We could be at an outdoor cafe in Athens, the sun beating down on an airless Aegean afternoon as we begin our conversation. But this is Melbourne in January, and I’m in Carlton to listen to two young Greeks, driven from their homeland by the crisis, who have set out to rebuild their lives in Australia.
Vangelis flew in barely a fortnight ago. Theo’s an old hand: he’s been here six months. Like others, they arrived on tourist visas and have enrolled as students on English language courses.
“The course is costing me $5500 for six months, and I had to give half, up front,” says 22-year-old Theo. “After I finish I want to go on to business management.” Allowed to work 20 hours a week, Theo has spent his time away from his studies looking for restaurant work.
“In 2007, my own bakery business in Greece had a turnover of 60,000 euro every month. Last year it was down to 10,000 euro a month. I still have the shop but I will close it and bring the machinery here.”
Whilst Theo says his own experience so far of migrating has been straightforward, he’s witnessed many challenges facing others.
“There are bad people who take money to advise you in Greece. A couple came here, they paid $15,000 and their ‘advisors’ told them the visas were okay, that they could work, and then the Australian Immigration department found out, and the papers were fake, so they had to go back.”
Theo says that anyone considering migrating should make sure they prepare properly, get accurate advice and have savings to offset costs once they arrive. He says finding a job has not been easy and that some employers that he has approached act very differently from the way he imagined.
“You need money to come here. I’d say at least 10,000 euro. If you’re Greek, employers don’t pay as much, as if you were Australian. It’s not fair.”
Despite his misgivings, Theo’s optimistic. He has an interview for a chef’s position tomorrow. “If I get it, I can get my tax file number and everything,” he says excitedly.
“I have a Greek Australian girlfriend already” adds Theo with a smile. “She was born here, but I’m not going to take advantage of that, believe me.
It would be easy, but it’s not the right thing to do. I will get sponsorship and do it my way.”
For Vangelis (28) who comes from the same island town as Theo, it’s all still very new. But even in the few days he’s been here, his experience is far from his expectations. Having enrolled as a student, Vangelis has started looking for the part-time job that will be his lifeline.
“Before I came, I thought this was the promised land,” he says, “but it’s hard to find a job that pays at least $15 an hour.”
Like Theo, Vangelis has also encountered discrimination since arriving. He says that negative stereotypes of Greeks abound in the job market, with potential employers offering unacceptably low wages.
“Some believe that it was the fault of the ordinary people, who took down the Greek economy, but it was the politicians,” says Vangelis. “Some think it was us. They think we are not educated, lazy, that we are the problem. But we are law abiding, and we try to make the best out of it.”
Despite the early setbacks, Vangelis still has room for cautious optimism. “People of my age are looking for somewhere else to have a better life. Here it’s a vast country with little population, so there is the possibility of prosperity,” says Vangelis, echoing the motivations of generations who came before him.
“Many things are different but I’m set on staying. I want to work in hospitality. After five years it would be a nice idea to have a farm with crops,” says Vangelis, “but I will need to save.”
For now his dreams are less ambitious: he will take whatever’s on offer.
Vangelis and Theo have embarked on a familiar journey. Like so many before, they have come to Australia committed to working hard to realise their ambitions. We hope the society they are embracing can be fair dinkum in return.
Theo and Vangelis are fictitious names for the two individuals interviewed for this article. Their real names have been withheld at their request.