My hard life – an interview with Kartia Kehagias


Kartia Kehagias

By Ajak Mabia

This is my third in the series of articles on Greek migrants in Australia looking at the lives of migrants who came before us.

Kartia Kehagias works in Sydney in a women’s refuge, and is an advocate for women in abusive relationships. She helps to convince women why they should not return to an abusive partner or husband.Kartia told me her story in an interview.

I came to Australia from Greece in 1955 with my parents when I was two years old. We were part of what is called the ‘Greek Diaspora’ here in Australia.

As migrants, my parents were given ‘assisted passage’; they were given 75 pounds to come here. We spent two months on the voyage, and I remember we passed through the Suez Canal.

We arrived in Bonegilla, a town on the border of Victoria and NSW. It was an old army base. It was very hot there, and full of flies. We had to deal with the very bad conditions, which we were not used to. We had a group kitchen and lived in a very small room. Bonegilla was an Aboriginal community area. We were in their community, but we didn’t understand them. It was our first contact with ‘black people’.

We were interned for six weeks at the army base, during which time we were provided with food. But in those six weeks, the husbands or whoever had to find work, because after six weeks there was no assistance provided. I remember my father had to leave us behind in the second week we were there, and he went to Wollongong  to look for a job in the steel works. During this time we relied on relatives and friends. We didn’t expect any assistance because we knew when we signed the papers to come to Australia, we would have to find our own means of survival. It was hard for my parents though, but accepted by the migrant children: there was nothing we could about it; we didn’t know any different.

Two weeks later my father asked us to join him, so my mum and I took a train from Bonegilla to Wollongong where  my father was living  in one room with other Greeks. In those days, when migrants had been here for a few years and they felt comfortable, they would buy a house and rent it out to others. The whole family would live in one bedroom. We had to share the kitchen and the bathroom, and we had to know what time we could cook.

As  children we were not allowed to play in a back yard because the workers slept during the day. We had to be very quiet, otherwise we could be thrown out and have nowhere to live.  As we were growing up, we didn’t enjoy ourselves much, or laugh or play with balls or toys because otherwise we would disturb the night-shift workers.

My father didn’t want to work in steel factory any more, so we moved to Sydney.  I remember my mum had to push me on a trolley to a woman who looked after children, and she left me there with a little lunch, like one piece of fruit. I used to look after myself. I used to go from house to house to be looked after. I was three years old. When I was five, my grandmother came from Greece, and she used to pick me up and take me to school.

My father was now working for the Sydney Water Board. A large part of Sydney was not yet built, so they were laying water pipes and sewerage. My mum was working in a laundry in a hospital, ironing bed sheets all day. I was happy at school but my English was poor. I loved to play with other children because I never had any toys – I was 8 years old before I had my first toy.  We were the generation that never had a childhood; we were there to help our families, our younger sisters and brothers.

Because we learned English at school we were the interpreters for our parents. Most parents were working in jam factories and the huge glass factory in Botany Bay. If they ran out of work, they had to go and line up in the factory at six o’clock in the morning. They only knew how to say, “Job please?”  That’s what they would say in English. If they were given a job, they started at 7 o’clock. If something was wrong, nobody could say anything because you’d be sacked. They didn’t have social security or Centrelink to fall back on if they lost their job.

My parents eventually bought a small house and they had to rent one room. I had to share a bedroom with them.

One day, my father sold that house and we moved 40 kilometres out from Sydney. My father didn’t want me to become accustomed to the Australian way of life. We had neighbours who were into fashion, they had old style cars and they played rock and roll music, so my father was worried I might melt in to Australian culture, or those who played that music might influence me. So my mother had to leave at 6 am to travel to her work.

When my grandmother died and my younger sister was born, I had to be the mother and look after my sister. There was no staying home and looking after the children; everybody had to work to survive. My mother arrived home at 8 oclock at night from work. We were always told that we were very lucky to be brought to this lucky country. My parents were loyal to this country.  If my mother heard the Australian National Anthem, she stood up.  But my father wanted us to maintain the Greek culture and have nothing to do with Australia culture.

[Kartia broke down in tears when she talked about her painful childhood, how she felt so traumatised.]

But you had to do it because you had no choice.  I cooked for the family and studied and maintained the house and looked after my sister until I was 21. Then my father decided to marry me off.

In those days, if you were not married early, nobody wanted you, so my father organised an arranged marriage. I was a very pretty girl and outgoing regardless of what I had endured during my childhood. So I got married to this man and had two children by the time I was 24. It was then he wanted us to go back to Greece to look after his older parents. I went to my father and told him, ‘I don’t want to go back to Greece because I don’t even speak the language’, but my father wouldn’t support me and my mother couldn’t support me either because my father would bash her if she did.

