Saturday, September 23, 2017

YOUR MONEY OR YOUR LIFE


As the old woman with the careworn face shuffled painfully the room, I immediately recalled her, seven years earlier, striding into my office confidently. 
“I want to transfer my properties to my child,” she stated. “I want to get the pension.”
“But why do you want to get the pension when you can live off the rental income?” I asked. 
“I worked for forty years,” came the response. “Non-stop. Over-time and even weekends. Other bludgers who did no work at all are getting the pension. Why shouldn’t I? I’m entitled to it.”
I tried to dissuade her from her chosen course of action:
 “Even if you go down this path, the deeming provision don’t consider you have made a transfer of assets for another five years. And besides, what happens if for whatever reason your child’s marriage breaks up, they go bankrupt, or your relationship with your child deteriorates?”
“That will never happen,” she snapped. “And my child can do with the extra cash. I’m your client. Do as I say.” 
I drafted a letter outlining the pitfalls of such a course of action. I asked her to sign it to indicate that she understood the risks she was assuming. She was insulted, walked out of my office and consulted another lawyer. My boss at the time, reprimanded me severely, for losing a client.
Now she looked at me, tears in her eyes. Her child, she assured me, is a good person who loves her, but their partner is evil incarnate. Apparently, soon after the properties were transferred into the child’s name, the child became abusive and curt with her. Gradually, visits to her become sparse, occasioned only by a demand that she provide some meager funds from her bank account. Then, as a complete shock , the family home, built by her and her husband after only a few years in Australia, a testament to their hard work and dreams was put up for sale and she was coldly informed by her child’s partner that she had to vacate. No provision was made for her welfare by her child, who from the moment the property was sold completely cut off contact. Now, bereft of any assets save for her pension and cared for by relatives, she wanted to know what course of action she had, not against her errant offspring, but their evil partner, for surely they were the root of this sorry situation.
Sadly, the above, with some cosmetic variations has become a "common" story for members of the Greek community. Whereas in the eighties, elderly Greeks would gather together to gossip sensationally about which couple had divorced, in the nineties about whose offspring had entered into a mixed marriage, now they congregate to discuss in hushed tones, which of their peers is being bullied, browbeaten and disabused of property, by their offspring. 
Liana Papoutsis, a member of the Victorian State Government's Victim Survivor Advisory Council and a human rights and family violence advisor, confirms this: “Elder abuse is an issue I consult on rather frequently. This type of family violence is extensive across all cultural groups in Australia. Of course, at the centre of such conduct is power and control of the elderly person. In the Greek community it is widespread. A disturbing trend in the Greek community is that adult grandchildren are abusing their grandparents for money, assets, etc. The emotional, psychological and physical abuse is abhorrent. Often elders are combatting their children and grandchildren simultaneously. Sad beyond belief.”
There is a disturbing sense of entitlement among Greeks both in Australia and abroad when it comes to real property. Unlike Anglo-Saxon perceptions of property, for whom property is personal and inviolable and the foundation of their legal system, the traditional Greek conception of property is more fluid in that it verges on the communal. As such, there is an attitude that those who own property merely do so as custodians of it for the next generation. According to this view, property is seldom alienated, unless there are compelling reasons and it is held in trust for the good of the family. It is when this traditional view of property ownership is juxtaposed against the Anglo-Saxon view of property encountered in Australia, that a clash of values arises.
As a result, our community appears to be witnessing more and more cases of offspring of all generations demanding property from their elderly parents, because they feel they are entitled to it, often engaging in violence, bullying and verbal abuse in order to obtain what they desire. In doing so, the justifications they offer range between: “Give it to me, you’re old, you don’t need it,” to “You’re going to give it to me anyway, so you might as well give it to me now.” These attitudes stem from the Greek legal concept of the «νόμιμη μοίρα» according to which, (and unlike Australian law) both offspring and a bereaved spouse are automatically entitled to inherit from the deceased spouse/parent’s estate. Of course, in many disturbing cases, the bullying and manipulation, tacit or overt, is perpetrated by one sibling, not necessarily to disadvantage parents, but rather, other siblings who expect or are entitled to inherit property from their parents. Greek Welfare Society Employees and priests who are often called upon to assist victims of elder abuse and are often the first port of call for victims, also state that gambling, drug addiction and financial pressures also need to be taken into account.
