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Australian Hellenic Historical Society

A Greek-Australian Perspective. By Melissa Afentoulis


Stories of Australian Migration

Edited by John Hardy.

New South Wales University Press. 1988.

ISBN: 0 86840 155 2

When first asked to write a paper dealing with the topic of migration, I was somewhat reluctant to do so, partly because of the personal nature of the issue for me but also because it is difficult to represent fully a 'Greek' experience especially to an audience that is largely non-Greek. However, as I reflected more, I realised that this opportunity would not only challenge me to take stock of my experiences and assist me personally in attempting to reconcile some of my inner feelings about that experience, but also would give the opportunity to engage people in thinking about migration as a social issue and not just a personal one. Though the observations I will make are personally based, they have I believe a commonality with what others have felt and to that extent they represent what may be more widely shared.

There seems special point in offering such reflections at such a time in Australia's history. The bicentennial year offers an opportunity for stocktaking; but if, as I believe, we are at the crossroads as a nation, then this is a time to engage in reflection and reassessment. Only by this means can we critically evaluate our past and present in order to go forward into the future as Australians who have come to accept this country as our permanent living place.

As a nation Australia has come together randomly, whether by force, as in the convict days, or from need, or from whatever other motive. Non-British migration has predominated since the Second World War, as people have been displaced from Europe or migrated as refugees in more recent times. But however we have come to Australia, and for whatever reason we have come, we are indeed here and we must as a community reconcile ourselves to that.

When I look back on my experience, I become aware of certain themes and issues to which it gives rise. No one can forget the past for it has in a sense made us what we are. Certain things we have to confront in a personal way, yet doing this also involves us as members of a particular community. And it is the relationship of this community with the wider community that must also be addressed. We are not just migrants or the descendants of migrants but Australians embarking on a future.

In relating my own experiences, my starting-point is that of a migrant woman. When I arrived in Australia, I was only a young girl. But my impressions and view of the world, the impact of arrival on me, and how I responded to my environment, can be viewed in terms of gender as well as in social or class terms. I was nine years old when in June 1963 I arrived in Australia with my mother and brother at Station Pier. I had not known my father because he had migrated when I was one year old. His intention was to work hard for a few years abroad and then return 'home' with enough to better our lives. His decision to go to Australia was probably not very different from that of thousands of migrants in the postwar period.

In Greece my family lived off the land, had some sheep, grew crops, made cheese, and provided adequately for its members. Though we were not starving or neglected as children or penniless as a family, life was a continuous struggle involving hard physical work. Life held out few rewards. My parents worked hard to pay rent to the landowner but got very little in return from the produce of the land. The opportunity to better themselves did not exist for them; and it is only with hindsight in looking at Greece today that we know that things would have improved in a significant way for my brother and me if we had stayed in Greece. But like thousands of Greek families who turned to migration, my parents sought a solution not for themselves but in order to give us their children a better chance in life. Most Greek migrants of the 1950s and 1960s say the same thing, and have told it to their children over and over again until it has come to sound like a broken record!

Migration was seen by many thousands of people as an opportunity to break away from a fairly constrained and determinate existence to one of greater opportunity, to raise and improve one's standard of living and economic security. People like my father were prepared to work hard; after all, they were working very hard in Greece too. They were not selective about the work to be done, recognising that their choices were limited. But they did strive for comfort, material possessions, economic security, increased opportunities for us their children and of course less hardship (relatively speaking). And in the 50s they did find work: so long as they were prepared to work hard they would have jobs. Sometimes my father worked at two jobs, or took leave from one job and worked at another during his 'recreation' leave. He worked overtime and spent little in order to save — in order 'to make his small fortune'. But in my father's case, as with many others, the 'fortune' was not big because as a process worker he earned very little, no matter how hard he worked! He constantly contemplated his decision that the rest of us would come to Australia. By that stage I was nine and my brother eleven years old and until 1963 I only knew of my father through photographs.

My memories as a child in the village of Kontia, Limnos, an island in the northern Aegean overlooking the northern Turkish shores, are vivid and happy. Although I did not know my father then, I had the supportive environment of my extended family, living as I did with my grandparents and sharing the love and support of uncles, aunts and cousins. The image I have of my mother is that she was always working — cooking, washing, baking bread, weaving, knitting, tending the crops in the field, tending the animals, stocking up for the winter. At the same time I remember being pampered by my grandparents, playing with other children, being entertained by the visiting uncles and neighbours. The whole village was my confine and I did not feel stifled, neglected or alone. My childhood was something for the familiarity and security of a more culturally homogeneous and familiar setting, even though that would mean, in reality, poverty, hard work, and its own kind of exploitation.

The consequences of these experiences are now being reflected when most of these women are in their fifties and sixties. For Greek women, the importance of the family and the need for cultural identity as a reaffirming principle meant a lot in terms of their overall well-being. Even though the pursuit of economic security had to be an overriding goal, this was for many migrant women overwhelmingly at the expense of emotional security. This consequence of migration can scarcely be over-emphasised in view of the intensity and duration of its effect.

