The Greek Studies program at La Trobe University is offering a new subject this semester called ‘Multicultural Australia: The Greek Contribution.’

This class explores the contribution of early migrants from Greece and Cyprus in particular, but also of other communities, to life in multicultural Australia. In the class, we begin by noting historian Richard Clogg’s (1999) description of the Greeks, from ancient times to the present, as a “pre-eminently diaspora people,” that is, living away from their original homeland whether forced to do so, owing to pressures that drove them away, or leaving voluntarily, due to a sense of adventure and exploration. We consider the first attested presence of Greeks in Australia in the 1800s, including those who were hoping to strike it rich in the Gold Rushes of Victoria and New South Wales during the 1850s. We also look at the experience of refugees of the Asia Minor catastrophe, some of whom found their way to Australia in the early 1900s.

Alekos Doukas, for instance, arrived in 1927. The letters he wrote to his brother afford us unique glimpses of the White Australia Settler discourse that was dominant at the time. He often accepts this narrative, supporting an assimilationist policy, which was then expected of newcomers in most parts of the world. Occasionally, though, he hints at the simultaneous desire to maintain one’s own culture. Matters of identity and one’s sense of belonging are themes that we discuss throughout the course of the semester. The Asia Minor ordeal is a good place to start to think about these issues. The forced expulsion of the Asia Minor refugees to the Greek mainland and the resulting intergenerational trauma experienced by them and their children also help us to understand the trauma experienced by some of the families arriving in Australia after escaping war-torn Europe.

The post-World War II period is our main focus of study. After examining the social, political and economic circumstances, including the devastating Greek Civil War (1946-1949), that prompted many Greeks to leave their European homeland, their lives in their new country are studied by exploring themes such as family, employment, education, religion, politics, media, entertainment and sport. Following a survey of Bonegilla, the ‘migrant reception and training centre’ that served as a ‘first home’ for a substantial number of Greek migrants in the 1950s and 1960s, we look at the role played by the Church and Community organisations in assisting people to establish themselves in Australia, the role that Sport played in enabling many youngsters (and their parents) to overcome discrimination and the language barrier and to connect with non-Greeks in their communities, the role of Greek families in the success of the ‘milk bar’ and country café industries and in the gradual transformation of Australian cuisine, and the role of celebrations such as the annual Lonsdale Street Festival and the Greek National Day (25th March) Parade to the Shrine showcasing the Greek community’s presence in the multicultural make-up of Australia.

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Occasionally we will concentrate on the contributions of individuals, such as the entrepreneur Alfredo Kouris who, among other things, was instrumental in introducing late night shopping to Melbourne, journalist and radio presenter Rena Frangioudaki, who has been a constant source of information, inspiration and solace for the Greek community, and political activist George Zangalis, who has worked tirelessly to improve the conditions of migrant workers and ethnic communities, not to mention to educate us on the significance of reconciliation with Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. In the field of Literature, we will consider the contributions of our great local writers, including Antigone Kefala, as well as the contemporary powerful voices of poets like Luka Lesson Haralampou. In each of these spheres of activity, we will compare the contributions of the first generation of post-WWII migrants with more recent developments. The evolving identity of these individuals and their descendants will also be explored. Identity is a fluid concept and a personal one. It can change over one’s lifetime. We’ll try to determine if there are any general trends regarding ethnic self-identification over time.

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Importantly, this subject gives students the opportunity to familiarise themselves with the contents of La Trobe’s Dardalis Archives of the Hellenic Diaspora. This is a unique collection of national historical significance. It encapsulates a part of our nation’s migration history. Its contents range from personal letters, photographs and clothing to more public items such as newspapers, cinema equipment and over 15,000 books. This subject and the research seminar series we are holding in conjunction with the Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne and Victoria at the Greek Centre (May – Nov 2019) are steps towards incorporating the Archives into the teaching and research initiatives of La Trobe’s Greek Studies Program and the School of Humanities and Social Sciences more generally. The class has got off to a great start, with students of both Greek and non-Greek backgrounds keen to learn more about the making of Multicultural Australia.

  • Stavroula Nikoloudis is the Coordinator of Greek Studies at La Trobe University.