As, according to traditional Greek custom, the corollary to any such entitlement to property, is the residual obligation of looking after one's parents, many rapacious offspring seek to gain financial advantage by reassuring their parents, that their “gift” will ensure that their offspring will “look after them,” which in customary-speak denotes, being cared for in the family home . In an increasing number of cases, however, that obligation is forgotten or deliberately ignored, in the face of greed and one would venture to suggest, ingratitude.
Federal Member of Parliament Maria Vamvakinou comments on the disconnect between traditional and received values that lead to property alienation and the marginalization of the elderly, specifically in our community: “I have always held as a better value, that of the "collective and the communal" which is the basis of the extended family and parental support to children and grandchildren. It's the "Greek " way. Are we now seeing a case of, "once was?" At a time when things are getting harder for everybody, the support of our family is more important than ever, but it appears that selfishness and entitlement has its own "rewards".”
Delving deeper, property acquisition is one of the founding ideologies and values of the Greek community in Australia. How we relate to it, seems to determine how we relate to each other, on various levels. According to some community commentators, the current incidences of property-based elder abuse seem to stem from an inherited over-emphasis on property acquisition and the propensity to cultivate a world view based primarily on monetary terms, instilled in the latter generations by their parents. They point to parents using their initial ascendancy in wealth in the early stages in order to manipulate their offsprings’ life choices, for example who their life partner will be, where they will live and how they will bring up their children. As a result, these infantilised offspring, reared without the capacity for initiative or responsibility, are conditioned to view to their parents only in relation to the amount of money that is necessary to procure their compliance. When they become old and vulnerable, the tables turn. 
Of course this theory does not take into account the fact that most of the victims of elder abuse in our community are not affluent members of the first generation, who remain well informed of their legal and other rights and cling on to their property, a) because it is a reflection of who they are and b) because it is the best form of “insurance” in securing their offspring’s compliance to several core expectations with regard to the manner in which their children relate to them. Instead, it is usually the isolated, the lonely, the ill-informed and thus the most vulnerable who are the most at risk of the form of elder abuse we are increasingly witnessing within our community.
The break-down of the structure of our community as we know it, can also be held to facilitate bouts of elder abuse. While latter generations have complained for decades about the intrusiveness of members of their parents’ social and family circles upon their own lives, a phenomenon that contrasts with the emphasis upon individual choice in modern western societies, the disapprobation of that social and family circle once operated as a powerful deterrent to the flouting of one’s filial obligations. In a society where individual choices are sacrosanct and no justification of them needs to be provided to anyone, traditional pressure groups are rendered impotent and the fear of shame or loss of reputation no longer exists.
The above notwithstanding, it cannot be doubted that parents are revered and are still largely at the centre of the Greek-Australian way of life and the “Greek way,” as outlined by MP Maria Vamvakinou still informs the manner in which the relationship between child and parent is defined. However, in a constantly evolving and diversifying community, old certainties begin to unravel prior to us having an opportunity to evaluate that change. Consequently, a significant proportion of elderly and vulnerable members of our community are at risk of abuse, without the possibility of effective peer intervention. While the laws pertaining to undue influence provide a modicum of redress, but cannot assist in cases where parents still refuse to take legal action against their offspring it is incumbent upon us, as a community, to develop strategies to address the issue and provide succour and moral support to afflicted parties, through a) pressing for legal reform on this issue and b) creating or supporting structures within the community that support/house/counsel victims. After all, when all property is alienated and lost, the importance of our community, such that it is, is that we still have, each other.
DEAN KALIMNIOU

