SIRKKU HELENA MULLA

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This is Helan Mulla’s story told in her own words

My name is Sirkku Helena (Helen) Mulla nee Neiminen. I was born on 9 January 1947 in a small village called Mἅnttἅ, a small inland village located in the centre of Finland. My father was Urho (Tom) Neminen born in 1917 and my mother was Olga Maria Salmi. She was born in 1922. I was the middle of the three children born in FInland, with an older sister and a younger brother. We loved Finland.
I grew up in Mἅnttἅ and started school there when I was 7 years old. It was wonderful walking to school through the snow. My father owned a small island in a lake. Finland has many lakes, it is called the land of a thousand lakes. This one was not far from our town and we would go to the lake most weeks and swim and play as my parents grew vegetables on the island which was only about 200 metres from the shore there. We spent a lot of time on our island. Even in winter. We had a sauna there and a little hut. Sauna’s are a big cultural thing in Finland. We did not bathe every night as it was so cold there but often went to the sauna, sometimes the public one and we would wash afterward with buckets of water. We didn’t have showers because the pipes would get frozen. Our sauna on the island had a special sort of rock that did not split when you threw water on it. You had to decide where to sit as the steam would rise to the top and it was hottest there. And you had to be careful about the amount of water you put on it as if it was too much it would all steam up and it could burn you. My father was burnt once when he was in a sauna with a visitor who put too much water on the rocks. He was in hospital for a long time after that I remember. In summer we would swim all day long. The summer days did not last long in Finland but winter was just wonderful because you would go in the sauna and when you were hot you would jump in the snow and cool down. I remember Finland as a wonderful place. As a kid, I was a champion skier. I have a medal somewhere. And I won a swimming medal.
I have a memory of my father working as a butcher and driving trucks. When I was a little older he worked as a Concierge at a hotel. I remember his beautiful uniform with lovely buttons and my mother ironing it. My father hated the cold. He was a soldier during World War 2. Finland shares a border with Russia and the Finnish have always been concerned about Russia invading so when Russia joined the war for the allies the Finnish joined the Germans. I don’t think my father was ever happy about his service in the war. He said that whether you met a German or a Russian it was still the same, either one would kill you. The years of World War 2 were the coldest years on record. He told stories of hearing captured men screaming as they were tied to trees to die of cold. He spent time in a Russian prisoner of war camp. It was a converted castle and they were kept in a tower. He managed to get out when the Germans bombed the castle and the Russians were too occupied with fighting back to watch their prisoners. My father did win a medal in the war, but mostly I I remember how he hated the cold. He did take me back with him to see where he was in Russia. The worst was when the snow melted into slush. It was muddy and slippery and difficult to get around in. We did not have a car and had to travel on foot or by bike so it was difficult when the dirt was wet and slippery.
My father first applied to go to Canada but then he realized that Canada would be just as bad as Finland so he applied for immigration to Australia. In 1957 we were accepted to go to Australia as immigrants. Australia had a lot of laws around immigration and we had to go to Helsinki to get injections and other clearances. To pay for the trip we had sold the house and the island. When we boarded the ship in Germany however it was full of refugees: from Hungary and Romania and Poland and all those places. We had left from Helsinki and gone to Copenhagen and from there went by train into Germany where we overnighted before boarding the ship for Australia.
We left Finland in December 1957. I have photos of us leaving and we were all rugged up and there were piles of snow behind us. We passed through the Suez cannel and it was wonderful. It was so hot. It was fascinating. We saw flying fish, and along the banks of the cannel there were palm trees and camels walking up and down! And boats rowed out to the ship and sold us pineapples! They burnt our mouths when we tasted them. And there were banana’s. We saw people with dark skin which we had never seen before. It was like a fantasy for us kids. Our next stop was Columbo in Sri Lanka. We were allowed off for a short stop just to walk a bit before the ship left, but not long after leaving land, during the night, the ship broke down and we had to return to Columbo. We ended up spending 3 days there and it was wonderful. We had a ride on an elephant and took a taxi sight-seeing through the island. I remember dad buying mum a ring. For us, being kids, it was like a fairy land. I never got sick at all on the ship. Mum and my brother and sister did get sick but dad and I never did. Mum was about 3 months pregnant on the board and she did not have a good trip but for us kids it was wonderful. When we crossed the equator, the ship had someone dressed as King Neptune come aboard and we were all pelted with jelly. There was a swimming pool on the ship and we all went swimming.
I had my eleventh birthday on the boat and the cook made this beautiful cake for me and everyone in the dinning area was looking at me. Anyway, dad cut the cake and in the first bit there was a great big cockroach in the cake! I was so disappointed because I had never had such a lovely cake or such a big party and there was a cockroach in the cake. We didn’t have cockroaches in Finland. We had other creepy things but not cockroaches! We all of us, especially dad, hated cockroaches.