So here I was alone with nowhere to turn and I had to go with him back to the place my parents didn’t want to live in. My father didn’t want to deal with the shame. So he forced me to go back and I went to Greece with my two children at age 24.  I stayed there for eight years.

Because my husband was self-employed, he could take time off when he wanted to. So we used to go to the village, and here there was no running water, no toilet, no electricity, no shower. There was some kind of toilet out the back yard of the house so when you went to the toilet, you had to carry the water with a bucket. Here was I, an Aussie girl growing up in Sydney and I ended up in this village, doing what I did when I was a child, looking after his old parents, cooking for them, cleaning up after them, getting them water.

On top of that I had to look after his mother’s animals. She had goats, emus and donkeys. I was back to the primitive life that I lived when my family first arrived in Australia and I had worked so hard to get a better life. That’s what my father forced me back to. It was a primitive village and I had to do all sorts of primitive things.

Then his father died, and his mother got cancer two years later, so I had to look after her. When she died, I had to prepare the body: bathe her and dress her for burial. They open up the casket so when everybody comes to the funeral, they can see the body.

When I think back now to that time, I can’t think of any Australian girl who would do that at 28. Forcing me back to live in Greece was so confronting. I was a ‘showoff’ wife –  I looked so different from other Greek girls.

After all of this, my mother sent my husband a letter saying that I needed to come back to Australia. “You took her away so she leaves me back in Australia, and I want to see my grandchildren”.  A socialist government came to power in Greece, so he couldn’t make any money and he had to think about our three girls when they got married. They had to have money and men to marry, and as he couldn’t afford it, we had to move back to Australia.

Nine months after we were returned to Australia, my mother died, at age 63, because she had worked so hard and was abused by my father, so her body created the disease to get out of the situation. I had no support when we came back, only a suitcase. My father didn’t want me to stay with him in the house because I was an ‘unsuccessful daughter’. My father was more supportive of the man, my husband, than his own daughter who lost her youth to look after the family while they were all at work.

With all the support, my husband found his footing again, so we moved to our first home and I got pregnant again with a fourth child. He was very angry because he had to work so hard to buy the house. Before we left for Greece, he had houses but he sold them all because someone in the community told him to sell all his properties so he doesn’t have to come back. They said, ‘If you have house back in Australia, you always want to come back’.

A few days before my mother died, she called me to come and sit beside her bed and asked me to promise her that I would do in my life what was right for me. I said, ‘When did you realise that?’ She said, ‘When both my feet are in the grave’, and at lunch time, she died. It was her way of telling me to leave my husband.

It took me another ten years to leave him. The final straw was when he and my daughter bashed me up because my older daughter wanted to leave home, she told her father that I was the reason she wanted to leave home. She used me as her scapegoat. In those days, it was okay to be abused by a man, but not the child who you gave birth to. I cried for five years saying, ‘This child who I brought into this world raised her hand against me’. Her father threatened me and told me if I left him, he would slash me.

So I found a house about a kilometre away. I rented it with money I hid from him and went to Centrelink, and I paid the rent for nine months before we moved in with my three children. I had to plan it out, and I educated myself by going to college to study natural therapy. When I got all my papers from college, I knew that I could create a life for myself and my children.

The morning before we left, I told my three children that there was a truck coming to take us somewhere else to live. ‘Do you want to come with me?’ I gave them a choice. They said,’We’re coming with mum’. So at 7: 30 in the morning, I prayed, ‘My dear Lord, please take him to work, please God, let him go before 8 o’clock’. He was a builder so he could come and go as he pleased. That morning I was scared to death. So all I could do was pray. Eventually he went to work. The interesting part was that the truck was from a company called ‘Angels Removalists’. I think it was God who sent it to me. I told the truck driver he had one hour to move us. I had to move all the furniture. I included all his beer loaded in the fridge so he couldn’t even drown his sorrow in his beer. I knew I wouldn’t get any money for the children from him.  He was making millions of dollars, and he started hiding all his money and paper work, hiding them in his office and he started to send money to a separate bank account. He knew that I had had enough.

The minute my father found out that I had left home, he shut his door on me. That was the 7th, March 1997.

Women should be aware of their financial situation, where the money is going.  Women should save their own money, even keeping $10 from the grocery money every week is enough to make sure you have a little money for an emergency. As a woman you never know, so always keep it in time of need.


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