For Greek people cultural identity is crucial, and the problems associated with it inevitably accompanied migration. It took my own father eight years to decide whether the rest of the family should join him here or not. But it took my parents much longer — about twenty odd years — to reconcile themselves to the fact that they were here permanently. Besides the fear for most Greek people of losing their Greek identity in being forced to assimilate themselves to the new country, there has also been their need to accept, largely through their children, that they belong where their family is. This subtle question of identity is central to the impact migration has had on Greek families. In some ways the physical hardships have been almost insignificant by comparison. To be uprooted and made to seem vulnerable in the interest of an improved social and economic lot has been a hard cross to bear for most Greek people, even for those who have become relatively well-off in the process.

Significantly, about ten years ago many thousands of Greeks attempted to repatriate themselves to Greece after spending ten or twenty years in Australia. They were accompanied by children who either were born here or grew up here. What they found was the difficulty of repatriating themselves. Children blamed parents for expecting them to remain 'Greek' when all they had known was life in Australia. The parents blamed everybody for feeling dispossessed, for feeling that they did not belong anywhere. Many like my own father were forced to reconcile themselves to the fact that they had come permanently to Australia even though they still identified emotionally with their place of origin. There is, indeed, a common expression that Greek people will always use, which when translated goes like this: 'Damned are those who have known two homelands.'

What might once have seemed traumatic seems less so now. After years of hard work my parents are now enjoying relative security and good relationships with their children and grandchildren — links that have overwhelmingly reconciled them to permanent residence here. I too have been lucky, in being young enough to be educated here, and in now enjoying a career. Whatever the emotional stresses and hardships of my adolescent years, they have forced me to consider a series of questions which I might not otherwise have faced. As a Greek-Australian, what does it mean to be Greek in Australia? Does it make me less of an Australian? How, anyway, do I feel about Australia? What do Australians have in common? And with such a diverse population, how do we handle our differences?

The sense of difference can, as I have intimated, be particularly devastating. In my adolescent years I became intimidated and self-conscious about my difference because a difference in culture, values and lifestyle was not appreciated, respected or even tolerated by the community that included my peers. I was the Greek girl who was too serious, too studious, too different. Consequently, I only mixed with other migrant girls because I felt less threatened, better understood, at least tolerated if not appreciated. This gave rise to a `them-us' situation in which we felt the constraints upon us. Interestingly, my Australian peers reflected what most of us migrant girls wanted to strive towards, though of course we could not cross that hurdle, not at that stage, anyway, in our lives.

In a sense the question that arises from this experience is still with us as a society, and comes before us with a particular relevance in 1988. How do we all develop together for the sake of future generations? Do we push for minority 'ghettos' or an integrated society? Do we foster stereotypes of other groups, which is negative and alienating, or do we seek to reconcile differences — different lifestyles, customs, norms and values — as an enriching component of Australian society? My answer is implicit in the way the question is put, but in making such an accommodation we must keep an open mind.

The attitude to difference is crucial if Australia is to have not a multicultural population but a multicultural society. Cultural identity and hence integrity must be one component of a multicultural society, and this is something that can be reflected in the individual interaction between people. But the disadvantage suffered by ethnic minority groups is not simply a reflection of their ethnicity. It relates also to their position within society. Though difficulties of language and racial prejudice exacerbate the problems experienced by migrants, the hope for improvement really lies in providing equal opportunities for migrants. And the crucial question, perhaps, is one of representation. My experience is that across most, if not all, social, political and industrial structures migrants are significantly under-represented — and migrant women even more so. This puts them at a disadvantage right from the start. This puts them behind the rest, and they have to struggle even harder to gain access to power and a more equitable share of resources. Until Australian society as a whole accepts some responsibility for this, migrants as a social category, and not just Greeks, will remain second class citizens. It is no wonder that parents of the migration period have put such a great value on education for their children and have striven hard for them to achieve it because they have realised fundamentally that imbalance of power between them as a social category and others in the society.

I am nevertheless optimistic about the future because of where Australia has already come from. Starting from a convict colony it has developed into a nation. What remains a legacy is our treatment of the Aborigines, and this is an issue that must be addressed. I-low it is addressed will demonstrate our level of maturity. Similarly, the nation's maturity will also be gauged from how we as a society progress in the direction of a multiculturalism that embraces equity and cultural integrity. Now that Australia's immigration policy has again become a subject of debate, our sense of being at the crossroads is greatly increased. What is needed to ensure our optimism for the future is a policy that takes the right path, and does not move in a retrograde way towards our past mistakes. Overwhelmingly, migration for Australia has been of social and economic benefit. We must strive to build upon these gains if we are to fulfil the value of a fairer and just society for all.

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