The first known Greeks to step foot on Australian soil were seven sailors convicted of piracy by a British naval court in 1829. Some more arrived later around 1850 during the gold rush and by 1871, there were still only 19 Greece-born women in Victoria and 127 men.
After the second World War, Greeks came to Australia in droves and since then have contributed greatly to make Australia what it is today.
NUGAS Victoria president Denise Serdenes and NUGAS alumni Dean Kotsianis share their thoughts on how Greek immigration enriched Australian society and how we can continue to contribute in positive way.
Throughout my life, I have used the label of ‘Greek-Australian’ to describe my identity without a second thought. Whenever asked what my cultural and ethnic background is, I answer ‘Greek’ without hesitation… “Yes, one parent was born in Australia. Yes, I’m Greek-Australian”. It was learned that this was the correct way to identify myself as a granddaughter of Greek migrants to Australia. However, in the later years of high school and throughout university I began to think more deeply about these categories which I use to identify myself, and investigate more critically what it means to call myself a ‘Greek-Australian’; what it means to be a person with Greek heritage in Australia.
I am sure that many have faced this dilemma concerning our identity: What does it mean to be Greek? What does it mean to be Australian? What does it mean to be Greek-Australian?
I feel that in being raised with Greek customs, foods, dances, language, it has been difficult to fully relate to Australian culture – and I still can’t definitively say what it entails. Maybe that is because in a sense it has been influenced by Greek culture, as well as many other cultures? After all, Australia is multicultural. Isn’t it?
When in recent years I began to learn the real history of Australia and about the settler colonial context in which we live and benefit from, the ways in which I thought about my cultural and ethnic identity began to change.
There is no doubt that the contributions of Greek migrants have helped shape Australia in many ways: Greek migration has contributed to the Australian economy, as well as enriched Australia’s cultural landscape in indescribable ways. It is widely said and acknowledged that Greeks have offered much to Western society, whether it be history, language, democracy, or culture – this is never left undiscussed.
However, I strongly believe that in order to obtain a fully nuanced picture of the ways in which we have contributed to Australian society and how we can continue to contribute in positive and productive ways, we need to investigate more deeply the intersections between Greek contributions to Western society and our relationship with and impact on First Nations peoples and communities, particularly in Australia.
Once we begin to also unpack the complexities of this as a community, we can become closer to understanding our contributions in more productive ways that will also ensure the continuity of our heritage into the future.
Migration as a physical exercise is impressive, yet migration as a social experiment is totally uncertain. How did we make it in a foreign host nation? Did we know we would make it? How long before Australia would truly become home for Greeks? For me, the fact that our great culture and community continue to influence the undercurrent of the broader Australian narrative signals success.
Our vibrant community receives and engages its members meaningfully and this will prove crucial to our adaptability and longevity. Our evolving story sets precedent for coevolving ethnic communities and plays an important role in the broader conversation of multicultural Australia.
Food as a gateway always works well for migrant communities: cheaper meals, funky ingredients, less emphasis on the decorum and more on the authenticity. The quickest way to someone’s heart is through their stomach after all.
In truth however, I think our greatest Greek contribution to Melbourne and Australia more broadly can be found in the hidden corners of our urban landscape. I call it Hidden Hellenism, and these things are the decaying buildings, Greek-signages and suburban artefacts that tell tales of a not so distant past. They are dotted around Melbourne, for successive generations to discover and enjoy. Greek migration gave us these tired and worn symbols of its history that need a bit of love and deserve their story to be told.
For this I am particularly proud to be Greek-Australian, more so than I am to have purely Greek heritage. Underneath Melbourne’s crust exists a sedimentary layer of blue and white that has embedded within our unique story, our unique social experiment. This can never be removed and for me, means everything!