Australia Day coincides with Latvia's legal Independence Day

  • 2000-01-27
  • By Vineta Lagzdina
Through a snowsquall they came, mostly pensioners with Australian relatives, to the main hall of Riga's first grammar school decorated with posters of Australian landscapes and Australian and Latvian flags, to attend Australia Day's concert, speeches and award giving.

The Australia Latvia Association (ALB)was formed in 1993 to organize the distribution of humanitarian aid sent by Australian-Latvians for needy relatives, orphanages, schools, hospitals and libraries. It has a diminishing but dedicated membership, currently less than 100 people.

Most members have relatives in Australia who have sent support packages to them over many years and for which they have been most thankful – and grateful to the Australian government for accepting Latvia's refugees.

Australia has the second largest number of Latvians in the world when between 20,000 and 25,000 refugees landed there after World War 11. There are 74 Latvian community organizations still active today.

Latvian language and culture has been kept alive through special schools and annual festivals of culture. Australian born Professor Trevor Fennell's contribution to grammar and literature with his "Grammar of Modern Latvian 1 - 111, his many other publications and activities in support of Latvian language and culture earned him the Order of Three Stars in 1999. The Australian government was one of the first to recognize Latvia as an independent nation in 1991.

Seven years down the track and life is different in Latvia.

"Needs have changed, but support from Australia is very valuable and we believe that nowadays educational assistance is more important than secondhand clothing," chairman of ALB Ilgvars Cirulis said.

In response, the Latvia Australia Association in Melbourne, requested the local branch in Latvia to select five university students that meet their criteria - they are socially active, have good marks, but are in difficult circumstances such as coming from the country - to receive a small grant.

On Australia Day, five scholarships were announced to enable two young women and three boys to continue their studies. These are Inese Gaidele and Guntars Lazdins from the University of Latvia's Law Faculty, Linda Gerharde, student in Business Management and economics, a banking student Toms Pastars and technical transport faculty student Guntars Svilpe.

The afternoon continued with a beautifully presented concert by the grammar schools girls choir, Sapnis, - 30 singers angelically dressed in white. Their rendition of the Australian folk song "Maids of the Mountains" made a fine impression. Some poetry followed and ended on a high with lively and energetic folk dancing by the dance group Bramani.

The Latvia Australia association wants to continue supporting educational projects, but as Cirulis says, they are pensioners with very limited resources and now hope for wider membership from any resident Latvians who have lived in Australia or have relatives in Australia.

The association fully supports Latvia's president Vaira Vike-Freigerga's plan to make a first presidential visit to Australia later in the year.