We first made land in Australia in Freemantle but no-one got off the ship. We disembarked in Melbourne. The refuges went to one place and migrants went into another area called Bonegilla. We lived in barracks with minimal facilities but there was a big dinning hall and you took turns at cooking the meals. The meals were OK as far as I can remember. We had eggs and porridge. One thing that was different was toast! We had never had toast before. It was different but it was nice. Mostly we had jam rather than peanut butter or anything. There was vegemite of course, we couldn’t work out why anyone would eat that poison!!
We all went to an English school at Bonegilla. I think Mum and Dad may have gone at night. Dad picked up English rather well but he had problems pronouncing the words, he tended to say the words as they were written. Mum had a better ear for spoken English. Dad learnt to read and write fairly quickly as he liked to read. We hated Victoria. It was so hot! The ground was hot and the air was hot and it was so dusty.
We then moved to a migrant camp in New South Wales. Dad went to work at a steel works and lived on site so it was just mum and us. We went to school with the local kids. I remember we went to school on a bus. Dad had heard about Far North Queensland and the cane cutting. I think he had heard from other Fins and organised for us to move there. This was about 6 months after landing in Australia and mum was in hospital after giving birth to our sister. When mum came out of hospital dad, was back at the steel works and we were to catch a train to Sydney for the trip north. I remember mum had us, my older sister was about 12 and I was 11 and my brother was 9, and the new baby and all the luggage and we had to catch this train. I remember being so worried that mum wouldn’t make the train but she did make it. I am not sure where dad joined us but he did and we got to Tully where we were met by the Finnish community in Tully. They rented a house for us but it was unfurnished. Dad couldn’t cut cane because he had injured his back in the war. He did try one day but couldn’t do it so he found work at the sugarcane mill. We went to school in Tully. I remember the kids used to tease the heck out of us in Tully. I could not really understand what they were saying because I did not really speak much English at that time. But we went to school and learnt more and more. Tully is where I got my English name of Helen. The teacher asked our names and when they saw my name they said she couldn’t pronounce that and she asked for my second name. When I told it was Helena she said “OK, I’ll call you ‘Helen’”, and I have been Helen ever since. In Tully it was hot. My brother and I spent our time jumping off the rail bridge into the river.
We were not in Tully very long when a group of Finnish people went to the Atherton Tablelands. They told us there was work there so we left and went to Atherton where dad worked in the council. We lived in a flat in Atherton and went to school My baby sister was born in Mareeba. there. My sister turned 14 in Atherton and she got work in a corner shop. Not long after, some Finnish people told dad that there was a Finnish farmer in Mareeba and we came to this farm on Gentile Road where dad did the season and then back to Tully for the sugar season. My sister stayed in Atherton where she boarded with the shop family. After the sugar season dad returned to this farm and started share-farming.
I turned 14 here so never went to school in Mareeba. I started by stringing tobacco and then at 14 began grading tobacco. Eventually I got a job with Jack Nicolls and lived in town with 4 other girls including my sister. I worked in a number of places between working on tobacco. Tobacco work was very well paid so I picked up other work when it was not in season. Not long after I turned 15 the Mulla’s, an Albanian family bought this farm where dad was share farming from the Finnish family. That is how I met my husband. It took seven years before we could marry.
My father share farmed for the Mulla family for 12 months then moved to the farm next door before share farming on a farm near Bilwon where he eventually bought some land for himself where he ran animals. My father died in 1993 after a battle with cancer. Mum survived him for 9 years dying in 2003. My mother had never wanted to immigrate. In Australia she refused to learn the language and said she would go back. Then in 1972 my parents returned to Finland for a visit. When mum got back to Australia she never mentioned going to Finland again. She began to speak English and finally seemed to settle. I think Finland was not what she remembered anymore. Things had changed and many of the people she remembered had passed. I think in the end she was contented with living in Australia and Mareeba.
Dad always loved it here. He loved the heat and the wide-open spaces. He loved being on the farms. I have been back to Finland a couple of times. In 1988 with my father and in 1996 with my brother. I would like to go back again, but this is home. Henry and I have 4 children and 6 grandchildren. We still live on the farm on Gentile Road where our grandchildren visit and where we can look across at the town which is the centre of our lives.

Janet Greenwood Operations Manager

Janet commenced work with the Mareeba Heritage Centre in July 2016. She had the vision to create this project and was instrumental in acquiring funds and putting the right people in place to bring this project together. Janet is passionate about community engagement and development.

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Angela was born in Mareeba but like most young people left to pursue a career in Corrections and then Community Services. On retirement, she returned to her home town and is happy to be contributing to progression and preservation.

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