My nanna Teresa was a Rebel Girl.
She was born in Malta, a small, beautiful island nation in the Mediterranean Sea. She raised her children in a modest apartment in the country’s capital, Valletta, until World War II brought war to their shores. The Axis powers, led by Adolf Hitler, wanted to conquer Malta, which became the most heavily bombed place of World War II. With the war raging around her, my nanna fought every day to find food and shelter and to keep her family safe.
She was brave, resilient, and strong.
During this war, my father was born in what I thought was a cave but later found out was an underground bomb shelter. As the sounds of another air-raid siren rang out, my very pregnant nanna rushed to the shelter, clutching the hands of her two older children. She gave birth to my dad in the damp, dusty, claustrophobic confines, surrounded by frightened Maltese people, who were all hoping the war would soon
Far away in Australia, the government needed to build schools, roads, and houses. They actively enticed migrants, particularly from Britain, to move to Australia for what they promised would be a safe, new start in life.
Malta never gave in to the German attacks, and after three long years, the country lay in ruins. Having aligned themselves with the British during the war, the Maltese were the first non-British people to be offered passage to Australia for a very small fee. My nanna and family were accepted, and they became part of a wave of over one million people who left Europe for Australia between 1950 and 1960.
The minister for immigration, Arthur Calwell, who called for the migration push, was also a supporter of the “White Australia” policy, which allowed only Europeans to move to the country. It also meant that people weren’t always welcoming of the new arrivals. My dad was a young dark-skinned boy who knew no English, and these differences meant he was picked on and bullied. He was called terrible racist names. The attacks were so bad, he lasted only a few years at school before he left.
Similar insults and taunts were thrown at me when I was young, which made me stubbornly determined not to be crushed by what other people thought of me. I also grew up in a time when girls weren’t expected to have careers, but I decided I wanted more from life. I wanted to be counted, to make my mark, to have a satisfying career, and to be exactly who I wanted to be – and nothing was going to stop me. I knew to do that, I’d need an education.
My nanna and my dad were denied their educations because of war, lack of money, and racism. But I was lucky. I lived in a country where education was required and free. I loved school and learning and reading from a very young age. Books especially offered a window on a wondrous world of possibilities. If I was depressed, frightened, or had a bad day, there were always books to save me and make everything feel better. Even though it seemed impossible for someone like me, I knew from the time I was little that I wanted to be an author.
I met a few people along the way who encouraged me and gave me the confidence to keep believing in myself.
One was my year 4 teacher, Meg Gray. Meg was fun, energetic, dedicated, creative, and a bit rebellious. She was like no other teacher I had ever met. She made school exciting. Each Monday she would give us our spelling words, and on Friday we would have the spelling Olympics, where she would pit the girls against the boys to see who could run to the board first and spell the next word correctly. She had this way of reading a story and knowing just when to stop to make us beg to know more. We had our own library of books we could borrow, and I read every one.
In high school my hero and champion was Miss Yates. She loved language and knew it was there to be relished, enjoyed, and respected. She also knew it was a key to a future filled with possibilities, and she wanted every one of us in her class to know this too.
I didn’t survive a war like my nanna, but she has been a role model for me. Her bravery ensured that I had access to education and books as a child. I have been an author since 2002 and have written almost 30 books. I have a life that is fulfilling and exciting and a career that surprises me and challenges me. It has led me to meet tens of thousands of children and their teachers all over the world. I am still learning every day. I hope Nanna Teresa would be proud.
Deborah Abela is an Australian children’s author, TV writer, and teacher.
Read More Stories about Rebel Girls HERE