kalymnios@hotmail.com

First published in NKEE on Saturday 23 September 2017

Saturday, September 16, 2017

WRITING GREEKS ON OLD SHOES

“Next time you decide to come to my island, I will cut your legs off…” “I wouldn’t spit on her if she was on fire! Σκύλα!» … «H μαλάκω…» These are some of the comments unloaded upon social media by some, judging from the tone of their abuse, rather piqued neohellenes. Reading them, one would plausibly form the opinion that they are directed at some disreputable character, one whose nefarious deeds and purposes have rightfully warranted receiving disapprobation in the most strident of tones.
Except that the recipient of this abuse just happens to be Helen Zahos, the Gold Coast nurse who, moved by the plight of the masses displaced by the various conflicts in the Middle East, travelled to Greece in order to provide those arriving there with assistance. Helen Zahos, a 2016 recipient of the Hellenic Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s prestigious Community Service Award and a nominee for the 2017 International Hellenic Women's Award, also travelled to the Middle East, notably to Iraq, in order to gauge the situation on the ground and gain a full appreciation of the trials and travails associated with war and its ancillary demographic dislocation.
As a people, we generally tend to laud and applaud those who not only accomplish great things, but also are seen to accomplish great things, especially if they are appreciated by others, for this reinforces our own myths about the nature of the “Hellenic Character.” What we often perceive when we look in the mirror, is thus our image, distorted by the lens and conditioned by the prism of self-created stereotype, with a good dose of wishful thinking thrown in. The Greek is thus inventive and ingenious like Odysseus. The Greek is courageous and invincible like Alexander. The Greek is generous, welcoming and compassionate like the Homeric Heroes. And if Facebook is to be believed, the Greek is as gorgeous as Jennifer Aniston and as proud to be Greek as Tom Hanks…
Entire social media pages have sprouted of late, whose sole purpose seems to be to extol the superior attributes of the modern Greek, without criticism or analysis, the emphasis being on instilling “Greek Pride” or a feeling of “One Greece,” as a panacea to all the evils that bedevil or are seen to beleaguer the Greek people. In a bizarre adaption of “The Secret,” all that the postulant to Hellenic greatness has to do, is to believe that Greece and the Greeks are better than everyone else in order to ensure that this is so.
To gain full use out of such pages, it is incumbent upon the postulant to establish their Hellenic credentials not only by mindlessly praising everything that is Greek but also by emphatically denigrating everything that is not. Furthermore, there is no room for any of the banter or persiflage that usually accompanies social media posts here. Instead, a rite of antiphons of heated and uncompromising invective must be performed, akin to the Orwellian “Two Minute Hate,” as practised in “1984,” directed to all of those who, in the guiding minds of the Administrators, are unhellenic or display disturbing unhellenic tendencies. This is because, as everyone knows, Hellenism is under threat. Its enemies, who would destroy it, are omnipresent and they are legion. Of course, the reason for their malevolence, lies in their inability to accept that our superiority is a proprietary right belonging to us alone. Consequently, the extinguishment of our existence is considered a condition precedent for a re-distribution of brilliance. Sundry Uber-hellenic social media page administrators are thus tasked with the high and noble pursuit of safeguarding the race from harm and miscegenation.
Recently on one of the aforementioned pages, the unsuspecting populace at large was subjected to a meme, posted by the Administrator, which read as follows: “Makedonia is Hellas. So Fuck of Slavs!!” Graced by more likes than could be counted, (for it is by these mandated signs of approbation that one affirms their Hellenism), the meme was also accompanied by the following explanatory caption: “I am sick of their lies. I am sick of their propaganda! I am sick of their pseudo and fictitious history! I am sick to death of these maniac brain washed goat herders who are countryless! You are Slavic whether you like it or not, there's no choice........MAKEDONIA IS GREEK AND ALWAYS WILL BE! LEAVE HELLAS ALONE!”
This time around, I intruded upon the mandated two minute hate, commenting: “This is racist and ignorant, even for your standards. I remind you that using the terms “Slavs” refers to the largest Indo-European ethno-linguistic group in Europe, comprised of some 360 million people, including Russians, Ukrainians, Belarussians, Poles, Sorbs, Czechs, Slovakians, Slovenians, Serbs, Montenegrins, Bosnians, Croatians, Rusyns, Lemkos, Bulgarians and of course the Skopjans. And it is with the Skopjians that we have an issue, not anyone else. In fact, Serbs have historically been our allies and we constantly look to Russia for help. So when you whinge about being sick of the falsification of history, learn some facts because it is the clumsy and unintelligent way in which you blunder around trying to articulate an argument that loses us the battle time and time again - a mode of behaviour which, eerily resembles the tactics of the people you so deride.”
