Recalling the struggle to fit into a new country

Liz Bell

AS an energetic six-year-old living in a small Greek village surrounded by family and friends, Christos Iliopoulos lived what he considered an idyllic life.

But his parents – after suffering through decades of political instability, war and economic hardship – thought differently and dreamt of a better life in the “land of opportunity” thousands of miles away.

His was one of tens of thousands of families swept up in the ‘Populate or Perish’ migrant push initiated by former Labor immigration minister Arthur Caldwell, who tempted them with images of open spaces, sunshine and bikini-clad women.

Fast forward six decades and Australia is now very much home for the once-reluctant expat, who is as ‘Aussie’ as meat pie and sauce, but still as proud of his Greek heritage and culture as the day he left.

Like many others who have been uprooted from their place of birth, either by choice or circumstance, Christos has spent a long time straddling two cultures, grappling with the challenges of “fitting in” and forging a new identity.

At times it has been painful, but the pain of some of those early experiences was always tempered by the excitement of life in a new land, new friends, new opportunities and new horizons.

He can still remember arriving at Port Melbourne’s Station Pier on March 9, 1960, after several weeks at sea, bewildered and confused as he watched tears stream down the face of his usually stoic father – the driving force of the ‘adventure’.

“I couldn’t understand it, because we had come all this way and now dad was crying, and I remember going up to him and asking, ‘Why are you crying baba?’,” Christos said.

“Because we have arrived,” he replied. “But didn’t you want to come here?” Christos asked.

“Yes I did, but arriving means that we have left,” his father said.

Christos’ parents had escaped the uncertainties of post-war Europe with the sole purpose of giving their three young children a better future, leaving behind their own elderly parents and the farming life they were familiar with.

In the beginning life was difficult, and for the first three years Christos’s mother Petroula, who did not speak a word of English, begged her husband to “take me home”.

“Poor mum really missed her old home and felt isolated and lonely”, he said.

“She would cry and beg dad to go back to Greece, but he was determined to stay and going back wasn’t an option.”

What made assimilation even more difficult was the racism the family experienced from parts of the community, and the tough working environment that presented a barrier to friendships.

“Mum had to work and got a job in a factory, but the bosses didn’t allow talking because they thought it meant people worked less, so for years mum didn’t get the opportunity to talk to anyone at work and to learn English,” he said.

“I remember after I had picked up enough English to speak to people, I was in the front yard of the first house in Brunswick, and mum was talking to me in Greek when an elderly neighbour stuck her head over the fence and yelled at us, “Speak English, you’re in Australia now!”.

“I was shocked and replied, ‘But my mother doesn’t understand English’; I was so intimidated and didn’t understand why she was being so mean.”

School was also a culture shock for Christos, where he and his siblings were labelled ‘wogs’ by their peers and had to sit through the first months of classes without understanding a single word of English.

“Thankfully, after a while my teacher sat the class brainy girl next to me and she helped me by pointing to things and showing me what to do,” Christos said.

“It wasn’t too long before I could understand and speak fluent English, and from then on it was so much easier to be accepted.”

While life as a new arrival was hard, there were also heart-warming instances of the kindness of strangers, bonds forged and sometimes awkward but well-meaning gestures of friendship.

“On the day we moved into our own house, I remember hearing someone yelling “Yoo-hoooo!”, and then spotting a mop of blue rinse which had appeared over the fence.

“The neighbour pointed and yelled, ‘Hey you, come here’.

“So I went over to her and she asked me my name.

“She said, ‘My name is Miriam, but you can call me Mrs Atkins!’, then she shoved a large brown bag into my hands and said, ‘Take this straight to your mother – she won’t have had time to organise much for you all today’.

“I had no idea what was in the bag, but took it to mum who was busy unpacking.

“When she opened it, she saw about two or three dozen freshly-cooked scones in there, and they were still warm and steamy.

“Mum just stared into the bag and then burst into tears. She was so grateful.”

For the first few years, the Iliopoulos family was forced to share a small house in the northern suburbs of Melbourne with two other migrant families, where there was a roster for the use of the kitchen.

“We couldn’t play inside or make any noise, because some of the men worked night shift, so there were always people sleeping during the day,” he remembers.

“But we felt lucky because we had a 7pm to 8pm kitchen shift, which was better than too late or too early.

“When it was our turn mum would get in there, quickly prepare and cook the food, we’d eat, and then we’d have to clean the kitchen so it was ready for the next family.”

Even such small things were reasons for gratitude for a family hellbent on improving their lot.

Both parents continued to work hard, with Christos’ mother in the factories and his father Anastasios with the tramways, where his new workmates affectionately Christened him ‘Stanley’, which then became ‘Stan’.

Within a few years the couple had earned enough to put a deposit on their first home in 1960s working-class Coburg. It was small but it was their palace, and they belonged.

Christos said his mother eventually came to feel accepted by her new neighbours, and Australians in general, and until today – at the age of 93 – she has Vegemite on toast with a cup of tea (no sugar) every day for breakfast.

To commemorate and share the migrant ship experience of his family and hundreds of others, Christos has organised a ‘picnic on the pier’ at Princess Pier on Monday, March 9, (Labour Day) from 11am to 3pm. He is inviting other passengers from the Greek migrant ships Patris, Ellinis and Australis, to share memories and catch up with old friends.

An online event invitation can be found on Facebook under the name ‘Greek Migrant Reunion Picnic’. Attendees are asked to display a name tag with their full name, date of arrival, port of entry and name of the ship, to make it easier to meet up with fellow passengers.

Attendees may wish to take a picnic basket, folding chairs, sun hats, and anything else they might need to make their stay comfortable for the duration of the event.