I met Mrs. Varvara Athanasiou-Ioannou from common acquaintances in August 2019 walking by our lake. She told me then, that she admired my book “Those who became one with the earth”, and she wished she had done it!
And she did! An oral history book about the personal and professional lives of 40 women living in Australia. Thirty are Greek Australian women and ten from other ethnicities. And it will be one of the actions to celebrate the 20 years of her social/community contribution through the establishment, in 2001, of the non-profit organisation Food for Thought Network, an inclusive Greek Australian Women’s Network aimed at the development and networking of Greek women and their non Greek friends. An action for which she has been honoured by the state of Victoria.
From Prodromi, Thesprotia, immigrant to Melbourne, Australia since 1972. She studied pedagogy and HR management. She began her career at the Ministry of Education of the State of Victoria, initially as a publications officer, teacher and author of a Curriculum for teaching the Greek language in State primary schools. (The curriculum consisted of 9 teachers books and more than 60 illustrated books for students based on the experiences of children living in Australia) and then as a Curriculum Consultant, responsible for promoting languages Other than English and multiculturalism in state public schools.
At the age of 40, after a successful career in education, she is in the private sector, where she holds HR management positions in three major Melbourne companies dedicated to recruitment, training, development and wellbeing of employees. At the same time, since 1999 she continues her educational work as a sessional lecturer at the University of Swinburne with a focus on the exploitation of diversity in organisations, and since 2013 she specialises in online learning and teaching.
The advent of the coronavirus, in the winter of 2020, pushed Varvara to transfer part of the action of the Food for Thought to an online interactive global platform, GREEK AUSTRALIAN WOMEN AND FRIENDS AROUND THE WORLD through which more than 1,000 Greek women from the Diaspora, without geographical restrictions, connect and share knowledge on a daily basis. In 2020, she organised 32 zoom seminars, which were attended by women from all over the world.
A lady with a happy disposition, dynamic, with interests and action. But what distinguishes her -apart from her thirst for learning- is the love for the homeland, the love for Epirus. She leaves and returns every summer. In recent years she has been living here for four to five months.
And before I even started asking her my first question, in our online live meeting, she caught up with me.
“Have you ever thought, Mrs. Georgia, that, 13 years after the publication of your book, another “Epirotissa” in another country would be inspired and follow the methodology of oral history , this time to give a voice to the daughters and granddaughters of women who many years ago took the road to migrate in faraway Australia? Who live and work here overcoming difficulties of racism, patriarchy, sexism, and work hard in all areas of this country? It is my great honor that you inspired me…”
And I; What should I say to her; That I am doubly happy! For the acquaintance and for her creation, the book, which I inspired her!
I WANTED THEM TO TELL ME THEIR LIFE LIKE A FAIRY TALE
What exactly does your book contain and when will it be released?
It will be released soon I hope, first in English and then I hope in Greek. I really wanted this book to be published when our organisation would be 20 years old. And here it becomes a reality!
I really liked the authenticity of the spoken word in your book, which for me you have done a great job. I also wanted women to tell me their lives like a fairy tale. But I also wanted to ask them questions, if they were born here, what they studied, how they grew up in the family, if they experienced racism, what are the difficulties of their life as immigrants and so much more!
Thirty Greek women and ten from different ethnicities. Successful women, of all professions, many with prominent positions in our society. Divorced women, women who chose to raise their children alone, gay women, women who have suffered racism, violence in body and soul, women who have been oppressed by their parents.
Through the lens of diversity I tried to show the whole spectrum, as much as possible as it can be contained in a book, of the society we live in.
How easily did they open their souls?
It was very easy to create such a nice atmosphere! And they opened their hearts to me. They told me things they did not tell anyone. I felt so good that they opened their homes and their hearts to me!
Many women, afterwards, asked me not to put some things in the book, or others not to be included in the book at all, because their parents are still alive or some people who played an unpleasant role in their lives. I respected it.
Besides, a second volume will follow, there are so many who want to talk!
And on the other hand, this book disturbs the uncharted waters a bit, showing women who come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds who overcame all the difficulties, and each succeeded in their field.
I WANTED TO BRIDGE THE GAP..
What exactly is the Food for Thought Greek Australian Women’s Network in Australia?
It is a non-profit organisation, we are all volunteers. When I started it, there was no similar organisation that deals with the Greek immigrant women. And when I started asking, the younger educated women, if they belong to an organisation, club, etc., they answered no, and that they considered very old the clubs that their parents had built when they came from Greece. We are talking about the local and cultural associations, which still exist and are engaged in banquets, dances, anniversary events and everything else that brings them closer to home. All these have their interest and place, but they take away the young girls who were born in Australia and do not have experiences from their homeland, they consider them all somewhat outdated, and some of them 20 years ago did not even want to be called Greek! No one in the Greek community systematically dealt with issues concerning the modern woman, the Greek woman of the second and third generation who lives in a multicultural society, with the result that educated, mainly, women, as I mentioned above, did not get involved with those existing organisations.
I also wanted to help, to empower these Greek women to gain self-confidence for what they are, and to sensitise the community to recognise what prevents them from advancing in all aspects of life, in education, in the economy, in administration, in politics, but also to raise issues that help them move forward. I also wanted to bridge the gap that existed in the Greek community in the first, second and third generation.
And we see with great joy, after so many years, every immigrant woman to be proud of her origin, not to consider herself a second-class citizen, to participate in society, to be educated, to be successful in what she does.
Which ones participate, do you also accept men?
