Mariella Teuira is on a mission to save second-generation Islander kids in Melbourne from the same dangers that engulfed her.

It all started with a football match. Here was Mariella Teuira, born a Cook Islander and living as an mother and worker in Melbourne. And here were her 20 children. How does that add up for a woman in her 40s? Four of her own. Four of her sisters kids, who had come to stay while their mother was unwell. Her two brothers, much younger than her. That’s ten. And ten strays. Ten who come and go. Some whose glassy-eyed parents might be sucking back breakfast bongs, some with the wildness in them, and some simply her children’s friends who stayed on. Twenty. The numbers would go up and down – but twenty was about average. And all living in a prim three-bedroom house in Glenroy, in Melbourne’s northwest.

A friend, Stephen, called asking a favour. His Keilor Park Under 16s footy team was down in numbers. He knew Mariella’s wild bunch had endless energy. And there were enough boys in Mariella’s house alone to field a team. Were they interested? They were reluctant. But Mariella is a persuasive mother and expert in techniques of gentle bullying. This, she felt, would be good for them.  

So Mariella herded her recalcitrants down to the footy field. None of them had ever played AFL before. But rugby league runs in the blood of every true Pacific Islander, and so the footy match soon turned into a rougher, wilder game. They were against the team second on the ladder and they smashed them with a little help from knees and elbows. Next week, the wild boys took on the top team. At half time, the game was called off. Why? The top team were getting smashed. It was 92 points to three. And the game had turned very rough. “They were getting a hiding,” Mariella says with a grin. “Many of their players had parents in the EDFL [Essendon District Football League]. So they weren’t really happy the black children had come in.”

At home, she noticed a new camaraderie. Her unruly tribe was – temporarily – united. And she wondered if, perhaps, this might be the balm her community needed.

All around her Mariella saw broken things. Broken families. Wild children. Teenagers already drawn to a drug or drink that would come to bend their lives around it. A sense of hopelessness. And all from her tight knit community of Cook Islanders. It seemed to her that no-one was doing anything. Everyone was passive – merely accepting that this was how life had to be, in this vast, alien country. Had they not been condemned to live in the boondocks, in the outer western suburbs? For so long, this place was a byword for unemployment, bogans, junkies and death-by-fast-car. And while her culture was filled with closeness – great, sprawling families, cheek-by-jowl families who fought and loved and drank and laughed, families who still used sarongs for everything from wall hangings to curtains to cot covers, families who had not one mug the same in the cupboard – it was also filled with a great silence. Silence covering the brutal beatings that men – men she knew – would routinely administer to the women they loved. And the rapes and abuses of children and teenagers – all hushed up, slipped under the rug, so that her people could present their virtuous Christian faces to the sun. Some young men had even formed loose gangs with other disaffected groups. In March 2016, the Apex gang – formed of Anglos, Sudanese and Islanders – rose rapidly to notoriety after they stormed the streets in numbers, disrupting Moomba. The Islander issue, Mariella says, is pride: “Parents don’t want to admit it was their children. So they pretend it’s not happening.” Pride, that great mask.

I’ve come to meet Mariella at her second home, at the Glenroy Tennis Club. To get there from my place in Northcote, I drive north on Sydney road. Posters advertise Multicultural Games, Halal Expos, and electro-rock bands. An Indian grandmother in a pink silk sari pushes a pram past a Big 4 Holiday Park. A store sells both Islamic clothing and Italian passata sauce. Solar power installers, Team Taekwondo, an upwardly mobile Indian couple emerging from their Pentridge townhouse, aging nonnas on crutches.

Glenroy is quiet. The suburb has a rough reputation belied by sleepy streets, milkbars and houses built either from solid postwar yellow-brick or of weatherboards. Unrenovated, and no sign of the gentry. There have been shootings here in the weeks beforehand.

The tennis club is deserted on a quiet Monday afternoon. The barbed wire atop the fences is rusting away. A crow bursts out of the bottlebrush. I keep one eye on a sketchy Anglo guy lurking in an alleyway as I venture inside. Signs on the wall offer young tennis champs the chance to play in comps around Asia. 

I’m here to find out how Mariella has singlehandedly built Itiki, an effective youth outreach organisation specialising in getting troubled teens back on track. But that’s grant application speak. What she’s really done is set up an after-school sports group at the tennis club that just happens to have a great deal extra attached. It began as an Islander thing, but now everyone comes.

