Sunday, March 11, 2012


You could always tell the neofermenoi apart from other Greek Australians in the eighties and nineties. Invariably, they were much louder and confident than their more acculturated counterparts. As recent arrivals, they were generally held in high esteem and as they had a more recent and direct link with the motherland, their opinions were actively sought and considered authoritative on diverse issues, simply by virtue of the fact that they spoke pure, uninflected Greek, unsullied by dialectical adulterations or the interpolation of English vocabulary. They would be interrogated on all aspects of Greek life, the prime motivation of the interlocutors being to establish that people in Greece were still in a state of semi-starvation, persisting from the conclusion of the Civil War. Having established that this was not the case, the largely elderly interlocutors would grumble under their breaths about these largely urbanised, non-agrarian neofermenoi being know it alls, of dubious morality and considerably lacking in tradition.

Nowadays, within the context of an increasingly pluralistic, diverse and more populous society, the Greek community is less tightly organised and infinitely more integrated within its broader workings and thus, it is relatively more difficult to spot the more recent arrivals from the motherland, who have settled here in the wake of the social and financial upheavals plaguing that hapless nation. I tend to identify them, in supermarkets and on the streets, only through the lilting, and heart-warming voices of their children speaking the impossibly perfect Greek, the attainment of which, for their Greek-Australian counterparts, was a parental dream now long abandoned. Many of these are families that already have the privilege of Australian citizenship and have already established family connections. Others, are here on student visas or tourist visas, with tenuous or no family connections to Australia. All experience varying degrees of difficulty in acclimatising to the culture and attitudes of Australian society.

There exists within all generations of our community, a prevailing prejudice, cultivated through the viewing of mind-numbing Greek reality television programmes, coupled with negative experiences during visits to the homeland, that the Greeks of Greece are lazy, rude, narrow-minded, arrogant and selfish. According to the abovementioned prejudice, these attributes render them the authors of their own destruction and consequently, their country is deserving of its fate. Many Greek-Australians, especially elderly ones, do not hesitate to express such opinions in the various community media and are often, when meeting one of their newly arrived compatriots, are tactless enough to express such sentiments to their faces. In the large part, this prejudice is innocuous. It is merely the manifestation at the frustration and disappointment of people who have an immense love and pride for their motherland and have been consoled by the doctrines of its national mythology which hold the Greek people to be singular and remarkable, now witnessing their beloved country at a particularly low point in its fortunes.
Such an ebb however, invariably entices the least perceptive to make unfavourable comparisons between their own self-considered fortuitous situation as compared to that of their native brethren. As a result, what may be emerging is a distinct and articulated, particular Greek-Australian identity, with its own values, stereotypes and founding myths, separate though not disconnected to the rest of Hellenicity. Only time will tell.

Conversely, the beginnings of a prejudice can be discerned among disaffected sections of the newly arrived community. According to some of them, the already existing Greek-Australians are selfish, uncaring and or indifferent to their plight at best and at worst, are downright exploitative. Some of these prejudices have a basis in fact. One recently arrived friend has complained to me about his Greek neighbour, contemporary in age, who barely speaks to him. In this case, what my friend fails to realise is that many second and third generation Greeks who have limited Greek language skills feel intimidated by Greek speakers and thus communication is impeded. The prejudice has been further compounded by hysterical and inaccurate representations by members of the local community, as to abuses and mistreatment of new arrivals, which except for some odd and rare cases of exploitation by employers or so-called education providers, are largely incredible. These representations do more harm than good. A young man I met at the recent Antipodes Festival who had only arrived two days before was reluctant to take my card or ask for assistance as he had been told by Greeks-Australians all day that we are obsessed with in-fighting, despise the Greeks of Greece and are unwilling to assist them. It took me well on an hour to convince him that this is not so and Greek-Australians genuinely do care for their compatriots and do want to help.

Certainly this desire was omnipresent among the representatives of the community organisations that attended the meeting called by the Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne and Victoria a few weeks ago, in order to co-ordinate efforts to provide some basic assistance to new arrivals. At that meeting, the plethora of anecdotal evidence of compassionate members of our community taking it upon themselves, to feed, house, clothe, employ and assist new arrivals was as overwhelming as it was heart-warming. Most of these, members of the first generation, have a personal motivation for such philanthropy that is distinct from any feelings of cultural solidarity. So many decades on, they remember the despair and bewilderment accompanying their own migration and especially, those that helped them during the toughest of times and are eternally grateful. They are now moved by their own experience to help others.

Bill Papastergiadis, president of the GOCMV, is not a first generation Greek migrant. Yet true to his prescient vision of an all inclusive Greek community that transcends all political and cultural beliefs in order to embrace all the Greeks of Victoria and provide them with services, rather than being a redundant prediluvian ark of infighting, he has risen to the occasion, seeking practical ways in which to approach the current challenge. The fact that he has done so through the canvassing of a broad consensus of Greek community groups that are not members of the GOCMV, rather than jealously guard its activities to itself, as was previously the norm speaks volumes about the enlightened level of leadership our community currently enjoys and the potential for further co-ordination, which is sorely overdue, to meet other future challenges.

The GOCMV’s plan is simple but effective. Given that the Australian Greek Welfare Society already has the expertise and mechanisms to deal on a physical and emotional level with the needs of new arrivals, rather than create new structures or institutions, its work should be supported and augmented by the entire Greek community. To this end, Greek community organisations have been asked to pledge monetary support that will fund competent staff trained to assist on legal, social security, accommodation and employment matters. Private individuals are also encouraged to donate generously and so they should, for it is incumbent upon all of us to welcome and assist the new members of our community. Further, the GOCMV, through a process of lengthy, mature and considered consultation, is conferring with the Minister of Immigration with regard to achieving parity with other comparable nations in relation to the conditions of visas granted to Greek citizens. Such a sophisticated approach to these issues as is being taken by the GOCMV is laudable and truly does mark a new era in the history of that organisation and our community in general.

Regardless of inevitable cultural differences and foibles real or imagined, new arrivals from Greece are automatically members of our community and must be treated with respect and consideration. The much bandied about Greek concepts of filoxenia and filotimo that we take so much pride in as a people are ideologies to live by, not boast about. So if you happen to chance a across a new arrival in the street, or in a social setting, don’t be shy. Introduce yourself and offer, in the least, a smile and some empathy. Invite them into your homes and call after them to inquire how they are faring. And if you should be so fortunate as to strike up a friendship, consider yourselves the happiest of people. For such friendships exist for life, and you will be repaid a thousandfold.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 11 March 2012