They are women from all walks of life and professions, of all ages. And from the beginning our network welcomed women of all nationalities and men. We cannot bring change in society, when only men hold the key positions. If they do not become aware that women also deserve these positions, we will have a hard time.
THIS IS MY THIRD CHILD!
Did you find it very difficult to set up this organisation?
Of course it was very difficult, because any new innovation is not easy to accept! But after a year of research, perseverance, love and devotion, no one – after 20 years of hard passionate volunteering – can question its actual presence and contribution.
For me it is my third child and I am very proud of my social action and contribution.
What are the themes of the events?
They are related to personal development, leadership, family, interpersonal relationships, health and wellness, always within the philosophy of multiculturalism., in a culturally inclusive way.
Can you give us examples?
Yes! The importance of networking and connection. Mothers and daughters. What happens to our girls. What things men do not talk about. Women in politics. Golden age for women, myth or reality. Whether women of non-Anglo-Saxon descent are equally represented in positions of power. Financial crisis and modern women. The importance of the mentor, and much more.
More than 130 events have been organised, a philosophy café for two years, as well as film screenings to raise money for financial support for young women. Our conversation takes place between food and drinks, like the ancient Greeks at banquets… Now all of that happens online.
Who speaks at these events?
I consider myself privileged because of my profession; I come into contact with the best speakers and scientists in Australia. And when I tell them what I do and what I do for my soul, they are very happy to present their studies and knowledge to our organisation for free. So our organisation has gained a very good name and is constantly attracting new people.
FOR A MEANINGFUL DIALOGUE….
Why is this year so important to you? And how do you celebrate it?
This year we celebrate the 20th anniversary of the founding of our organisation, and the 200th anniversary of the Greek Revolution, and we are planning a series of events entitled ‘Her story! Her missing voice’, which aims to promote Greek Australian women of all generations, in line with the Greek women who have contributed to humanity over the last two centuries, thus combining forces with our global community. The synchronisation of the 200th anniversary of the beginning of the Revolution with the 20th anniversary of the founding of the organisation gives us the impetus for a meaningful dialogue on the role and contribution of women in the Revolutionary struggle, of Epirus on the Albanian front, in the Civil War and in the daily struggles of the Greek immigrant.
IF I LIVED IN GREECE, THEY WOULD EAT ME…LIKE A CABBAGE (ALIVE)
How did you choose the path of migration?
I came to Australia as soon as I graduated from high school. I stayed in Greece to sit the PanHellenic exams while my parents had left two years earlier. But I wanted to go to my parents. And I left. If I lived in Greece, as I thought about it later, they would eat me alive with the character I have! I think in Greece you are not given so many opportunities to move forward. I also had many opportunities here, and I think I went a long way!
I did not go to university right away. For two years I worked to help the family, because my mother got sick and at the same time I learned English.
Then I studied pedagogy and HR management. Immediately after graduation, because I spoke two languages, I became responsible for two magazines for teachers who taught English as a second language.
Then I had the good fortune to join a writing team of six at the Victoria State Department of Education for three years, where we wrote a Curriculum for primary school teachers and illustrated books for teaching Greek and Non Greek children in public schools. These 60 illustrated books have been translated into 16 languages. The curriculum was ahead of its time and 40 years later they are still used in schools. The books, which came from Greece, were difficult for the Greek children here. Because the subjects were outside their experiences, from the place where they lived and the different culture, and it was very difficult the language as it was written.
Then I participated in the implementation of this curriculum in schools. The children came to class without knowing any English. They started with Greek and gradually in English. Then I became a school Curriculum Consultant first for Greek language teaching and then for all languages other than English (LOTE) Then I came for a year with a scholarship to the University of Ioannina and started my research for the Regional Training Centers, operating at the time in Greece.
When I returned to Australia, I had a career change. After 15 years in the public sector, I worked another 15 in the private sector and at the same time 20 years as a lecturer at the university, I will soon stop!
I CONSIDER MYSELF VERY PRIVILEGED!
Would you like to return to Greece?
There are several immigrants here who are unhappy and want to return.
I consider myself very privileged. Privileged because I have two languages, two homelands and two cultures! I feel very nice when I am in Australia and very nice when I am in Greece! In recent years we have managed to share time between Melbourne and Epirus!
For my husband it was a life dream to live in Greece, his body was here and his soul was in Athens. It was one of the biggest problems I had to overcome!
When he fell ill with cancer, and went to the hospital and saw how the health system is here, the care, the behavior of the staff, he changed. We decided and agreed to share the time in the two countries. We are both cancer survivors. We are lucky. We are very well now.
I consider both countries a Promised Land!
When my father first came back to Greece and after we lost our mum in Greece, and we went to see him, he said to me: “Oh, my child, what did I do when I took you to Australia! Look here in the village, those who did not even have underwear to wear have become rich , made, houses, apartment buildings, cars, money… ”
“But, Dad,” I told him, “you gave us the best gift by taking us to Australia!” We are not rich in material goods, we are rich in things that are not measured by ordinary scales, and we thank you very much! “
We, Georgia, have invested in education and knowledge, in experiences, in travel and in our children. To our two children who are interested in Greece, who come with their children and want their children to acquire something from the Greek culture and civilisation…
*Georgia Skopouli’s interview with Varvara Athanasiou-Ioannou first appeared in Greek on the newspaper ‘Ipirotikos Agon’ (Ηπειρωτικός Αγών)
**More information about food for Thought Network can be found here.www.fftn.org.au