The tennis club is cool after the heat of the day. Six large black containers of donated food sit on the bar. Flags and pennants from the 1980s. The men’s bathroom has a towel and razor in it. Does someone live here, I wonder. And if so, where are they?

Mariella Teuira volleys to her feet, straight out of a nap into action. She’d been curled up on a semi-circle couch, lying near a man who’s still fast asleep. She shakes my hand. “Don’t mind Richard,” she says, gesturing to him with a thumb. “He’s just switched to night shift.” Richard is still in his fluoro vest. He’s pulled his black cap low over his eyes.

I’ve met Mariella before, but she was sitting down at a table. Standing, she makes an imposing figure. A tall, broad Islander woman with a mercurial face. She can go from girlish titters to casting serious shade in an instant. When she wraps her hands in her armpits and plants her feet, she looks for all the world like a Cook Islander chieftain. Here I am, and here I stand.  Her green and black footy guernsey reads Itiki City Side. 

What does Itiki do? It begins with sport. Through her extended family, Mariella looks for young men and women who are drifting off course. It could be booze, it could be weed, it could be gangs. And she asks them directly if they’d like to come and play basketball or netball or tennis. Sport is a neutral way in, avoiding the bureaucratese larded on to many Troubled Yoof Outreach Programs. There’s no mention of family breakdown, youth unemployment, drug dependency, and at-risk teens – none of it. It’s clever. Teenagers will avoid anything that smells remotely like a well-meaning attempt at help. And fair enough. Would you go to a Help You Get You Back on Track session? Would you opt in to a lecture on why Drugs Sap Your Motivation, or one on Why Getting a Job is Good? No. No-one wants to be stigmatised. Sport, though, is just sport. Except when it’s a social outreach program in disguise.

Once Mariella has them in her clutches, she gets them moving and playing tennis or netball. And during downtime, she talks to them directly, or sends her teenage son or daughter to suss them out. And then she briskly sets about righting their course. If need be, she can be warm tuckshop mum or steely drill sergeant. What matters is what works. Every month, Mariella will drive a squadron of teenagers through crosstown traffic to get their Cert-3 in road construction or warehousing – qualifications that lead directly to steady work.

In 2015, she cajoled or outright shoved 19 kids through their warehousing certificate. 12 got jobs. “And today, I got six more work,” she says. For some of these kids, their income will be the main wage for the family. One of her charges – call him Tom – dropped out of school at year seven. The very first certificate he ever got was his civil construction Cert-3 – his ticket to work – at 18. It wasn’t easy. Mariella had to shepherd him and others into the van at 6am. She dropped some in Werribee and the rest in Dingley, 60 kilometres away on the other side of Melbourne. On the first day, Tom turned to Mariella in desperation when his teacher asked him questions to assess his numeracy. Was this a test? How could he pass it? Mariella reassured him. Then he admitted the real problem. He hadn’t gone this long without a bong for years. But Tom got through, and, emboldened, took on  the next certificate. His father, brimming with pride, wrote to thank Mariella on Facebook.

When one of her Itiki brood gets entangled with the law, it’s often only Mariella who will be there sitting in the courtroom at 9am on a weekday. The previous Friday, she was in court to support one of her Itiki kids up on robbery charges. The charges were dismissed. “Most of the time their parents don’t even come,” she says. “They don’t give a shit.”

Melbourne laneway
Photo: DJ Paine

Now I ask the question that’s been on my mind. Why, exactly, did Mariella become the de-facto Mother of All?

She cocks her head and makes a decision. Then she tells me a story of a little girl who found that life could be savage and who had to learn how to survive.

When Mariella was only a few months old, she was sent to New Zealand. The Cook Islands exist in a free association with New Zealand. In practice, that means Cook Islanders are New Zealand citizens as well, by birth. Her biological parents were finding it hard to raise their kids in their homeland, and so her auntie took to NZ and raised her until she was five. After that, her parents migrated to Australia and took her with them. Mariella was a bright, intelligent child who excelled at netball. She had ambitions to go far with her sport – and she did play at state level. But something happened that sent her into a long downward spiral.

At 12, she was raped by an Islander man. She never told anyone. Containing the secret broke her. Her anger burned first clear and sharp, and gave way to a sullen rage. She came to hate everyone and everything. Two years later, she was living rough on the streets. She would sleep behind St Paul’s Cathedral, where every morning, a kindly priest would bring her and her friends a hot Milo. When the streets grew bleak or dangerous, she stole cars so she could have a place to sleep. And once, she and her friend Sarah found their way to the top floor of an office building close to the St Kilda Road police complex. They called it their penthouse and squatted there for months. Their penthouse had hot water, showers, electricity, and friendly security guards who would turn a blind eye to these waifs.

