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Table tennis bringing Melbourne migrants together

A group play table tennis
The Brotherhood of St Laurence centre enables the members to learn and share new skills.

ABC News: Stephanie Boltje

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Each week a group of elderly migrants meet for a bout of table tennis and a chance to catch up in Fitzroy, in inner Melbourne.

Many of them are in their golden years but they move with ease around the table, hitting the ball back and forth.

The friendly sessions are just one of the activities offered by the Brotherhood of St Laurence's Coolibah centre for seniors, those who are socially and financially disadvantaged, or have disabilities.

"The members are extremely resilient... having travelled over here, some by boat, and just what they have experienced, and coming to a new country," said Marica Cindric, program coordinator at the Brotherhood of St Laurence.

There is mix of languages here — 75 per cent of the 89 members are immigrants.

"Their resilience on keeping on moving and willing to learn and trying to fit in within the Australian culture, I find that extremely mind-blowing," Ms Cindric said.

They mostly speak Mandarin and Cantonese, but Greek, Arabic and Vietnamese can also be heard, depending on the day.

The centre helps the members bridge some of the obstacles in accessing services.

"Obviously back home some of them have disadvantage with mental health issues, just in their health in general, and then with the language barrier it has been extremely hard to try and get the appropriate services for them," Ms Cindric said.

Here, some of the migrants share stories of settling in Australia.

Meijing Zheng, 78, China

A lady with a paddle for table tennis in her hand, a blackboard in the background offering food.
Table tennis has brought together people from different countries and backgrounds at the local community centre.

ABC News: Stephanie Boltje

Meijing Zheng came to Australia in 1996 from Ning Bo, near Shanghai, to help care for her granddaughter and to alleviate some of the pressure on her daughter, who was running her own business.

When she first arrived she worked in a clothing factory earning about $4 per hour.

Meijing said she had advised her two children to learn English and obtain their driver's licence, the two biggest challenges she has faced when integrating into the Australian way of life.

She said she also faced some racism.

"Some minor problems... here, I want to sit here, some people won't allow it, being very angry [at me]," she said through a translator.

Now, her life is about keeping healthy. She meets with her friends at the Coolibah centre up to four times a week, where she plays table tennis, works on the garden and dances.

"In China, work was very busy, raising kids, very busy. I've never thought about exercising and I've never played table tennis. I've learned everything here in Australia," she said.

She said when her and her husband go back to China they get sick from the polluted air so they do not stay longer than a month.

Jie Huo, 81, China

A side profile of a lady with white hair, she looks into the distance.
Jie Huo moved to Australia to help her daughter with her child.

ABC News: Stephanie Boltje

After retiring, Jie Huo from Guangzhou moved to Melbourne with her husband to look after her grandson.

"The weather is nice, people are nice to each other," Jie Huo said about living in Melbourne through a translator.

She now has four grandchildren and has encouraged them all to study hard.

Mainly because of the language barriers, Jie Huo spends time with the Chinese community in Melbourne.

"I didn't play [table tennis] back home. I learned here but my husband likes to play here; to be active, you need to learn," she said.

Duk Thai, 70, Vietnam

Close up shot of man with a beanie on.
Duk Thai came to Australia as a refugee after the Vietnam War.

ABC News: Stephanie Boltje

As Duk Thai sits down he boasts that he is a good table tennis player and he did very well in the annual tournament at the centre, which begins in February.

Asked how old he is, he said 46, but then clarified, laughing: "1946."

He fled from south Vietnam by boat in 1989, years after the end of the Vietnam War. He spent two months in a refugee camp in Thailand before being sponsored by family who had come to Australia already.

The 70-year-old said his family was wealthy so were targeted by the Communist party.

"If you were rich, you would be arrested and converted into communists," he said.

The Australian and Vietnamese governments had agreed in 1982 to a migration program focused on family reunion.

Duk Thai said he felt "free" on arrival to Australia, and worked in a grocery shop for two years but had to stop work due to his age.

He has two children and a brother and sister in Australia, which he said is his home.

"Me, my siblings are all here, there is no-one in Vietnam," he said.

He said his health is in good shape so he had no worries in the world: "Nothing is important, nothing is not important."

He speaks Cantonese, Mandarin and Vietnamese but very little English.

Despite not speaking English, he said language has not been an issue for him in Australia.

"I am happy about the life here, it's quite relaxing. Eat and play, that's pretty much it," he said.

Tonu Ngo, 71, Vietnam

A woman sits with a news paper, a glass aquarium with plants behind her.
Tonu Ngo says she fled Vietnam seeking "more freedom".

ABC News: Stephanie Boltje

Tonu Ngo was 41 when she came to Australia by boat as a single woman in 1986, fleeing the impacts of the Vietnam War which ended almost a decade earlier.

She spent a year in a Malaysian refugee camp before arriving in Australia.

Her family could only afford to send one child to Australia, so her older brother and sister stayed behind in Vietnam.

"The [Australian] government was quite good in looking after us, as I came here as a refugee. So I got some education and also some money. We were well looked after."

She speaks Cantonese and a little English but language barriers have been her greatest obstacle in Australia, despite attending English courses.

"When I first arrived, my English was very average. It was quite difficult. Then I found a job, feeling much happier," she said.

She found work in Melbourne packaging underwear.

Now at the age of 71 she spends her time keeping fit: playing table tennis, dancing, walking and swimming.

Her advice to other people settling into Australia: "If they want to come, they must learn English and must find jobs. Can't be lazy and that is good for the society."

Two migrants laughing as one works out on a cross trainer. Decorations for Christmas in the background.
Migrants share a laugh, as one burns some calories on the cross-trainer.

ABC News: Stephanie Boltje