From refugee camp to the MCG

Patrick Ferry and Nicholas Hams
Wednesday, 17 August 2022

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has displaced millions of people. It has created a refugee crisis in Europe on a scale not seen since the Second World War.

Some of these refugees have found sanctuary in Australia, like an earlier generation of Ukrainians did in the late 1940s and 1950s. Amongst that earlier wave of Ukrainian refugees was future Aussie Rules legend Alex ('Jezza') Jesaulenko.

Displaced persons

Approximately 5,000 Ukrainian 'displaced persons' found refuge in Australia between 1948 and 1954. Their homeland had been devastated by years of war and totalitarian domination. During the 'Holodomor' ('terror-famine') of 1932/33, millions of Ukrainians starved to death while the Soviets exported grain from the country. Millions more perished during the War as the Nazis, Soviets and their local allies fought for control over the resource-rich country.

By 1945, some 2 million Ukrainians were 'displaced persons', mainly in Germany. Many had been forcibly deported there by the Nazis as slave labour. Others had fled westward as the Soviet Red Army reconquered Ukraine.

Making Australia home

Alex Jesaulenko was born in a refugee camp near Salzburg, Austria in August 1945. Later, his family was selected for migration to Australia under the International Refugee Organisation (IRO) resettlement scheme. In the process, the family’s surname picked up a 'J', becoming 'Jesaulenko' instead of the original 'Esaulenko’.

On 30 July 1949, 4-year-old Alex, his parents Wasyl and Wira (Vera) and younger brother Viktor arrived in Melbourne onboard the Skaugum. The family was initially sent to the Bonegilla Migrant Reception Centre near Wodonga in northern Victoria. From there, they settled in Canberra. Alex was naturalised in 1962.

It was in Canberra that Alex's talent for Aussie Rules football was first noticed. Alex was recruited by major Melbourne team Carlton and debuted in the Victorian Football League (VFL) in 1967. His coach at Carlton was football legend Ron Barassi.

Ohhh Jesaulenko, you beauty!

Alex went on to play 256 games for Carlton, kicking 424 goals. He was part of 4 Carlton premiership-winning teams, including as captain-coach in 1979. Alex is particularly remembered for his athleticism. Famously, during the 1970 VFL Grand Final, he took the 'mark of the century'. Alex spectacularly leapt over the back of a 6-foot-4 (193 cm) Collingwood player to grab the ball in mid-air. 'Ohhh Jesaulenko, you beauty!' exclaimed commentator Mike Williamson. Alex was transformed into a household name.

In 1979, Alex was awarded a 'gong' by the Queen for services to Australian Rules football. He was inducted into the Australian Football Hall of Fame in 1996 and officially declared a legend of the game in 2008.

The National Archives would like to thank Alex Jesaulenko and his daughters Kate and Sally for their assistance with this story.