13 June 2023

From a tearful 'Ciao, Calabria' to an Order of Australia, a moving immigrant journey

| Dione David
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Giovanna Cardamone OAM with a volunteer at ITSOWEL

Giovanna Cardamone OAM with a volunteer at ITSOWEL. Photo: ITSOWEL.

For her service to the Illawarra’s Italian community, Giovanna Cardamone has been awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM).

This follows the Knight of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic (2009), the Italian-Australian Woman of the Year from the Italian-Australia Women’s Association (2010) and the Wollongong Woman of the Year at the NSW Premier’s Award (2015).

Giovanna has been a member of the Italian Ministerial Consultative Committee, National Italian-Australian Women’s Association, Illawarra Regional Advisory Council Multicultural NSW and the Committee for Italians Abroad (COMITES), and has been the CEO of the Italian Social Welfare Organisation of Wollongong (ITSOWEL) since 2002.

The accolades clearly reflect an impressive and long-standing record of community service, but what has driven one woman to give so much to the local Italian community?

“To understand it, you have to know a little about my story,” Giovanna said.

Giovanna arrived in Australia in January 1967 at age eight. Of all her childhood memories, this departure left the deepest impression.

“I remember it was dawn. I remember it was dark. I remember it was cold. I remember standing on the bed while my aunt was dressing me. I remember being at the port. I remember my grandparents and that my grandfather had bought me a beautiful big doll. I remember there were tears,” she said.

“That sadness has never gone away. To this day, it remains my strongest memory.”

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Several years ago, when Giovanna’s parents sold their home in Italy, she asked the new owners if she could go inside. They said yes.

“I went into that room which was the bedroom where my aunt dressed me and it all came flooding back. It was as if I’d stepped back in time and could see the little girl standing on the bed in her little red coat. I felt the sadness, the winter cold,” she said.

“I cried. I don’t think I could ever have the strength to step into that house again.”

Giovanna grew up in a “very Anglo-Saxon” suburb of Wollongong during a period of rampant discrimination.

“The word ‘wog’ doesn’t bother me now, but for the memory of how much it hurt then,” she said.

“At school, my brothers are I would eat our Italian lunches behind our hands. It wasn’t a nice experience growing up. We as a nation have come a long way.”

Giovanna Cardamone OAM at ITSOWEL

Giovanna knows she’s right where she belongs now. Photo: ITSOWEL.

Giovanna went on to higher education and a job in the public service. She compartmentalised her life, assimilating to white Australia in her professional and social circles, reserving her connection to her heritage for immediate family.

“My parents continued the traditions of our Italian heritage. My brothers and I were blessed with that,” she said.

“At home, we spoke Italian. My father kept an Italian vegetable garden and with my mother, made soap. He built a wood oven outside to bake our own bread. We made Italian sauces and our own salami. My father made his own wine. I was surrounded by that and I breathed it in.”

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Like many of Australia’s expatriates, Giovanna now lives in a sort of duality. From the day she left, she longed to return to Italy, yet takes equal pride in her ‘Australianess’. Over time she ditched the double life and eventually became the force she is in the Italian community today.

This passion led her to create the Virtual Museum of Italian Immigration in the Illawarra to collect and preserve the stories and heritage of the region’s Italians.

It’s also the driving force behind her current work with ITSOWEL.

ITSOWEL exists to support the Italian community, specifically the elderly, through services and information, the collection and protection of its heritage and advocating for the development of resources for specific needs, such as help to care for Italians with dementia.

“One year, I brought back a ream of flax from Italy, which hadn’t yet been woven into fabric. I handed it to an elderly lady with dementia and asked her, ‘Do you know what this is?’. She touched it and said, ‘Of course I do, this is flax, I used to weave this, I used to make beautiful blankets, sheets and hand towels’,” she said.

“If I had grown up in Italy, I would not be who I am today. I think back to everything that brought me to this place – the skills I gained in various roles in public service and the slow reconnection to my community and people. Especially after we lost our parents, I reconnected to all the things I loved about my motherland: the traditions, the dialects, and the stories, which are so important.

“When I think of that, I know I am right where I belong.”

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