Some months ago, I heard something that shocked me. An elderly lady was recounting her early, difficult years in Australia, when, as a new migrant, she worked double shifts to make ends meet and agonised over leaving her children in the care of strangers, as many working parents were compelled to do between the 50s-70s.
“Why?” I asked puzzled. “It started when one of the neighbourhood children asked his mother to feed him sugar the way θεία did,” the elderly lady explained. When his mother placed the sugar on a spoon, the boy said: “No, not like that.” Pointing to his mother’s genital area, he explained that θεία would apply the sugar to that area and ask the boy to lick it off. I was horrified. And that was just the tip of the iceberg.”
When one considers the phenomenon rationally, it makes sense that some of the childminders of those times would have committed gross breaches of trust and even child abuse. I was later to learn of stories where childminders accepted money and food for their services, feeding their own children but not those in their care, or were physically abusive towards them, knowing their parents were too busy, too tired or too desperate to do anything about it, even if the children were believed.
As a migrant community whose foundation myths centre upon the acquisition of wealth and education as a yardstick by which to measure success, such stories exist beyond the mainstream community narrative. They also undermine the migration narrative of the dominant culture, which sees migration as a success story, one which creates an eternal debt.
The elderly lady went on to relate the story of the kafeneio in her neighbourhood, a notorious den for Greek migrant petty criminals, alcoholics and gamblers. One of the denizens of the establishment was so addicted to gambling that he had reduced his family to penury. One night, as he sat hunched over his cards, waiting for a lucky break, his wife stormed in, carrying an empty milk bottle. Lifting up her skirt, she screamed: “Anyone who can pay for this [pointing to the bottle], can have this [pointing to her nether regions], because he is not a man and leaves his children hungry.” Another of our founding myths has to do with propriety and self-respect, gained from improving one’s position in life as a result of being in the “Lucky Country.”
Those who get left behind or fall by the wayside seldom feature within the mainstream community narrative. At one stage, our stories crossed. The elderly lady was telling me about verbal and other abuse she experienced by Anglo-Australians and I told her the story of Victorian Supreme Court Justice Emilios Kyrou, who endured beatings and taunts as a result of his ethnic background as a child, and whose chief act of emancipation was to return to his Greek name. She nodded in empathy. Being enthusiastic and grateful to be an ‘Australian,’ is also part of the mainstream community narrative, based on a conception of the migrant as an eternal subservient foreigner. Dwelling on past slights and acculturation traumas, is not.
These, and so many more stories like them, are intrinsic to the migrant narrative. They must be told if the experience of the migrant in Australia is to be understood in its entirety and in context of the overarching socio-economic issues affecting the broader community.
From Hellenic Immigration and Archaeological Museum to Immigration Museum
The founding of the Immigration Museum in Victoria in 1997, originally as the Hellenic Immigration and Archaeological Museum, was widely lauded by the Greek community as an institution where the totality of the narratives affecting migrants in Australia could be identified, discussed and critically appraised. It was felt that after so many decades on the margins, this was the appropriate forum where such narratives could be included within a mainstream discourse, facilitating exchange but also the affording of these narratives rightful place as Australian stories.
In the beginning, there was a rush by members of the Greek community to embrace the Immigration Museum and donate migrant ephemera to it. Suitcases with destination addresses hopefully scrawled on the lid featured in their dozens. Greek diaries, identification cards and letters were interspersed with the ephemera of other migratory tribes, exemplifying the intricate mosaic of migration stories that render the whole phenomenon impossible to stereotype and categorise.
Yet as time passed, sundry communities, including our own felt increasingly estranged from the Immigration Museum. Misgivings were expressed as to whether the Museum’s focus was on the migrant narratives themselves or rather their presentation so to custom fit within another discourse, set, determined and serving the purposes of the ruling cultural group. In entrusting a museum largely run by members of that group, with the telling of their stories, various migrant communities expressed concerns that their own ability to express their stories in a manner meaningful to them was being compromised. Ambassador of Greece Dafaranos did not think so.