At 15, her parents enticed back into the system. She started attending school. But only a few months later, she would be expelled. Why? She had fallen pregnant to her music teacher, who was only 18, and who would go on to be a guitarist for a major Australian band. 

Unmoored again, Mariella floated back into violence and car theft. She was jailed briefly. It was then that a woman from Human Services, as DHS was then known, came to her with an ultimatum. The rules stipulated that a child born to a young woman in the care of Human Services would automatically be taken from her and adopted out.

That was it – a bucket of cold water. For the first time, Mariella stopped and looked at her life’s trajectory. She had been on track and now she was going terribly askew. She had been angry at a world that did not care for three full years now. But now she had a life growing in her, like it or not. Reluctantly, she returned home and started going to pre-natal classes. The father of her child had kept his steady job as a teacher, and he made sure she wanted for nothing. And so, Dion came into the world.

His coming was a revelation. She had created life – an innocent. And though her anger did not dissipate, a new drive emerged. It was Dion who brought her back to herself. He brought the calm. Over the years, Dion would be her quiet tether, able to calm her in a rage. “When I’m feeling like I wanna kill somebody, when I want to do something stupid, I just look at him and think alright, he’s worth more. He’s my little angel, even though he’s now bloody seven foot tall,” she says.  Gazing at him, Mariella first had the crazy idea of youth work. Who better to talk to wayward youth than a former wayward youth? Nearly two decades later, after loves won and lost, after three more children and wage jobs done, she would remember that thought. In 2015, she finished her studies in youth and community work.

For her parents, too, Dion had the same near-magical effect. When Dion was four months old, the Teuiras were living in a housing commission flat in Broadmeadows. Mariella’s carpenter father was furiously arguing with his wife, a factory worker. In a rage, he scooped up a glass and threw it across the room. It shattered on the wall, and glass shards rained down on Dion. He was four months old. The baby was uninjured. But the shock of it sent him into overdrive, and for three hours, Dion wailed. And that was the last time her father was ever violent.

How did she survive, I ask. Mariella takes a long time to respond. “It’s not acceptable that I have been wronged. But I have learned to put it in a place. Here and there, it does come out, but I just put it back there. My psychologist says I’m actually quite normal considering what’s happened to me.” She laughs, high and unfettered, like a little girl. 

It is no coincidence that Mariella set up Itiki as her children entered adolescent turbulence. Her oldest, Dion was steady and strong. He played cricket at a state level, once facing off against Merv Hughes at the ground named after him. But even he was not immune to the siren pull of his friends. Dion would figure out his path, she thought. Her real fears were for Andrea, her strong willed 15-year-old daughter. In Andrea, she saw herself mirrored. “The wild one,” she says, soft. 

On a later visit, Mariella seems tired. She steeples her fingers and lays her head in the cradle of fingers. “I’m knackered today,” she admits. “That’s why my face is like this.” She pulls her face into a grimace with one hand. Why, I ask. “Miss Diva just got home.” She nods darkly at her daughter. Skipped school today? Mariella shakes her head. Andrea vanished without a trace the previous Friday and reappeared only this morning. It’s Tuesday. Where did she go? Who was she with? Andrea never said a word.

When I first met Andrea, it was at a gathering of social entrepreneurs. Mariella had lugged her daughter along, presumably in the hope of bringing her out of herself. Andrea stayed well clear of proceedings. Instead, she uncapped a pen. I watched as she drew a young woman’s eye freehand, sketching in kohl and long lashes. The eye was open and clear.  I tried to make conversation. Andrea gave me a glance that summed me up and found me wanting. I fumbled into verbal freefall and gave up.

On Andrea’s face now, there’s no trace of the battle brewing with her mother. She picks up the whistle and starts coaching. She starts a running drill for 15 or so younger kids, ranging from pudgy screentime Anglo and Lebanese kids to bespectacled slightly unco Indian kids who seem to be all limbs. This part of Itiki is simple outreach – offering sports training to youngsters who otherwise couldn’t afford it. Andrea is almost impossible to pin down. There is something fey about her. She never looks at you directly, offering only sidelong glances and half smiles. Even when she disciplines her kid brother, Desire, she does not look at him. I watch as Desire clowns about, disrupting the drill Andrea is running on the netball court. He’s hamming it up for his friends. One, an owlish Lebanese boy, looks half-aghast, half-amused. Andrea collars Desire, speaks to him sharply and sends him to Mariella – but all without direct engagement. She is only ever half here.  

