“He started as a delivery man with a bakery in Sydney. After 10 years, when he realized that life was good here, he sent for my mother and sister. My three brothers and I had to stay behind to finish our education.” The next four Varvaressos children were born in Sydney and everyone, including their mother, helped out in the family’s growing meat and butcher business. Their father never made it back to Greece to live. He died in 1962 at the age of 79.
Behind every spectacular, or comfortable, or struggling Greek migrant story there are millions of hours of hard work, years of family separations, intangible feelings of nostalgia for an often over-romanticized homeland, and occasional family conflicts. Malcolm Fraser’s catchline “life wasn’t meant to be easy” has been proven by Greeks. They’ve been migrating since the Doric invasions of BC 1100. After the Greco-Turkish War of 1921-22, Greece added 1 1/2 million Asia Minor refugees to its population of five million. They lived in the churches and the schools. Dr George Varvaressos had to leave Athens in those years for school in the country, because his school in the city was otherwise occupied. Instead of spending the last years of their lives sitting in a taverna in Greece, many of Sydney’s elderly Greek men sip coffee at the Hellenic Club in Elizabeth Street in the heart of the city.
One remarkable old gentleman, 88-year-old Nicholas Laurantus, goes there every day from his room at the Masonic Club. He lives a simple life that belies his wealth. He has given away nearly $1 million over the years, to help set up St Basil’s Homes for the Aged and to establish a chair of modern Greek at Sydney University. He came to Australia when he was 19 (“a young man of marriageable age,” he chuckles now) and got ahead with fruit shops, hotels, theatres, city real estate and a big property at Narrandera. He has little time for other Greeks’ complaints about prejudice or the difficulty of making a go in Australia. “Where would they rather be, under the Turks, the French, the Germans, the Russians?” queries Laurantus.He also has something to say about the attention paid to migrant communities by politicians. He dismisses the $50 million allocated recently by the Fraser government, to help arriving settlers over the next three years, as a large waste of money. He thinks the various communities, or at least the Greeks, are well enough organized to help one another.
Not everyone would agree. According to a report by the Melbourne-based Centre for Urban Research and Action, 85 percent of Greek working women believe that unions should work to get English taught on the job. And 80 percent of the same women thought that child-care facilities should be provided in their factories, because the Greek woman often suffers more than her Australian counterpart with what social workers call “double days.” Not only does she have to go out to work – something she never contemplated back home – but she is usually expected to provide the well-run, well-fed house- hold that the Greek man wants.
One woman, interviewed as part of a research project for the Royal Commission into Human Relationships, summed up her spouse’s attitude to what happens to women in Australia. “The women here have no respect, my husband says. He thinks I will get that too.” “We have a different concept of family life,” notes Sophia Catharios, a Greek-born woman who is a senior project officer for the ethnic radio station 2EA in Sydney. “There is one word, filotimo, which implies a sense of moral obligation within families that goes two ways.”Greeks would never dream of asking their children for money, but if their children do well and want to help, of course parents would accept. There is nothing wrong with putting one’s chips together to buy a house or open a business.”I think the Greeks are very enterprising. Even though they may start work in a factory in Australia they soon think that it doesn’t pay to stay on a salary, and they go out on their own.”
The head of the Greek Orthodox Church in Australia, an enchanting and highly intelligent man, Archbishop Stylianos, has his own views on that. “I can say that Greeks in Australia have been very successful in business and in other fields of common life, but unfortunately not so successful in the cultural and spiritual regard, and that is exactly what I think is needed at present. “We must point out those areas, because basically Greeks should not become the servants of material things.”
Archbishop Stylianos also debunks the rumour that Greek women are dominated by their husbands. “In our Church there is always deep respect for what St Paul says in his letter, and that is that the man is the head. He has the first responsibilities and he must cover and protect the rest of the body. “But you can tell the story of the two Greek women who were talking together. One said that since her husband was the head she had to do what he said. The other, more clever, replied that was so, but she was the neck that turned the head. The modern Greek woman may be emancipated but in a reasonable way.”
Still, there are hundreds of older Greek women in Australia who stand out in a crowd with their sober black dresses and lack of makeup – a sign to the world that they have lost their husbands, but not that they have given up life.”My mother wears black as a sign of respect for my father,” notes Patty Soublis, a young Greek woman who with her husband runs Australia’s only flokatis rug factory.Greeks have come in for their fair share of criticism this year, with the investigation into social security frauds. Some have charged the Government with unfair discrimination towards the community.”Most Greeks are very ashamed about the whole thing,” says Dr Dimitri Varvaressos.
There is something special about being Greek, an intense pride in history and culture, a strength from religion and family life, and a traditional adaptability. The word “cosmopolitan” is of Greek origin, meaning a citizen of the whole world, and it is probably the best adjective to use.