Irene Stariha of Sydney on her work in the Slovenian community

You were born in Australia but always maintained strong ties with Slovenia. Were you involved with the Slovenian community in your childhood and teenage years? In what way?

Well actually, I was born in Slovenia but came here with my mother just before my 3rd birthday.  Slovenian was therefore my first language and as it was only the two of us here, I had very little English in my life.  My mother found comfort in having a connection to the other Slovenians in Sydney and as she later married a Slovenian man (which she met at a community dance) our family continued its strong association with this community.  Not only were the dances a source of connection, but the Slovenian mass (which travelled between churches) was very much a focus for my parents. 

As many of your readers (who grew up in similar families) would be aware, our social lives were very much dominated by our parent’s commitment to the Slovenian community.  Every weekend we would be at the church and/or clubs and so my basis of friendships (outside of school) was very sloveniancentric. I fell in love early (very early from my parents’ perspective) with a Slovenian boy and that further consolidated my link to this community.  As a teenager I sang in the band “Mavrica” which offered me the opportunity to travel around the Slovenian clubs in NSW, Vic, QLD & SA. Meeting Australian/Slovenian youth all over Australia created a thread that still somehow survives today (albeit very finely).  I was involved in church bands, co-headed a very successful (and extremely fun!) choir “Zarja”, was involved in co-ordinating youth events and basically was part of a very strong social network – all emanating from the Slovenian community.

As an adult with a young family you decided to join forces with your peers of Slovenian background to start the Australian Slovenian Review where you worked as the newsletter editor. What motivated you to start ASR?

Having the close social connection with the Slovenian community, it seemed obvious that once I had a family of my own, I wanted that link to be extended to the next generation.  I was coerced into attending a meeting of a small group of die-hards who were wanting to start a publication to connect the English speaking members of our community – focusing more on the younger members.  Up until then any media offered was targeted at our parent’s generation and predominantly in Slovenian.  As often happens the people at this inaugural meeting for what became Australian Slovenian Review (ASR ) were the same faces I had been involved with through multiple other projects (many of these people were family).  They must have known my weakness as it somehow transpired that I was voted Editor even though I had absolutely NO previous experience of anything even closely related.  In hindsight, these people were very clever – give her the role that allows her to nag, be the face of the organisation, but leave the real work to the quiet achievers!  Anyway, we grew from a newsletter which we each photocopied at our work places (very clandestine!) to a quarterly magazine which we were all extremely proud of.  It was a fabulous time and again, the friendships consolidated there have served me well through sometimes tough times in life!
How did the community react to your efforts?

Of course there was controversy but in general the community rallied behind us beyond our expectations!  The main controversy was the fact that we barred any articles in Slovenian.  We strongly believed there was enough available to the Slovenian speakers/reader of our community and by filling precious space for them, we would be losing our main target group.  Keep in mind printing costs (even illegal photocopying “costs”) are high when you have no income!!.  We stuck to our guns regarding this and eventually it was just accepted.  I also headed the first page of our first issue with an article on whether to encourage children to be bilingual or learn each language at separate times.  My article suggested that language development was better if children have one clear language model at a time.  I used the research of the day (I’m an Early Childhood teacher by qualification).  It caused a huge controversy!!!  I don’t agree with the research and it has been disproven today, but wow – it worked in getting everyone talking about us!!!

We were determined never to have our readers pay for subscription as this would go against our wish to be inclusive of anyone that had the slightest interest in Slovenia, and the community kept us running (sometimes only just) through contributions.  Of course the founding members contributed the first financial foundation, but from then on, individuals, clubs, businesses etc. all trickled in the financial support to keep us going.  When we wrapped up we even had some money in the bank that has been used to support the “youth” concerts run by the church.  We gave our generation a voice and interestingly our parents’ generation was also a large proportion of our readership.

The Australian Slovenian Review developed into an excellent newsletter. How many issues did you publish and why did you decide to wrap it up?

We lasted 5 years x quarterly so there must have been 20ish issues. Each one grew longer, braver, more technical than the next and with every issue we were being stretched way beyond our existing knowledge base.  It was fabulous and exhausting!!  Each member of our team was volunteering copious amounts of time whilst balancing diverse professional careers, young families and still having a life.  It stretched us all and the team seemed never to grow and gradually even shrink at times.  We hoped to pass on the baton to the slightly younger group of readers (even though we were/are still considered the “mladina”!!) but it never seemed to eventuate.  We thought we were inspiring them but in all fairness to them we were a strong and quite insular group – so breaking in would have taken some real courage.  Anyway, my family (myself, my gorgeous husband Mark & our daughters Kara & Lana), moved to Slovenia for a year – a culture experience that would be one of the most rewarding risks we’ve ever taken. This seemed a catalyst for the ASR machine turned off its worn cogs for the last time...  our team had run out of steam.