 “Where I’m really coming from is my own children, watching them struggle,” Mariella says as she watches. “My daughter excels in netball, and my son was a state level cricketer. But you get to that age, those hard years between 13 and 17, and it just breaks down. You try to figure out what is it and to support them you know.” She offers a small shrug.

Andrea often tells her mum – ease off, stop being so overprotective. Stop smothering me – I don’t feel I can tell you anything. And Mariella knows she should ease off. Her protectiveness is having the opposite effect. But it’s impossible. “My mother says – your daughter is gonna be like you. No she’s not,” she says. “That’s why I’m overprotective. That’s why she hates me for it. I tell her – you never know what’s going to happen, trust me.” Bad things do happen. All the time. It wasn’t only Mariella who had been hurt. Others very close to her had also been raped or abused. Boys, who became wounded men.

So it’s no wonder that as Andrea moves into boy territory, as she becomes an elusive, wilful creature, that her mother worries herself sick. “Andrea is thinking about boys and I’m like – you know what I want to do to that boy, I’m gonna chop it off and feed it to his mother and grandmother, and then give them the balls,” Mariella says. If Andrea gives her side-eye, Mariella launches. “Try me, try me – you want to see crazy black woman, try me,” she says, and her laugh has an edge.  

And many others, too, were getting wilder and wilder. “A lot of the kids I deal with are elite athletes, and then they just stop believing in themselves. Whether it’s money, family breakdown, drugs or alcohol – they just seem to detour off the path,” she says. “That’s why I thought of using sport as a pathway back into education – to say that sport can only take you so far.”

Why do teens veer off the rails? Consider. You are a child in the Cook Islands or Tonga or Micronesia. You run freely with a pack of peers. You dive into coral grottoes, climb palms, tease the animals, run wild down the streets. And then you come to Melbourne – an enormous, regimented place where people and even cars queue – but still you are allowed to roam, as Australian kids used to before the Great Pedofear kicked in. On the islands, you are expected to help feed the pigs, gather coconuts or catch fish and when older, work in a shop or hotel. But here, you have more time. Now in your teens, you roam.  Your appetite for risk grows. Or perhaps you’re angsty. Either way,  you seek the stuff that will give you a kick. Your parents settled in Melbourne’s west, the volcanic flatlands ideally suited to factories and warehouses, a place narrowly bounded where people have already taken hard words about this area to themselves – “rough” “hopeless” “dangerous” – your horizon narrows. It is too easy to take these words and apply them to yourself. Booze and bongs don’t help.

“These kids are trying to fit into a society that they don’t fit,” Mariella says. It’s one reason she’s taken in so many strays. “I see a lot of kids fall through the cracks. But if somebody loves them, supports them and gets them in school, if someone puts clean clothes on them. If they know I’ll be there to get out of it if they stuff up. They’ll be okay. You just play the mother figure. And then when they’re ready to go, you let go.” But letting go is harder to do when it’s your own flesh and blood. When it’s your own daughter who is pushing, hard, to be free, to find out how the world is for herself.

Mariella hovers around the edges of Islander life in Melbourne. She loves its intensity, its family focus, its closeness. Anglo family life can be much colder, she believes. She talks of sitting at a dinner table of a large Irish family and watching in amazement as barbs fly back and forth. “I’d be like – fuck you, if you were outside I’d smash you,” she says, laughing. “But you just have to sit. Oh, those people are just fucked.” The feeling she got was of lonely people who were forced to be together by luck. It is still a source of incredulity that Anglo families can eat singly – not all together. For Islanders, that is a sign of disrespect. There is, she says, no mine – only ours. Still, she can see Islander flaws very clearly. She has never dated Islanders. “I don’t go with my own,” she says. Dion’s father was Aboriginal/Brazilian. Andrea’s father was Portuguese. And Richard is Maltese/Irish. Why has she never been attracted by Islander men? Simple: what was done to her at 12 and never spoken about. “In my culture it’s alright to beat your wife, your children, and if your child is raped, you just don’t speak about it,” she says. “You don’t speak about it. Ah, that’s not right! And what happens [to the kids]? They end up with mental illness. Like me.”