The result of my heretical intrusion? Instant excommunication, accompanied by group vitriol from a multitude possessed of surprisingly scant spelling skills but a great deal of herd mentality when it comes to those who question the wisdom (and syntax) of their Administor’s words.
Helen Zahos, on the other hand, being of a considerate and tactful disposition, did not intrude upon anyone’s two minute hate. Her only crime, was to have her philanthropy written about by the Greek City Times. An uber-hellenic administrator of a typical “I’m more Hellene than you,” social media page saw fit, unsolicited, to post the article on their page with the comment, translated from Greek: “Ok, Helen…so you’ve assisted the illegal immigrants. What did you do for the Greeks? Tell us, we are listening. The Greeks, our brothers who have gone hungry for years now. The kids who beg on the streets. Have you gone there in the past six years to help them? We held our family first and then everyone else. This is not philotimo. It’s unfair!” The post concludes grandiloquently: «Γτ τους Έλληνες τους έγραψες στα παλιά σου τα παπούτσια, άχρηστη!»
What followed was the barrage of the aforementioned abuse from sundry uber-Hellenes, including such examples of verbal excrement as these: “Sorry, but I’m not praising this imbecile,…where the Hell was she when our Homeless Greeks passed the worst winter on the streets…” and “Helping your own people doesn’t get you on the news…helping the current fashionable minority does.”
For Helen Zahos, who has courted no publicity and has merely sought to follow her own humanitarian and philanthropic convictions, inadvertent exposure to this base bile has been a harrowing experience especially considering her tireless work in improving the health of those in her ancestral homeland. It is common knowledge that she has devoted a good deal of time both in her village and the local hospital in Katerini, to improving health outcomes. She has assisted the local rescue volunteer group to obtain a defibrillator and facilitated first aid courses in her village. She has also devoted a couple of weeks during one of her holidays at the peak of the financial crisis, to volunteer at a clinic for pensioners and the underprivileged, who could not afford medication or medical treatment.
Unquestionably, Helen Zahos’ work speaks for itself. She has not the need to justify herself or refer to the sterling work she has done for Greeks within Greece in order to legitimize her choice to make an awe-inspiring and selfless contribution to the lives of refugees. There is no need to emphasise, in these dark times of xenophobia and discrimination, the importance of basic human acts to cement our common bond. It is significant however, to point out that none of her keyboard-warrior detractors, ensconced slovenly before their screens, therefrom to dispense bile and slander upon people of initiative and moral integrity, seem to be able to advance even a tenth of Helen Zahos’ curriculum vitae as a means of establishing a basis for which to express themselves in such a vile manner about her choices. Yet this is symptomatic of another of the uber-Hellene’s attributes: Prone to volubly declaring their love for all things Hellenic and abrogating to themselves the right to determine other’s life choices for them, they are markedly absent from community and other cultural or charitable endeavours. Needless to say, none of the detractors in question, appear to have sacrificed any of their time, in order to travel to their beloved homeland in order to assist the people for whom such love they proclaim.
It is trite to mention that in times of crisis, the true measure of a person or nation’s character is revealed. In our own crisis-ridden times, it is the raw polarities of the Hellene that are exposed. At one pole, the nuanced, compassionate, life-affirming, cosmopolitan, inclusive and positive outlook of Helen Zahos, actively assisting Greeks and non-Greeks alike and, literally poles apart, the frigid, seething paranoia of the passively-aggressive incompetent, the bigoted, the hateful and the negative. We ignore either pole at our peril for both subsist within our dialectic. It is only by examining those undesirable accretions to our “character” such that it is, identifying them and divesting ourselves of their pernicious effects that we can aspire to any form of the greatness the smug and the unexamined believe they are already possessed of, online or otherwise. Recording their puerile writings on our old shoes, as the Greek expression literally goes, is perhaps, the most fitting fate for them.
DEAN KALIMNIOU
 
