Previously: Carmen escapes from Romania via Hungary. In Austria, she learns English while living in an Austrian pub-motel, where she lives under the protection of the UN.


Close-up of young man - brown hair and bushy beard - and woman smiling
Adrian and Carmen

In Romania, Adrian had grown up in the same apartment block as Carmen. He had escaped via Old Yugoslavia earlier and was working at a factory in Melbourne. Carmen and Adrian exchanged letters while Carmen waited for resettlement. On 24 September 1988, less than two months after her arrival in Australia, Carmen and Adrian were married.

For the young couple, it was a time of youthful purpose and great openness to change. They moved to Adelaide on the possibility of some mission work opening. In Adelaide, they both found work at Smith’s potato chip factory on South Road. Their weekly combined pay was $700, out of which grocery shopping only cost $50.

It was a time of plenty. The supermarkets were full of colourful vegetables which they had never seen, foods they had never eaten – pies and pasties? Instead of cabbage rolls and potatoes, Carmen tried steaming broccoli and cauliflower with a bit of butter. Adrian showed her how to grill meats and they even started eating pumpkin – which in Romania was fed to the pigs. New country. New ways.

In 1993, Adrian and Carmen moved to Alice Springs to support the work of missionaries at the Baptist Mission, working in the second hand shop and managing the upkeep of the grounds. Every morning, Carmen would also cook up a 20-litre pot of soup, made with meat and vegetables donated by the local Woolworths.

Carmen and Adrian being introduced at the Baptist Mission

‘Some mornings were very cold. The temperature goes down to zero degrees, typical desert temperature. My husband would go in the morning, take the soup there for the kids, you know, that would be their breakfast and probably the food for the rest of the day.’

Sometimes Carmen sat in the passenger seat beside Adrian in the twelve-seater Toyota troop carrier. When they arrived, many people would still be asleep with their dogs close by for extra warmth. They would ladle soup into the billycans that hung over the fire and chat with those who were awake. In this way, Carmen and Adrian learnt about the Aboriginal way of life and built friendships.

Once or twice they went outback with their new friends. Carmen remembers watching them hunt and gut a kangaroo, burying it, skin and all, in the ground to cook under hot coals. She tried some kangaroo meat, which, to be honest, wasn’t to her taste, but she could see that her friends loved it.

‘It was great fun,’ remembers Carmen. ‘I learnt to cook good food and our house was always open for people to come. We’d chat or pray for them and do a bit of counselling, but we knew that we needed to go and get some training.’

After two years in Alice Springs, Adrian and Carmen left to study at the Queensland Bible College. They had arrived in Alice Springs wanting to learn more about the Australian culture and to serve God. They left as accepted members of the Walpiri tribe with skin names: Nakamara, for Carmen and Jabaljari for Adrian. They came to serve the Aboriginal people and one day the Aboriginal people would return the blessing, manyfold.

By 2014, Carmen and Adrian had returned to lived in Adelaide. Adrian used to go away for weeks at a time for work in the outback. Carmen remembers that it was a Monday when he set out from the main base to another smaller community.

Because Adrian’s trailer was weighed down with so much steel and so many tools, he couldn’t keep up with the others. Wanting to catch up, he turned off the dirt road to take a short cut on a bush track, a route that his boss had shown him once.

He drove on for a short while before his trailer got bogged down in the sand. Then his 4-wheel-drive broke down. Adrian realised that he had to wait for help. He took out his spanner and began unscrewing the nuts of his tyres. He piled up the brand new tyres – he and Carmen had just paid $1,500 for them – and set them alight, hoping that someone would see the black rubber smoke, his distress signal.

He slept in his car that night, rationing his water, and eating the food that he’d brought. As the mercury climbed into the mid-40s on Tuesday, he crawled under his car for shelter. By Wednesday, he had run out of water. He knew that when dehydration set in, he’d start hallucinating and drink any liquid he found. So he poured the bottle of window cleaning fluid and motor oil into the sand. He crawled under the carriage of his car, brushing off bull ants that were crawling up his legs. As the hours passed, he began to drift in and out of consciousness.   

On Tuesday, Carmen had received a phone call telling her that Adrian was lost – he hadn’t arrive at the Aboriginal community as expected the previous night.

‘Well, God knows where he is,’ she said. She knew the police had begun searching for him and she called up her church, her family and her friends, asking them to pray. The phone kept ringing. So many people wanted to come over to support her that by Thursday, she wondered if she had enough chairs for everyone.

Meanwhile, Adrian’s boss, who was in Phuket, was informed of Adrian’s disappearance. He told his staff about the shortcut that he had once shown Adrian and instructed them to recruit an Aboriginal tracker to help with the search.

‘This is the fourth day this man has been lost, if we don’t find him soon, it might be too late,’ said the tracker, and set out hoping that there would still be visible clues, that his knowledge of the land would help him see what others had missed.

At five o’clock that evening, Carmen received a phone call from the police informing her that the aerial search would be called off for the day because it was getting too dark. A wave of disappointment and disbelief washed over her – surely it would not be too difficult to spot his four-wheel-drive and trailer?

Her pastor lifted up his hands and said, ‘Heavenly Father’–

The phone rang again. Carmen picked it up.

‘We’ve found him!’ said the voice on the line.

‘Please tell him I love him and look forward to seeing him,’ said Carmen.

The Aboriginal tracker had found Adrian only twenty kilometres from the dirt track; the police had been searching on the opposite side of the dirt road. Adrian thought he was hallucinating when he saw two people walking towards him. They took him to the hospital. Apart from being dehydrated and having dreadful rashes on his skin from the ant bites and contact with spinifex grass, Adrian was fine.

At the close of our last interview, we stand at her kitchen counter, looking out of her back window.

‘It’s a bit woolly out there at the moment, but my husband and I will landscape it. It’ll be a garden where people with troubles can come and sit. The shed will be a space for teaching sessions. The rooms in the house I can use for prayer and counselling. Can you see it?’ She peers at me through her spectacles.

I see a stunted lemon tree and a green and yellow carpet of soursob weeds. But it is a good sized block of land and I know that Adrian is still working outback to earn enough money to finance the renovations, that Carmen has a degree in Counselling, that Adrian has a degree in theological studies and experience pastoring churches, that the magnet on her fridge says, ‘With God anything is possible.’

And so I reply, ‘Yes, I can.’

In many ways, Carmen’s journey from Romania to Australia was so smooth it could be called a miracle. She grew up during the Cold War when there was a clearer distinction between friend and enemy. Perhaps that made her reception and resettlement a much more straightforward affair. At that time it was not presumptuous to assume that those running away from our enemies had to be our friends.

This is part of the free serial online release of my book, Refuge. The next episode, Refuge #12 China: White Fungus, will be published next Friday, 17 May. Subscribe for new instalments delivered to your inbox.