She is a chameleon. To wayward Islander teens, she is the no-bullshit matriarch who will make you paint over graffiti if she catches you doing it. To other Islanders, she’s the one rocking the boat, speaking the unspoken. And when she speaks to locals in Glenroy and nearby Broadmeadows, she takes her cues from Lebanese culture. Why? “They’re the biggest group around here,” she says. “It’s like – spot the Aussie.” But her pronunciation of certain words – “Bladdy bullshit” – comes direct from rural Australia. “You try and mould yourself into a third culture and it can be quite daunting because your own people will turn their backs on you,” she says. “Sometimes I feel trapped between worlds. You come to Australia as an Islander, and then you get to choose which parts you want.”

To many Islanders, Mariella has turned white. When Islander visitors come over, they look in vain for sarongs. And they wonder why it looks like a display home. Why all the curtains? Why the need for a door mat? She admits that she has adopted a few white ways of thinking. “I don’t follow the Cook Island way. It’s never got us anywhere. We’re not in the islands anymore. You’ve got to follow the white way.” What does that mean? It means forms, grant applications, insurance and the willingness to ask for help.

And why exactly, some in the community ask, does she insist on talking about violence? “I love my culture, don’t get me wrong, but I’ve always tried to not to be my culture at same time, seeing what I see,” Mariella says, sighing. “You look at many Islanders – they seem so angry. And I’m like that as well. I can’t sit here and say I’m not a violent person. I am, as ugly as that sounds. I get my rages. But I try to take all the goodness from my culture, teaching, mothering, family and pride.”

Violence is, alas, endemic. The South Pacific lives on tourist literature as an iteration of the bucolic utopian imagining of white beaches and big smiles. But UN figures show the darker side. Between 40 and 70% of Islander women will be beaten, raped or otherwise abused in their lifetimes.  It is an uncomfortable topic. No wonder, then, that it is often simply not mentioned. “My own people say I’m stuck up, that I don’t want my children to hang with their children,” Mariella says. “But I just don’t want my children to see this shit, simple as that. We’re not talking a slap party.”

A what?

“Look, I’m not being racist,” she says, half-smiling. “But white people – if a man just slapped you, it would be like oh my god, he beat me. No – that’s a hello in our culture. A beating is a fractured head, broken bones, you’re black and blue and you can’t walk – and the next day, everything is rosy. You know [NZ film] Once were Warriors? That shit is real.”

One of Mariella’s relatives suffered decades of abuse at the hands of her husband. “I can’t remember a day she didn’t have a black eye, or a weekend when she didn’t cop a beating,” she says. She died in 2012 from an unrelated illness. Soon afterwards, her husband met a kind Timorese woman. “A nice soft lady – they always seem to find a nice placid lady, the wife bashers,” Mariella says. “But he changed for her. He changed his ways.” Mariella was having none of it. His remorse, his penitent desire for forgiveness – none of it. She told him straight to his face – you cannot change your past. Your wife is dead. You made her life very hard. You cannot change the wrong that you have done.

And she tells Andrea and her younger daughter, Destiny, that no man other than their father, grandfather or brother will ever be allowed to lay a finger on them.

To make these changes is not easy. An Islander family is tight knit – but with strong ties comes strong words and strong emotions. Some European families are so distant from each other that they cannot fight in a meaningful way. But Islanders can, she says. Islanders can.

When they fight, her partner Richard tells her sometimes that she has to learn how to argue with words, not actions. “I’m like oh shut up, you bastard – because he’s right! I’ve never seen talking arguments,” she says. Richard came from colder stock. He’d learned to repress emotions. For volatile Mariella, his refusal to engage was even more infuriating. Over time, Richard has learned the art of strong argument, and Mariella how to strike with words. “We got a lot of spark in our house, but that’s a good thing – it’s not boring,” she says, grinning. “You can’t have a relationship if it’s all bloody rosy.”

Photo: Lennon Cheng

In her twenties, Mariella cashed in her super early to set up an RnB nightclub on Smith St in Collingwood. It never had much chance of success once she and her friends started drinking their way through the bar. But before it failed, her friend, Sarah, with whom she’d once run wild as a street kid, brought a shy friend to the club. 11 years later, Richard O’Sullivan would still be around. Her choice to partner outside the Islander group has been smooth sailing. “It’s considered a good thing for girls to bring home a white partner,” she says. Islander men, however, don’t see it that way. Several launched attacks on Mariella’s Portuguese husband, Andrea’s father. But Richard is an acute study of Islander culture. He spent much of his life around Samoans in the Western suburbs. A great deal has rubbed off. He knows that you must say hello to the mamas and papas – the elders – first at any Islander gathering. He knows when to speak and when to stay quiet. He knows that you do not sit with the old men unless invited to. “Half the time I think he wants to be black,” Mariella says, and laughs uproariously.

