A small Illawarra suburb has received a special visit from an international leader, with hundreds turning out for their chance to meet the President of Malta during a celebration of Maltese heritage and identity.
President George Vella was met with cheers and applause as he stopped by Cringila, taking a moment away from political meetings with dignitaries to connect with those from our region’s vast Maltese population.
“It has been tradition for head of state to come to visit,” President Vella said.
“I think it is something that they do appreciate a lot because it gives them a sense that they still belong to the Maltese community.”
Held at the cultural hub of the George Cross Falcons Community Centre, the event was a little piece of home for the President, with traditional music, food, dress and many stories of personal connection.
“We believe in participating rather than just shaking hands and taking a photo,” George Cross Falcons president Louis Parnis said. “We want to include the language, the folklore, our military and it’s all a combination of them that make us what we are.”
“It feels like Malta obviously because there are familiar faces, many of them know you and remind you that they are the nephew of Mr So-and-so and the sister of Miss So-and-so,” President Vella said.
“Coming all this way, all these hundreds of miles away and landing in an area that is practically a small Malta, this is a feeling, an experience that really is very emotional.”
And for the many in attendance, the visit served as a special link to their second home.
“Maltese are still homesick after 60 years and you can go to Malta on holidays but you’ve got to come back,” Mr Parnis said.
“When the President comes here, he brings Malta to us and that’s something you can’t replace.”
The president’s meet and greet also held a great military significance, as he laid a wreath at the centre’s memorial, which honours the sacrifice of the Maltese soldiers who fought for Australia during World War I and went unrecognised for many years.
“I think it’s incredible recognition for all the Maltese ex-servicemen that we have who are really proud not just of their Maltese heritage but their Australian heritage, and it’s something that they want to be able to represent,” Maltese Ex-servicemen’s RSL sub-branch president Clint Marlborough said.
Mr Marlborough said the acknowledgement of their military history helped create a sense of identity for the group, particularly for the older members.
“There have been times with our group where our numbers have really dwindled as the Maltese population has aged and we’ve been as low as four or five members, 20 years ago, so trying to get younger veterans like myself into the mix so that the older guys still have somewhere to march and pay their respects has been important.”
“To actually have the President come down and acknowledge that is just phenomenal, it means so much for all of us and I know it means a lot for them.”
But even for those without military connections, that sense of belonging and relationship to Malta continues to be a necessity and is made possible through groups like the George Cross Falcons that continue to foster togetherness in the tight-knit community.
“I’m hoping this sort of union and these clubs where Maltese come together to carry on,” President Vella said. “Because they give cohesion and they bring the Maltese together so they won’t feel as though they’re by themselves, solitary or forgotten.”