Saturday, September 02, 2017


“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.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 2 September 2017