My last visit to the Immigration Museum was in 2014, when he gave an engrossing lecture to university students as to the way Greece was dealing with the economic crisis. I remember marvelling at the deft way in which the Ambassador dealt with the prejudices and misconceptions of the students about Greece. I also remember thinking how fitting it was for the lecture to be given in the Immigration Museum, since it was the economic crisis that sparked off a second wave of Greek migration to Australia.
Since that time, although the Greek community considers the Immigration Museum a beloved symbol of mainstream acceptance of migration as a phenomenon, compartmentalised as it is thematically within the walls of a heritage building, it appears to have engaged less and less with that community and no longer serves as a point of reference or relevance. It is remote and distant from the communities whose stories it is supposed to share. It purports to ‘celebrate’ migration, rather than to comprehend it, thus trivialising the traumas and suffering that underlie the whole process.
There are many reasons for this. Firstly, the Greek community now has its own museum, a highly successful private institution, with a unique and eclectic cultural, historical and artistic focus. However, though it makes reference to migration, it is not primarily concerned with that experience but rather, with other aspects of the Greek cultural heritage. As the community ages, it could be argued that assimilation has rendered the need for identification with the migrant experience less immediate. I would dispute that argument. Our historic memories begin with the moment our ancestors arrived on the shores of this country. The immigration experience is a powerful touchstone of identity that all generations of the Greek community refer to continuously. Furthermore, immigration does not stop at arrival. The whole process of forming communities, creating shared rituals and customs, articulating a particularly unique way of viewing Australian society from the perspective of the Greek-Australian, native born or not, creating a sense of historical continuity and identification with place – all of these things pertain to the migrant experience and must not be ignored.
In the years since the Immigration Museum was founded, our way of life has changed forever. Suburbs where Greeks formed a lively part of the social fabric have become denuded of their erstwhile Greek inhabitants, altering the social demography. Strips lined with Greek shops are now apartments. Unique migrant architecture and gardening styles are disappearing. Our social organisations have atrophied and many have disappeared. All these processes leave behind ephemera that bear witness to their passing, whether photographs, stories, dance tickets, calendars, books, posters, clothes, antiquated period furniture, doilies and other accoutrements of a certain domestic aesthetic taste. We have not had the capacity to document these changes, or preserve their characteristic examples for posterity. We need to do so for knowledge of this past, results in a linear thread of community consciousness that is intrinsic to identity formation. It was for this reason that we all felt so attached to the Immigration Museum, and it is the failure of that institution to focus on these most vital elements of migrant communities in favour of the trivial and the inane, that has so failed all of us.
A recent report in the mainstream media suggests that the Immigration Museum is in the “process of reimagining” itself, with a proposed new name of Museum of Shared Humanity. A spokesperson for the museum is quoted as saying that the “Immigration Museum had celebrated Victoria’s multicultural communities for more than 20 years.” Does this imply that two decades is more than enough to pay homage to the migrant experience and that it is time to move on? Does this mean that the stories of new migrant communities that continue to arrive in Australia, and which transform this country in manifold ways, are to be considered irrelevant?
Perhaps the lesson to be drawn from this proposed “re-imagining” is that migrant communities cannot solely trust the ruling class and its institutions to articulate the migrant experience and weave it within the broader Australian social tapestry. We need to develop the skills to propose, critically examine, impose, interrogate and formulate our own narratives, to understand their complexity, to render them all-inclusive and to remain in control of the manner in which they are propagated. We should not be called upon to invest emotionally and materially in institutions that purport to serve our purposes but along the way become hijacked to the whims of policy makers and fluctuations in the ruling zeitgeist. We should not have to be in a position where every so often we are called upon to ‘prove’ our relevance to the mainstream and petition for the retention of institutions that supposedly legitimise our existence. In short, given the fact that the institution that is about to be re-baptised in Newspeak apparently considers immigration a superseded discourse, it is time each local community engages with the phenomenon on their own terms, marshalling its own resources to produce a narrative which is completely, its own. This, is the true essence of the multicultural migrant paradigm.