First published in NKEE on Saturday 16 September 2017

Saturday, September 02, 2017

GREEKS CONTRA GREEKS


“When we arrived here, the Greeks who had come here before the war thought that we were the scum of the earth. They laughed at our accents and considered our way of acting and doing things backward. My parents were working on a farm for their cousins. They wouldn’t let us stay with them in the house because we were “filthy Greeks.” I was a baby at the time and my cradle was a wooden milk crate, in one of the sheds.” Greek-Australian who arrived in Australia in 1951.

“When we got here, the young Greeks who had arrived in the fifties looked down at us. They called us wogs and made fun of our clothes and the way we spoke. We thought they were strange. What kind of Greeks were these? They ate differently and spoke differently and they did not have the same sense of obligation towards each other that we had. They were barely Greeks at all.” Greek-Australian who arrived in Australia in 1963.

“The Greeks of Greece are lazy, selfish, ungrateful and untrustworthy. All they do is demand things. They have destroyed Greece and now they are going to destroy Australia.” Elderly Greek-Australian resident of Oakleigh, who arrived here in 1966.

Μπουρτζόβλαχοι trapped in the traditions of their κωλοχωριά in the 1950s. Harbouring a vast hatred towards all Greeks, their idea of being Greek is confined to souvlakia, loukoumades and the tsamiko. If the migration and repatriation of true Greeks continues, they will become an endangered species. They have a chance to learn from the young Greeks and divest themselves of their vlach tendencies. Let them do it to save their children who they have made them in their own sorry image. They blindly hate Greeks without having an understanding of the prevailing conditions in the country.” Newly arrived Greek-Australian, on the already established Greek-Australian migrant community.

 The recent publication of researcher Nikos Golfinopoulos’ report on newly arrived Greek migrants in Melbourne, based on research he conducted in this city in 2014 contains findings that should come as no surprise. According to him, newly arrived Greeks report that they are exploited by the Greek-Australian businesses they work in. Furthermore, the same newly arrived Greek report that on the whole, there exists within the Greek community in Melbourne a deeply seated prejudice against new arrivals, who are widely considered to be subversive, lazy, ungrateful and untrustworthy. Of course, Nikos Golfinopoulos’ findings would benefit from a comparative study of those prejudices in order to ascertain the reason for their existence. Interviewing Greek-Australian business owners who have experienced difficulties with newly arrived migrants they have employed, consulting with elderly couples who provided rooms in their homes to newly arrived boarders only to see them trashed and of course, recording the various disparaging comments made by newly arrived migrants about the cultural level of the already established Greek community, in which the quality of its Hellenism is called into question, would assist in a holistic appreciation of this historical phenomenon.

 While it is important to point out that while prejudices do exist, the vast majority of older and newer migrants care for and enjoy each other’s esteem. However, a proper understanding of the acculturating friction, such that it is, between the older and newer Greek migrants of Australia must be placed in its historic context for there is precedent for such friction in our past. A cursory examination of that past suggests that successive waves of Greek migrants have always been looked down upon by those of previous migration generations. Hugh Gilchrist and other historians have written extensively on how the Greek restauranteurs of the early 1900s would often employ illegal Greek immigrants from their homeland, pay them a pittance and house them in parlous conditions, threatening to expose their illegal status if met with resistance. Compounding their plight was the knowledge that in the prevailing labour market, their ability to obtain a job elsewhere, based on race as it was, was next to impossible. Furthermore, earlier migrants tended to assist only those new migrants who came from their specific place of origin, for whom a sense of obligation was felt that did not extend to migrants from other parts of Greece. As those earlier migrants became more integrated within Australian society, anecdotal evidence suggests they also began to view the successive waves of migrants of the thirties and fifties disparagingly. They, in turn, viewed the older generations snobbery, and propensity to attend debutante balls, with contempt. The more politically aware among them, also viewed their predecessors injunctions to be subservient and accept their inferior place within Australian society without agitating for change, also with contempt, which is why multiculturalism exists today.