On my last visit, Richard and Mariella lounge on the sun-warmed concrete, angular praying mantis limbs strewn across Mariella, his solid rock. He says things like “I’m spewing” and makes jokey threats about cutting off Destiny’s arm to stop her thumb being sore. But he cares a great deal. Mariella is recounting a story of their weekend trip to Bright. No pharmacies were open, and they’d run out of Destiny’s Ventolin.

Richard keeps a watchful eye on his daughter. He calls her back from a drill and tells her she’s been running too hard, that she has to watch her asthma. He edges away from any attention and only speaks from the side of groups. He’s thin, a fidgeter, gaunt. “I don’t like the spotlight,” he tells me. “If there’s a camera I disappear.” But he, too, has been roped into Itiki as a backroom operator. When he steps away, Mariella tells me how much she needs his presence. “He always helps me in my stupid, dreams and everything else,” she says. “He’ll complain, and then he’ll do it.”

This time, the tennis club has a village feel – teenagers sprawl over the grass, dividing time between phones and gossip. A gaggle of young mothers cluster around benches, laughing and gossiping between tennis matches. Older mums fill out forms in the shade. It’s unseasonably hot, even for late March – climate change and El Nino work in tandem. It’s flattened grass hot, beating-down tropics hot, lie-flat-dog kind of day. Dion wants out of his drill sergeant gig. “It’s a bit hot mum,” he says. Mariella isn’t having a bar of it. “38 is the heat rule. It’s 34. Do it in the shade.” So the boot camp session moves behind the tennis club trees.  A platoon of kids run in slow motion. The heat saps everyone of energy.

Giovanni, a grey-eyed Italian in three quarter length pants and a thin gold chain talks to Andrea and Dion’s girlfriend, Ally. Ally – nosering, a heart shaped face, slightly too much makeup – tries to get him to run as well. Giovanni demurs. I did it once, he said. Running, that is.  

Mariella’s two youngest, Destiny and Desire, zip around the corner on their BMXs. It’s the first time they’ve ridden from school by themselves. Desire is panting from the heat. Both look like tanned Europeans – elfin faces, dark eyebrows. Destiny gives his mum an energy drink from a side trip to the faded 1980s milkbar down the street and sips his own Coke.  Desire takes a seat and sets about colouring in Disney princesses. Desire grabs a book and follows suit.

Eventually, the heat forces even Dion to quit. Dion is tall, well built, a slight upturn to his nose. He and Ally pass a ciggie back and forth. I ask Dion about his cricket career and he demurs. Ally hovers, aware of his ability to undersell. Was he good, I ask her. Eyes sparkling, she pokes her boyfriend of three years. “Yes – at everything,” she laughs.

From year 9, Dion went to an intensive sports school in Maribyrnong on a scholarship. “I burned out,” he confesses. “It was cricket all day with a tiny bit of maths. I never want to see another cricket ball.” He indicates his cigarette. “I’ve started smoking,” he says, rueful. He’s got a day job inserting rebar into fresh concrete.

How did you two meet, I ask. Ally raises an eyebrow. “How DID we meet Dion,” she says, poking him in the ribs. “Passion pop,” a voice says. I look up. Richard has rematerialised. He grins. Dion doesn’t want to tell the story. “Nah, nah,” he says.

Ally is a terrier. After three years of dating Dion, she knows how to needle him into action. “It was a rainy night,” she begins. “Shut up!”

“It was actually rainy,” she says, and a quick smile calms her man. Ally and her friends were stranded. The streets were flooded and there seemed no way home. They’d sought refuge in a concrete staircase. And already there was Dion and his friends. Dion does not strike me as the alpha sort. It took several more attempts to make sparks fly. Their friends dated. Their orbits narrowed. And then – ignition.

We talk about gangs. It’s soon after the Apex gang storming of Moomba, and there’s a rising sense of anti-African sentiment. A month from now, a mentally unwell mother will drown her child in a creek and blame “an African man”.

What’s the appeal of the gangs, I ask. Dion and Ally look at each other. Dion speaks first – a slow, deliberate speaker. “Gang stuff all starts on social media – and all about a girl,” he says. Ally nods. “Who’s the most dangerous. If you don’t do anything to back up your claim, you look like an idiot.”

