Hardev Singh Virk’s journey to Australia reflects the courage of a migrant

Hardev Singh
Hardev Singh Virk’s journey to Australia reflects the courage of a migrant

“I swam to Australia,” laughs Hardev Singh Virk, when asked how he came to Australia in 1975. It was a time when the country still had the White Policy, when visas and Permanent Residencies were far beyond the reach of those who were non-white. So it is with great inquisition that Virk is asked the question yet again: “How did you get here?”
The answer that follows is the stuff Hollywood films are made.
Virk was in his final year of graduation in a college in Chandigarh and all of 22 when he and some of his friends got together to meet a guy who had come from Germany. It would be a meeting that would inspire them to travel abroad. Living in India in the mid ‘70s, Virk and his friends were unsure about what to do in life. And they left India with this same sense of uncertainty.
“I had no idea where I was going or what I was doing when I left India in January 1975.” For the first time in their lives, Virk and his friends took a flight from Amritsar to go to Kabul. They had never seen a plane and were curious as to how air hostesses looked like. To their dismay, it took them three days to reach Kabul as their plane was stranded in Kandahar in an army base which was built by America. It was winter and Kabul was blanketed by snow. Every day the pilot would attempt twice to land in Kabul. Without much success.
“For the first time I saw a metre-long chapatti (bread) which was among the food given to us,” he says. “We were all impatient but finally on the third day we landed in Kabul.”
Kabul was very cold, recalls Virk. After staying there for a week, they started their journey to destination unknown. “Somebody told us that if you get to Greece there is plenty of work and from there we could move to Switzerland or Germany.” So they travelled by road from Kabul through Iran, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Romania and Italy. During those days, one had to just show the passport at the border post where they were given three months’ entry.
After five-six week they entered Greece, their first major point, where they spent the next six months. “Greece in those days was like the headquarters for tourists and migrants who wanted to find work in shipping.”
Virk and his friends worked in a passenger ship for about three months which brought them to Australia. “We landed in Sydney and decided to leave. Yes we were adventurous; it was something we hadn’t done in life.”
Armed with some amount of money, the group stayed in a hotel. Soon they found out that there was plenty of work in Australia at that time. “After a couple of days we went to north Queensland, I was near Cairns, where the sugar cane belt is.”
The seasonal farm work allowed them to move from state to state. They had no permanent address.
Life was definitely lonely, recalls Virk. “We missed our family very much. We could write letters. But we kept working very hard putting in 12-14 hours a day.”
But they had also seen Australia’s transition from olden days to modernity. And many, many good memories were made along the way. The friendship among the group of friends who were mostly single was something that kept them going together. While they toiled hard during the day, come night and they would cook together, have a few drinks, sing and pass their time.
Did people look at them with curiosity? “Those days Australia was more accepting because the Australian people hadn’t seen many Indians. I didn’t have the turban, just the beard, because circumstances brought us here. Wherever we used to go people offered their help, talked to us and asked us questions such as ‘where are you from?’” says Virk.
Fortunately for Virk and his friends, the year they landed in Australia was the year when Gough Whitlam was sacked as the Premier and Malcolm Fraser from the Liberal Party took over. Fraser had earlier announced in his policy speech that anybody who entered Australia before 31st December 1975 would be given a permanent residency (PR) should he win the election. True enough, in the first week of winning his election, Virk was told by his farmer friends in Shepparton where he was working then to go and apply for residency.
It was the best piece of news. The idea those days says Virk, was to go to a country, work hard, make some money and perhaps go back home and start something independently. “But God had something else planned for us.” Within three months of arrival in Australia, Virk was a permanent resident. “I have never looked back since.”
After becoming a PR, Virk’s options he continued farm work for a year and then the Victorian Railways which he served for 19 and half years. Doing shift works in the railways also gave him the opportunity to maximise his entrepreneurial instincts. In 1978, he had his taxi licence and was told by the registry office that he was the second Punjabi Indian to gain a taxi licence in Victoria.
But Virk’s adventurous streak has always stayed with him. He has dabbled in a lot of different things besides working as a public servant and running a taxi. From 2005 to 2012 he was in thereal estate business. Finally, with his children having grown up, he decided to slow down and enjoy life.
Virk, now 62, has been driving taxis for decades now. He is the proud owner of two taxis and he thoroughly enjoys being in this profession.
Virk says he understands that a lot of people might look down upon taxi driving as a profession. But having lived in Australia, he cherishes the dignity of labour. It is a profession he thoroughly enjoys and finds immense satisfaction.
Virk’s story may seem ordinary but his journey and assimilation into Australia’s multicultural society is one that tugs at the heartstrings. The Gurudwara is where you will often find him. “I try to hold my principles as much as I can.” The long years here has still kept him tied to his culture and roots, while also imbibing the best of what Australia has to offer.