On the occasion of recently celebrating Australia’s national day, I think it is useful to reflect upon the life of an ordinary, but also a rather exceptional, Greek-Australian. His story is likely reflective of many immigrants of the 50s and 60s. Aristides Kalloniatis was born in the village of Stypsi (Lesvos) Greece on April 20, 1925 and died in Melbourne on December 28, 2011.
What his life showed was that a non-English speaking, primary school educated, unskilled immigrant can, and did, make a significant contribution to our society – something very relevant to consider this Australia Day.
Like many post-World War II immigrants to Australia, he was unskilled and poorly educated. With no educational facilities beyond primary school in the village and difficult economic circumstances, he had to work from his early teenage years to assist the family. He also served his country of birth for three years during the Greek Civil war. Aristides subsequently married and provided for his young family during dire economic times in Lesvos in the early 1950’s.
He and his family migrated first from the village to Athens in the mid-1950’s where his humble Athens home was also a temporary residence for many friends and relatives as they made their own move to Athens ,or were in transit for their migration overseas. Aristides was always astute and realising the potential of political turmoil in Greece (the military junta took control of Greece in 1967), and the immense opportunities for his family in Australia; he made the brave decision to emigrate. In 1965, at the age of 40, the second migration began and his family (wife and two young children) moved originally to Geelong where they stayed for five years, and subsequently settled permanently in Melbourne.
Someone with such a background would not meet the current Australian immigration guidelines. However, not so long ago, migrants like him were welcomed, and worked in occupations Australia needed to build its economic base. Immigration continues to be controversial: however, studies in Australia have shown that the children of immigrants particularly from Southern and Eastern European countries and some countries from Asia, attain a significantly better level of education and better occupations than those of older generations. In studies of contemporary immigration of ethnic communities in the United States, the long-term prospects are dependent upon the educational success and social adaptation of the children of immigrants.
The message is that contemporary immigration in Australia appears to be working with the level of education and occupations achieved by children of immigrants being the key ‘measure of success’. Sometimes a new ethnic community may undergo an evolutionary cycle and endure difficult times before they assimilate into our society and become a ‘model minority’, as Professor Andrew Jakubowicz pointed out in The Age on January 7. Professor Jakubowicz also highlights that our politicians play critical roles in setting public policy, shaping community values thereby “either contributing to the building of a creative multicultural society, or push a society to becoming a maelstrom torn apart by hatred, fear and self defeat”. It is therefore laudable to read the Premier of Victoria, Ted Baillieu, calling for Australians to be more welcoming of refugees. It is rather disappointing that negative sentiments continue to be expressed by some of our political leaders in relation to refugees and immigrants.
These comments are designed for shortterm gains and are divisive rather than working cohesively towards a long-term evidence-based solution for both new arrivals and ethnic communities going through their own unique assimilation into Australian society. Let us now review the contributions to our society of Aristides Kalloniatis, a non-English speaking, poorly educated, unskilled immigrant who arrived here in the mid-1960s. He was brave and enduring. He was inspirational and humble, with his deeds often speaking for themselves.He was hard-working to ensure he provided a foundation for his children: his family always came first. It is these traits that he imparted to his descendents who continue his legacy: they are contributing to Australian society, as a senior academic, an officer (Flight Lieutenant) serving as a doctor in the Royal Australian Air Force, in technical and other trades, in sales and also running small businesses. He loved his country of birth, but he also had some special words for his adopted country.
With Australia Day approaching, it is timely to publish these words. I had asked him many years ago about his thoughts of Australia, “Michael, in the thirty odd years we have lived in Australia, no one has ever told me what to do and whom to talk to; the bureaucracy is manageable; the health and education opportunities are fantastic; and there was always plenty of work; what a wonderful country”. His overall message was always to reflect on your background, remember your roots but also appreciate the opportunities you have been given. He would say, “be proud of your contributions” – this is particularly relevant to the immigrants amongst us, “be aware of and respond to your responsibilities” – this is particularly relevant to the descendants of immigrants His biggest message: “be tolerant, fair and just”. This is relevant to all of us.
* Michael Kalloniatis is a Professor of Optometry & Vision Science and the Director of the Centre for Eye Health at UNSW.