By Ajak Mabia
Many migrants or refugees who come to Australia have their challenges to settle in. But it is hard to compare who had it tougher: the ones who arrived in 50s, 60s and 70s or the more recent arrivals. No doubt the older migrants cleaned the back yard for us.
It’s important for new migrants to understand how tough it was for those who came before them and how they overcame their settlement issues: we can learn from them. One knows that it’s always struggle, but in long run, new arrivals will follow the same steps as those before them.
The Australian Government’s post-war migration policies aimed to increase the size of Australia’s population, and especially to provide unskilled workers for its burgeoning manufacturing industries. In 1952 the Australian-Greece Assisted Passages agreement providing a financial incentive for Greeks to leave their unstable, impoverished homeland, and make their way to Australia.
Many from rural areas migrated to Australia in the 1950s and 1960s. Because of the turmoil of WWII and the chaos of civil war, very few in this generation of migrants had post-secondary qualifications. Consequently, in many cases, immigrants were illiterate or poorly educated.
By 1961, the number of migrants born in Greece and now residing in Australia reached 77,333. Between 1961 and 1966, 140,000 Greeks immigrated to Australia. Aged in their 20s in the main, they were soon employed in inner Melbourne factories either through family contacts, friends, or through job allocation processes at the Bonegilla migrant centre.
Many Greek migrants worked on assembly lines at Ford and GMH, in breweries and tanneries, in food processing factories like Rosella, Arnotts, and in sewing machines, textile and footwear factories like Kayser and Pelaco. Many took second jobs cleaning office buildings in the CBD. A smaller number of people went to live in rural and regional Victoria where they worked on farms or in smaller industries and businesses. By 1971 there were 160,200 Greece-born immigrants in Australia. Forty-seven per cent lived in Melbourne.
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Pipo Sidiropoulos came to Australia when she was 24 years old.
She owned small hair dressing salon back in Greece. She met her husband there when she was 16 years old. They had a secret relationship for five years. They were not allowed to marry because her parents were poor and couldn’t afford to pay the dowry, besides she was Orthodox and he was Protestant.
So, his father told him, if you want to marry her you will have to go to a very far away land.
Australia was great option for him. He came to Australia first and in 1954 he sponsored Pipo. One year later she arrived and stayed with another Greek family for two months. They were married in December 1955.
Pipo is sitting at her home in Kew when I asked her how she met her husband. She explained, with tears in her eyes, how romantic it was. She stood up and looked adoringly at a picture of him hanging on the wall. With a handkerchief she cleaned the frame and said, “my darling husband waits for me”. The way she said it was like a Romeo and Juliet love story.
“He was very handsome”, she said. “Darling, wait for me”, she whispered again. “He was the reason I came to Australia. How cruel it was not to allow us to marry and stay in Greece” she said. She was looking after her parents and four brothers and sisters while they were at school using the money from her hair business. “But we were in love and we couldn’t share that with our families”.
“Many hearts were broken when I left Greece. But Australia has been very good to me”, Pipo said.
She said coming to Australia was the best thing that ever happened to her. “Australian people are beautiful, and I had nice neighbours. But when I started working in battery factory, I had no English. When the boss told me what to do, I didn’t understand what he was saying. All I could do is cry and cry. Whenever I was very upset, I cried. I cried so much then”.
“But I was so lucky to marry the man I met in Greece, because many Greek migrants married by photo; families chose girls and sent over their photos”.
She was the first Greek-speaking hair dresser in Australia, and she was earning enough money to live because all the Greek brides came to her.
She had no family here. “My neighbours were my family. You have to create your own family. If you smile at people, they will smile back at you. If you don’t give love, there is no love”.
I asked her whether she was treated differently because she was Greek. She responded: “One day I was in the salon and a person yelled, “Come here, you bloody wog”. And I said, ‘I am not wog, I am Australian'”.
Pipo said, “We all come from somewhere. Your mom might have come from England; whoever comes here comes from somewhere. I came from Greece”.
“This is my story. If you want to live happily, you need to have short memories and a thick skin”.