 In 1957, the inexplicably forgotten but incredibly important polyglot author Yiannis Lillis published an article entitled Self-Defence or Self-Abnegation? in the London journal «Κρίκος.» In it, Lillis, who arrived in Australia from Albania in 1948, made unique and thought-provoking observations about the differences in the pre-war and post-war Greek migrants, linking these to class conflict, globalisation and the latest political currents of thought, which are refreshingly relevant to our own times:

“The new migrants, without being superior to the old ones in general, display the attributes of modernisation, the consequence of the last social fermentation, the rise of the masses in almost all of Europe. Superficial gold-plating, with a mimetic thirst for cosmopolitanism. The majority has no greater intellectual depth than that provided by a knowledge of the latest world events [an understanding of the broader world as a result of the World War], and sporadic class conflicts.
The new migrants are from the same homeland. They are the offspring, siblings, distant relatives of our predecessors. But in terms of values, spiritually, they have little affinity. The former are the children of the 1900’s era of strict morality, the sons of complete adherence tradition that derives directly from the patriarchal principles of renascent Greece.

 The latter is the fruit of our age of speed, the generation that emerged from the smoke and the ruins with the incontinent thirst of life created by deprivation and the sense of ash. It emerges forcefully, breaking the rusty shackles of the past and the legacy of the terrible war and a horrific occupation. Thus, the horizons of this generation have become broadened unimaginably, regardless as to whether or not it is still opaque, and not yet accompanied by any real spiritual or intellectual insight. There world view is built upon a foundation of Greek tradition that is more flexible and more modern than that of the previous generations. Will this second stream of migrants encounter the same ethical difficulties in orientation as the first one? Does it have a better capacity to ground itself?”

Lillis’ astute questions can be answered not only by the collective experience of the post war generation, the community which it created in its image and the manner of its inevitable unravelling but also in the way in which it sees itself in connection to the new wave of Greek migrants that either enters its ranks or stands outside them. A resort to history and an analysis such as that postulated by Lillis can also possibly permit the current new wave of Greek migrants to predict and plot its own fate vis a vis any further wave of Greek migrants that might arrive in the future.

 Any ill treatment of newly arrived migrants by established older migrants (again they ae a minority) has much to do with their own vexed relationship with Greece: One the one hand, they love Greece and have an idealised view of it based on their childhood and an internalised understanding of what Greece should look like to mainstream Australia, which in their opinion new migrants do not represent, and on the other hand, they constantly need reassurance that they made the right decision in coming here. The newly arrived migrant, coming from crisis ridden Greece, provides that reassurance. Then, one must consider the simple proposition that exploitation, greed and the fact that some Greeks by nature, harbour xenophobic tendencies towards other Greeks, the treatment of Asia Minor refugees by many mainland Greeks in 1922 being a case in point, forms a part of our identity. In this regard, Nikos Golfinopoulos also points to similar phenomena within the Italian-Australian and other ethnic communities.

 On the same token, the phenomenon of some newly arrived Greeks considering the established Greeks as quaint, backward, greedy and of questionable authenticity, is also nothing new and, when viewed within the context of historical precedent is to be expected, something that any researcher must take pains to comprehend.  

 Unfortunately, because we appear not to have established firm traditions of our own in this land as a community, despite our hundred year sojourn herein, we have no consciousness of a collective history. As a result, we are unaware of those incidences of our Australian past that would assist us to understand or interpret the social tendencies of our community beyond the living memory of our parents. As an ahistorical community, one that is not able to articulate a native Greek-Australian perspective without a constant cultural cringe of reference back to a homeland who in culture and ethos has markedly diverged from our collective own, we thus lack an obvious framework from which to understand our evolution or rather, revolution, for it is through the comparison of our early pre-war social history with our current reality that the Sisyphean nature of our communal existence becomes apparent. The repercussions assume dimensions far greater and more important than any perceived friction between both blinkered sets of migratory generations, suggesting that lived experience and geography is more determinative of identity than we care to admit.
 
DEAN KALIMNIOU
 
First published in NKEE on Saturday 2 September 2017