You and your husband Mark took your family overseas and stayed in Slovenia for a year . How did you like living in Slovenia, how did you and your husband manage and how did your children cope with school and finding friends there? Were you considering staying there for good?   
Yes, as I stated our year away was the most rewarding risk!  It wasn’t really 1 year in Slovenia, but that was definitely the base for our adventures.  We started with 6 weeks in the USA, then a short stop in London before beginning our Slovenian leg. The plan was that the girls would enrol in a local school straight away and Mark & I would find work either teaching English (both of us were teachers by profession) or proof reading translated work. Happily things didn’t go to plan!  Mark & I couldn’t find work – seems Slovenians don’t need any help in proofing their English translating (I’m being a little sarcastic but Slovenians are very confident in their skills so really don’t appreciate native English speakers correcting them!).  Most teaching positions were already filled for the school year, so we rented an apartment, bought a car (long story in how to register it if you are a citizen but not a permanent resident – I will NEVER complain about Australian bureaucracy again!!!) and travelled Europe!  We let the wind take us and forgot about the fiscal responsibility parents have to their children.  Our home in Sydney had been emptied and rented to complete strangers – this income paid for our mortgage at home and some of our living expenses abroad.  The rest was extended to our already too large home loan – yet it was priceless and we don’t regret a moment!!  In September when everyone goes back to work/school (this was 9 months into our travels!!) Mark and I got work teaching English to trade union officials. We finally enrolled Kara and Lana in the local school (even though they didn’t/don’t speak Slovenian) and life was meant to become more like being in the real world. Our work was 4 hours per week but it really cramped our style!! We actually had to be in Ljubljana on a set day!  The work was “interesting” as our students were meant to be proficient English speakers who simply needed to improve their professional language.  My group had no English at all so the text books given to us were thrown out in the first 5 minutes!! Talk about spontaneous teaching!!! 

Kara and Lana loved school for the first week – they were overwhelmed at the freedoms in the classroom and the teachers’ lack of discipline.  At first this made school fun, but quickly it became a place where they felt they were unsure how to behave.  They never spoke a word of Slovenian as all of their peers were keen to extend their English skills.  We paid a huge financial cost in immersing our children in the Slovenian language but all that happened was that they realised they were pretty cool coming from Australia!  Regardless they learnt a valuable lesson: Kara commented a few weeks into the experience how it made her realise how difficult it was for the new children (who were usually Asian) back home.  She said “mummy, Lani and I are so popular here. Everyone wants to be our friends and yet I still feel like I don’t really belong. Imagine how the new children at home feel when nobody even wants to know them!”  The wisdom of babes – she was 9 years old and I was never prouder of her!

We had never considered this to be a permanent move (much to the relief of our parents!). It was always an opportunity to grow in our knowledge and connect.  There was a hidden agenda – I have a half brother and whole other family in Slovenia that I had never met.  At the ripe old age of 39, I was able to connect with people who are my blood, who share my outlooks and yet have no geographical/socio-economic similarities – it was mind blowing – but that’s a book of its own!

For the last 3 weeks of our 1 year adventure we took our children to the hill tribes of Thailand to complete their education on diversity!

Are you still involved with the Slovenian community in Sydney? 

I have to admit I have lost my passion, my drive and my patience.  I was asked to co-ordinate the last Australian Slovenian “youth” Concert in Sydney.  The old ASR team and a couple of newbies made it bigger than Ben Herr (or is Triglav a better metaphor) and throughout that process I was reminded of the difficulty of often opposing agendas between the established groups and the drifters of my generation.  We were highly thanked and acknowledged for our efforts and I know we were all proud and happy to be involved – our creative juices were however often stifled and we needed to be wary of sensitive toes... I’m not saying I won’t be involved in any future events - I enjoy too much the feeling of belonging and the genuine gratefulness of the hard working members of our community! Just not sure when I will have the energy it takes...

Do you feel Slovenian? What does being Slovenian mean to you?

I will always feel Slovenian, but to be honest, I’m an Aussie girl at heart.  I feel more comfortable with the easy going nature of Aussies and often feel Slovenians (and I’m generalising here), are just too serious about everything.  My closest friends are still a group of Slovenians and I always advertise my Slovenian background but I do feel disconnected from those roots at present.  I’m very proud that both of my children feel they are Slovenian and proudly proclaim their heritage, and whenever possible we all love to go back for a family visit.  You can’t really take Slovenia out of the girl!!

I guess being Slovenian to me means acknowledging my diversity of being – I’m a hybrid, so I’m not one or the other, yet I can’t exist without being both.  What I value about my Slovenian side is the long heritage.  I have European roots that make me that little bit more precise and particular about things (I think that’s the German influence) – I like that part of me even though I know it really annoys many other people!

3 weeks after we returned from our year in Slovenia, you may recall I had a brain haemorrhage and subsequent brain surgery... that experience reinforced the real priorities in life, so for the past 14 years I’ve been reminding myself of those daily.  That experience also (in a really random way) enabled a closer bond to Slovenia as during my rehabilitation, I worked to open a contemporary Australian Bar in Ljubljana.  It was important to me at that stage to marry my two cultures...  I really wanted my Slovenian friends and family to get even a small taste of my Aussie home.  That business venture ended badly, but I really did consolidate the fact that both cultures are important to me and they make me a little different to others.

What are you currently doing and what are your plans for the future?

At the present time I’m just enjoying...  my children are beautiful independent women so I enjoy sharing their life adventures; my husband still likes me after all of these years, so I’m really enjoying that; I have a wonderful work /life balance and we've  just moved to apartment living on the water in a suburb with lots of cafes – what’s not to enjoy?  I crave to travel some more but am always torn by limited resources so do I see the world and grow or go back to the comfort of Slovenia?

My future plans are...........I couldn’t tell you......the trigger hasn’t yet been enabled..... I’m just enjoying!

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