

When they had first arrived in Innisfail, everything had appeared strange and exotic – the heavily jungled land, the fast-flowing green rivers, the lizard-like crocodiles basking in the mud, the roughly dressed migrant workers from all nations and the dark native people of this land. To these immigrants, Australia was a harsh land of opportunity where one could work hard, save and acquire land; this was an achievement that was almost impossible in feudal Italy. She and her husband were poor and illiterate, from a rural area where money and work were scant. She felt that her surroundings were not favourable to the development of the ‘womanly’ or sentimental side of nature. She would have to grow tough and strong to survive; returning to their hometown was certainly not an option.

In the beginning, living with the isolation of her existence in this land seemed almost impossible. She thanked God for their skills in farming, perhaps the only thing keeping them alive, but she couldn’t keep the loneliness from creeping into her heart. Her nearest neighbours, half a day’s trek through jungle paths and tumbling waterways, were not a source of comfort. Although she would be willing to trek the distance, neither of them could understand each other; they didn’t speak Italian and she didn’t speak Chinese. The cane cutter’s hard work and determination to improve his family’s standard of living had brought him to Mellick’s farm, a hundred acres between Innisfail Estate and the Coconuts.

The storm outside maintained its roaring rage and the rain continued battering the roof.

“Mama, the storm’s getting louder!” yelled the middle child – a ragged but cheeky faced little boy.

Although he was too young to fully understand what was happening, he could sense his mother’s distress as she wiped away the despair on her face and whispered soothingly to her children. Her words were lost in the terrible noises of the storm’s fury. With an ugly sound of scraping metal, followed by ominous clashes and bangs, the roof ripped off. As the candle guttered, overwhelming darkness and terror enveloped the room like a blanket.

The winds swirled around them in wild wet torrents, whipping their hair and stinging their eyes. A jagged piece of metal tore into the mother’s side puncturing her flesh and leaving a gruesome gash. Tears, mourns and screams joined the sound of the pounding rain and the wailing wind.

As the young mother murmured her Ave Marias, imploring the Blessed Virgin Mary to watch over her and her children, she began to feel a glimmer of hope. Was that a light she saw flicking through the blinding rain? Was someone coming to help her? She hardly dared to hope. Her nearest neighbours were some miles away. Would they even know she was here on her own?

Clinging desperately to the children, she peered into the intense darkness. There was light. There was hope. Someone was coming to her rescue. She was not totally alone in her time of desperate need in this alien environment. A voice called from the darkness: “You oright Santina! We comin’.”

Years later, she remembered that night, their kindness as vividly as ever. She thought about the years gone by: how Zhang Wei and his wife took her and her children in, how they helped her slowly rebuild her cottage and how they supported her through those tough years of her husband’s internment. She remembered how her sense of isolation slowly left her and how they became part of the local community, a community which flourished because it realised the importance of supporting the newcomers.