Ally has a bee in her bonnet about social media wannabes. “Young kids don’t want to work – they want to get big and get money without working,” she says.

Mariella works the floor. “You got red over weekend,” she says to a chubby tween with a goofy princess smile. A Lebanese mum rocks up in a hijab. “Hi – I’m new to this,” she says and Mariella introduces her to the older mums. “I’m Nour’s mum,” she says and they welcome her.

Later, as the sun drifts lower, Mariella and Andrea run netball drills. Mariella has her stern schoolmark game face on. “Do it properly,” she bellows. When she wants to, Mariella can project her voice far, and her eye flare is terrifying. Warm up, running, skipping and ball skills. Kids fall over each other, laughing.

I start talking to a dad watching his daughter. Turns out he’s a teacher who has worked in the area. He taught Andrea at primary school. “She’s a freak at netball,” he says. “Look, trouble finds her – but on the netball court, she could go all the way.”

James, as I’ll call him, tells me he’s deliberately enrolled his daughter into a different school than the highly multicultural local school. Hers, he says, is quite “middle-class.” Is that code for Anglo, I ask? I smile, to pull my punches. He stops short, and then grins. “Pretty much,” he says. It’s one reason he brings her here – to get her outside the cosseted Anglo bubble. “She would otherwise not be exposed to these type of kids. I hope that doesn’t sound patronising. But she needs to. This is the world.” He gestures at the gaggle of Lebanese, Indian, Anglo and Islander kids.

Hetells me a story. His best friend, who is of Macedonian descent, was talking to his father when James arrived one day. “They shouldn’t bloody let these newcomers in – they don’t fit,” his old man said. And James thought to himself – they said the same of your group when you came. His theory is that over time, new groups are gradually drawn into the mainstream. The cultural group changes, the mainstream changes too. But it takes, he reckons, three generations.

He drifts away and I watch the tennis match under way. Then I’m drawn by the sound of laughter. Three Islander girls are talking courtside. Turns out they’re three cousins who’d never met before – large families, spread around Melbourne. Two of them – Ta Tupou, 18, and Chloe Ngarua – want to talk. We settle on a bench nearby.

Ta has a dusting of freckles on her oval face. She looks optimised for sport: small ear studs instead of earrings, neat practical bun, nuggetty, an impression of powerful muscle in how she moves. She gives quick smiles, with the casual confidence that comes from physical power. She plays for the Melbourne City Silverbacks, a women’s rugby union side, and wears its jersey proudly. Ta chews gum with the scent of artificial watermelon and assesses me quickly.

Chloe is more guarded, watching what I write. She wears a cleverly knotted bandanna, Everlast trackies and black flower earrings. The end of her ponytail terminates in a dyed purple flourish. Imposingly wide, she’d be terrifying in a scrum. I pick Ta as a forward and Chloe a defender.

Mariella is Ta’s cousin, and Chloe’s aunty. The duo – both second gen Islanders – have been recruited to help keep Itiki moving. It helps that they’re true believers. Ta tells me Itiki works because it avoids sounding well meaning. New teenagers slope in after seeing Facebook posts about it, and hover while they figure out if this thing sucks or not. And then, reluctantly, they are drawn into the games. Sport matters, Ta says, because alongside family, it is the heart of Islander life – both on and off the islands. The weekends are for rugby and church.

At first the newbies run amok.  But over time, they adapt by watching what their peers do – and modifying their behavior unconsciously to suit. Reeling in these wanderers takes a light hand. If they sense judgment or pressure, they take flight. Ta and Chloe tell me the only way to even talk about the issue is to build a connection over time. 

Why did Mariella have so many doubters?

Chloe speaks up. “It was what makes you think you can make a difference in a community like this?” Have these voices quietened as Itiki has grown? Chloe nods once, slowly. “Yeah, they see the change she’s made. It’s progress.” Ta tells me that Mariella’s mother is her backbone – without her, she would struggle.

And why is this needed?  Why are the teenager years such a trap out this way? Ta snorts. “It’s the suburb they live in, and what society tells them they are. Living in Broady, everyone’s like ‘you’ll never make it.’” Chloe nods. “It’s the area and the people they hang out with. They don’t have a figure to look at and think I want to be like them. Instead, they’re around people who are lazy. They have nothing to look forward to.”

Is it as rough as its reputation? Ta and Chloe nod. “It’s definitely rough,” Ta says. “But there are bright bits. It’s family oriented – probably because there’s not much else around, so we have nothing else to lean on.”

