The first time Mum tried to leave, she sold everything in the house and put down a deposit of $50 000 to get on a boat. But at the last minute, my Dad wouldn’t go, as he had seen letters back to say that people had died in the sea. It was common for boats to sink, for people to disappear or for girls to get raped, so he didn’t want to take the risk.
The second time my Mum said, ‘All our relatives they are leaving. If you want to stay, you stay, but we are leaving.’ And in the end, he chose to go with us. We left on a 25 metre boat with 504 people in it. It was really crammed – we were squashed up like sardines.
On the second day, we were intercepted by pirates, who came on board and took all the gold the families on the boat had. After that there was a big storm. We were praying and praying because we thought that the boat would be capsized, but luckily, we were saved by another big boat that took us to an Indonesian refugee camp.
In the camp, we had to share a long room separated by curtains with 5 other families. That was how I saw a man commiting suicide. To get your visa to come to Australia, the whole family had to pass a health check, and this man had epilepsy and didn’t want to be a burden to the other members of his family, so he drank some Chinese oil which was meant to be used for rubbing on the skin. But there was a lot of death there, because of malaria. Living in the refugee camp really opened my eyes.
After one and a half years, we were accepted to come to Australia. I went into year 4, but it wasn’t easy beccause I didn’t know any English or even any Maths, as I hadn’t had any schooling at all in the refugee camp.
All through school, I worked in the family restaurant my Mum started in Marrickville. My job was to roll the curry puffs, the spring rolls, and the wontons. We would make 1800 of them over 3 days and Mum always said that I had to do everything perfectly and quickly. All the things she taught me are skills I use now.
At year 10, I left school. I wasn’t doing my assignments, so the grades weren’t there and I lost interest. After that, I went to work in the cosmetic industry, which taught me a lot about beauty, and indirectly about marketing and customer service. Then I went to work for Optus as a PA, where I learned about HR, finance, team work and overall corporate structure.
When I had Sophia, my first daughter, I took maternity leave. Then, we had another baby, Coco. At that time, my husband had a food business with a $27 million turnover. But in 2009, we lost everything. We went from living a lavish lifestyle to struggling to get a reference for a rental property. And we were $900,000 in debt.
I said to my husband, ‘How are we going to pay the money back? Not by working for someone.’ So we started a new company together, Berger ingredients, which specialises in contract manufacturing for blue-chip clients like Coles and Woolworths. It took us 5 years to pay off our debts, and we’ve now built it up to over 40 employees.
In 2016, I started to develop a kids’ range for Junior Foodies, called Coco and Lucas’ kitchen. It took me 9 months to develop, a year to build up the kitchen, and another year to get my products in Woolworths. I had to make a lot of phone calls and presentations. The first time they made me wait 8 months, then they rejected it, as they were worried because nobody had done it before. I said to them, ‘Just because it doesn’t exist doesn’t mean it won’t work.’ Finally, after a year, they put me in 200 stores, and then, in October last year, in 919 stores.
Since 1979, Australia has given visas to 200 members of my extended family. As a result, the philopsophy of my business brand is all about being Australian. All my ingredients are Australian made, Australian owned and Australian manufactured, and all the money goes back into the Australian economy.
I went through a lot in my life so I always remember to give back. Over the last eight years I’ve given close to $90,000 to the Aboriginal food fund through a project called Outback Spirit, and every Christmas Day, I help feed 500 homeless people in the Parramatta council. I’m also working with OzHarvest because I love what they do.
I’ve always been put in the deep end and I have always been a fighter. That’s how my life started. But I feel it’s good that I went through so much because it made me the resilient person I am today.
Photographer: Anne Casey www.facebook.com/silverpepperphotography