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The milk of human kindness

"Do in life what is right and when people ask of your deeds and words, be able to account for them on the spot,"

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Gerry Gergatos.

05 October 2012

"Do in life what is right and when people ask of your deeds and words, be able to account for them on the spot," was the sound advice given to Greek Australian journalist / writer, PhD law researcher and convener Human Rights Alliance by his parents. In fact, the philosophy was passed down to all six children - of which Gerry Georgatos is the eldest - by his migrant working class parents. The whole time we speak Georgatos speaks fondly of his parents - Napoleon,83, and Angela, 75 - who instilled in him the courage and compassion to fight for what he believes.

His parents migrated to Australia in the '50s from Kefalonia. Like migrants of the time, they found it difficult to communicate, they were blue collar workers - his father worked in the Ford factory, his mother a seamstress. But together, they became a voice for the Greeks in Sydney. They set up afternoon Greek language schools, and assisted many Greek migrants in the '60s and '70s and are still well very well-known and well regarded in the community.

As the only English speaker in the house, Gerry took an active role in the area of social justice and literally became the voice piece for all the Greek community - from workplace relation issues, council issues, as an eleven-year-old, Gerry helped in all.
"In the '70s, language was an overwhelming barrier, there weren't enough advocacy groups or interpreters and even the unions didn't have a capacity to represent the needs of all the workers," explains Gerry.

But nothing impacted on the young Gerry as much as the mesothelioma victims in Sydney "who had no one to speak for them".
"I saw them lying on their beds all wired up gasping for life and nothing could be done for them," he says, "In those days it was a brick wall and I learnt a lot by trying to confront, deal and negotiate on their behalf with their employees and those who should have been representing them to try and get some justice for the victims.

What that did was leave a sour taste for Gerry, people not doing the right thing by others and people not being accountable for their actions. His spirit from that day was sparked, and the path was written for him. He knew what he had to do.
The seed may have been planted by Gerry's parents, the passion her has for social justice and advocacy, but his career, his studies have enhanced the flame that burns so brightly inside this 50-year-old.

Gerry's life and career has seen him live overseas and visit Greece 46 times, taken him to study social justice and law in depth, even writing a PhD in racism - a topic that is very close to his heart. He worked in the tertiary sector as general manager of the Murdoch University student guild, where he spent six years. This role gave him the opportunity to work with people from all walks of life. He worked with people from impoverished backgrounds, indigenous students, and says his proudest moment in this role was when he founded and built Students Without Borders.

"This became the largest student volunteer organisation in the country put together in 2004," explains Gerry of Students Without Borders.

One of the achievements under Gerry was the computer recycling program. 55,000 computers were sent to impoverished backgrounds and communities mostly in Western Australia and many thousands were sent to places in countries such as Uganda, Zambia, Senegal and India - where schools have never even seen a computer before.

"There were hundreds of social justice programs that we got students involved in, but it was also a hands on and practical experience in making a difference in communities. Most of them in outback communities remote but also international opportunities and my greatest pride now is that Students Without Borders has campuses in Iraq, Ghana, Senegal and Uganda," Gerry tells Neos Kosmos.

After a while, Gerry decided to downsize his life and in 2010, he moved to Bridgetown, southwest WA with his 12-year-old daughter. Leaving a high paid job behind, Gerry was unsure what he would do, but being involved with so many causes, he knew he would always be busy. Then one day, he got a phone called from the editor of the National Indigenous Times, Stephen Hagan, asking if he would be interested in writing for the newspaper.

"Strangely enough - without even thinking - I knew it was me," says Gerry when he accepted the offer. For a year and a half now, Gerry has been employed as a journalist for this national newspaper, a newspaper whose reach goes to the public to the government, and the content of this newspaper is often used to provoke change within government policies. And Gerry knew that this role at the paper would give him the opportunity to campaign for the stories of the people he had met in the Kimberly's, in the Northern Territory and Aboriginal peoples in urban centres - he would be giving them a voice, like he had done for so many Greek migrants as a young teenager.

His feature on the NT Intervention and the Stronger Futures legislation finished up being forwarded by others as a submission to the Senate Estimates Inquiry on the then proposed legislation, his story on the homeless peoples on Elcho Island was picked up by the national daily The Australian, and the embarrassment and fall out from that story was that it forced the government to house all the families living in tents on the island. These people were housed in six months as a direct result of Gerry's article.
"I keep pushing the story in terms of sustained coverage till something is done about it," he says adding, "I can't give everybody a voice but I try to give as many as I can."

"In the end its what my dad said about being able to account for your words. If there is something that seems to be wrong and nothing is happening it's about involving all parties and I see it as some sort of mediation or discourse and I give everyone the opportunity to account for themselves and if they don't account, I find on occasion they try and remedy the situation.

"Through journalism I have been able to investigate some things and they finish up as questions in state parliaments and territory parliaments - this is why I care about it," says the journalist. "I am not arrogant and I don't have a sense of hubris but I like to be fearless - I don't like to be one of those people that should have said something that needed to be said."

His work at the newspaper was recognised at this year's Multicultural Media Awards where he won two awards for the categories Coverage of Indigenous Affairs and Investigative Reporting / Writing. His article "People are not the Property of People; The Northern Territory is a Prison built brick by brick by the Commonwealth" won Best Coverage of Indigenous Affairs and the stories and the award for Best Investigative Reporting/Writing was for the two stories "What mining boom? The Kimberley's homeless rates the worst in the nation - nothing in the budgets to help them" and "Racism; its veils and layers are many".

But for some it begs the question that Gerry has been asked before - what's a Greek Australian doing at an Aboriginal newspaper.
"I believe in Aboriginal advancement by Aboriginal peoples," says Gerry.

"No people have suffered more than Aboriginal people, and if we understand racism in terms of them, we understand everybody and if we get it right, we get it right for everybody."

Gerry explains that his studies in racism, his work with indigenous Australians and being invited into their community, he's able to see first-hand this racism that is evident and that "we need to address".

"Aboriginal peoples are the only peoples in this country to have been disenfranchised from the right to accumulate infrastructure, equity, health and wealth. They've had it hard and each generation have suffered much worse than the last," he explains highlighting the differences of racism. Whereas Greek migrants may have felt it in the '50s and '60s, they were able to work hard and better their life for their children - Aboriginal peoples haven't had the chance to do this, says Gerry.

"There is still this surface level racism that goes deep into the heart of our character and judgement," explains Gerry adding that this racism is based on the premise of appearance due to stereotypes that have been long thrust down our throat.
But Gerry is quick to point out that in his travels to indigenous communities, he has met with many different cultures from migrant backgrounds all working in these communities, all lending a hand and walking together in unity.

"I think it's about all humanity coming together and understanding everyone... and understanding respect."

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