You live here? She nods. “But you know you have to overcome. It’s all about your mentality, but sometimes they’re not really strong willed. Kids go off the rails pretty easily.” It is harder again, she says, when you come from a broken family.

Why, I ask them, did you two not go off the rails when so many others have? They look at each other. It is, after all, only their first meeting. But both speak. “I have two parents and they have strong goals for me,” she says. Ta nods. “Because we have support, we have families who want us to go a certain way and they’re in our ears enough to keep us on that road,” Ta says. Her father wants her to make the Australian Rugby 7s squad. It’s his dream, but it has become hers. After she achieves it, she says, she’ll focus on her own dream – getting into medicine. It’s tough. Last year, she nearly quit rugby. The pressure was intense. What got her through was self-belief, she says. But there was also what goes unsaid – family, her faith, community. Ta is one of the lucky ones.

From the tennis club, you can see the rooftops of Ballerrt Mooroop, once a school for disadvantaged indigenous kids, and before that, a state high school. It was there that Mariella was brought back to the fold, and there she met Dion’s father. Past a few scraggly gums, past the cricket nets where an Indian coach is preaching the merits of team to a trainee – that’s where the school sat. As enrolments plummeted throughout the noughties, the state government proposed closing it. Many – including Mariella – were outraged. She found herself sucked into the growing protest movement. She tells me the story with relish, for it was her awakening.

She slept overnight in the school during a weeks long occupation. At one point, she saw her old principal. He was surprised to see her, to put it mildly. “Mariella, do you remember the last words you said to me as you were walking down the driveway?” he asked. Yes, she said, a twinkle in her eye. “You want to tell me again?” Mariella laughed at this. “I said ‘Stick your fucking school up your arse principal.’” He nodded. “I remember those lines. And now you’re the one here fighting for it.” 

The longrunning protest amounted to nothing – or so it seemed. In 2012, the school closed down with one student remaining. But during her time as an occupier, Mariella met council workers who would become her friends. It was one of these friends who first suggested she put the tennis club to use. The council had spent $360,000 on two new netball courts and they weren’t being used.

When Mariella first met the club secretary, it was remarkably unremarkable. “I was expecting the traditional Aussie response,” Mariella says. What’s that? She raises her eyebrows sceptically to demonstrate. “You know, when they see brown skin. But she simply said – here’s the keys love. She trusted us straight away.”

It was a new infusion of life to an aging Anglo institution. On this visit, supportive elders – three women, one with a huge black fuzz of hair with a fake frangapani above one ear – are here, crunching forms and tallying money. Another elder is a smiley broad-shouldered man without a neck, like a human bullet. He greets me in broad Strine. They’re all part of the extended family.

And so here it is – Itiki. Posters on the walls for netball, sports boot camp, food boxes. Mariella is listed as the contact for everything. She often has to push past pride to actually get food in the front door. Sports for wild teens. Training for kids off the rails, and even education. Support in the courts. And all of this centring around one musty tennis club and one woman, with help from her children and partner and friends.

Before her awakening, Mariella lived to work. Work to survive, work to play, work to support her children. “I was a workaholic and into that materialistic crap,” she says. “But my children showed me the value of money didn’t exist.” She quit to become a social entrepreneur. It gives her meaning. It animates her days. And it has nearly killed her.

It is a difficult thing to care. Because – where do you stop? And, more importantly, how? It is safer just to look after you and yours. Once you open yourself to the world, you see pain everywhere. Mariella is giving too much. It shows. Since starting Itiki in 2014, she’s had two minor strokes. Richard and her kids tell her to ease off, to do less, let others do more. Sometimes Richard tells her straight – she’s fucking bonkers. But it is hard. Itiki is her child, the first of hers made of ideas rather than flesh. “You’re a leader and being a leader, you can’t be seen doing the wrong things,” she says. A sigh. “People are waiting for you to make a mistake. To fail. In my culture, it’s like – how did this child create this?”

She turns philosophical. The sun is lowering into the west, and the intensity of light drops. Mariella tells me that she has always been plagued by the question of whether she’ll be remembered once she’s gone? Now, for the first time, she feels she can answer yes. “I know somebody else will pick up what I started. I know that I did try.” Who would keep it going? She stops. “In all honesty, it would be my children. They’ve seen it, they understand it.”

As I leave, Mariella insists I take food home. I feel slightly embarrassed at being fussed over, but Mariella will not be denied. I take two peaches and eat one as I leave. It is delicious.

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