The right combination

When it comes to heritage, Greek Aboriginal Andrew Jackomos says he's got the best of both worlds

“Racism isn’t an Aboriginal problem; racism is a broader community problem; racism is a white problem that’s impossed on us

Telling tales – albeit tall tales – is the thread that runs through our Greek cultural fabric. Our make-up wouldn’t have it any other way. As we gather around the table and talk about our past to understand our future, we embellish, we laugh and we cry. Our stories are passed down from generation to generation, from life in the village of our great, great grandparents to the plight of the migrants who paved the way here for us. They are told so we don’t forget the journey they made for the life we have.
In Aboriginal culture, storytelling is also a cultural necessity. It’s one of the most famous of their cultural activities and it is an important tool that Elders in the community used to pass down stories from generation to generation. Like the Greeks, Aboriginal children were told stories from an early age, not only to understand who they are, their people, their culture and history; these stories were told so the children could understand the land. Storytelling became a way of life, and also a form of entertainment.
Imagine now for one moment that you had the skill to tell a tall tale like a Greek but the ability to tell an entertaining story with reference to the land, the air, the universe. That’s what Andrew Jackomos has – the best of both worlds. He is the right combination.
“We know how to party,” he says with a laugh as he explains what life was like for him growing up in a Greek and Aboriginal family.
“The similar ties are about enjoying life, laughing and telling stories, which is a common one in both cultures – although, I don’t know how much truth is in them,” he says with a smile in his voice.
Andrew was born and bred in Melbourne, in the northern inner city suburb of Coburg. He grew up in the ’50s; his working class suburb was filled with all races, ethnicities. His father was the late Alick Jackomos, a child of migrants from Kastellorizo. Alick – known as Uncle Alick in the Koori community – grew up in the ’20s in Carlton and found a connection with the Koori kids. To the point that, when he met his wife Merle – of the Yorta Yorta tribe – he knew more members of the Aboriginal community than she did. He was a campaigner for social justice – not just for the Koori community but for the whole community, as was his mother.
Alick Jackomos became great mates with
Banjo Clarke, who would become a revered Koori Elder, known as the Wisdom Man. They boxed together at a youth club set up in the Exhibition Gardens. He was a skilled boxer, who was part of the Jimmy Sharman Troupe. Alick went as far as becoming a genealogist for the Koori community in Victoria.
“He had a unique gift and could remember people’s faces and people would visit him – many from the Stolen Generation – and my father could look at them and tell them who their families were, as well as creating a family tree.”
In the Greek community, Alick is the most revered man for the work and life he led with the Aboriginal community. Yet, it was the social justice issues and hunger for equality that brought both sides of the family together, says Andrew.
“My earliest memory of the police force was when they evicted my family from my aunt’s place, an Aboriginal community, because we had failed to get permission from the local government manager to stay at my aunt’s place,” Andrew tells Neos Kosmos.
It was the late ’50s, the family had visited their aunt in Rumbalara, just outside of Shepparton. Late at night, his parents, his brother and sister and himself were evicted from the house and forced to sleep in the car. As a child of only 6 or 7, I asked him how he felt by this. “Nauseous” was his response.
“I was about 6 or 7, and all I could remember was the rapping on the door late at night and ordering us out of the house and made to go sleep in the car overnight until we could ask for permission in the morning,” he says, adding, “I thought ‘there is something wrong here, why can my white friends go stay at their aunt’s and I can’t stay at mine purely on the basis of race?'”
“That is probably the kindling that lit the fire that led to where I am today, fighting for improved outcomes for Aboriginal children and young people.”
For the past 14 years, as a senior public servant in the Justice Department, Jackomos has been responsible for overseeing a revolution in the way Kooris and the legal system have interacted. He says it’s his gift of bringing people together that has led to his appointment as Commissioner for Aboriginal Children and Young People – the first appointment of this kind not only in Victoria, but in Australia.
The work began in 1991, when a report on the Royal Commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody found that Aboriginal people were over represented in the criminal justice system not because they are more criminogenic than others in Australian society but because of the high levels of disadvantage and disconnection.
“While Aboriginal people are over represented as offenders,” he says, “they are under represented as victims, and accessing victim’s rights and Aboriginal communities nation wide have been alienated from the justice system.”
His work has led him to build a greater role and participation for the Koori community in the Victorian justice system, by ensuring they have more Aboriginal lawyers, more Aboriginal people as policy officers and policy makers, more Elders in the Koori courts – all playing a positive role.
“It’s not just having Aboriginal people as corrections officers, but having people in policy positions and executive positions throughout the justice systems,” he says.
He tells the story of an Elder in Shepparton – a Koori woman who, all her life, would cross the road when passing the courthouse or police station. That disconnect and negative feeling towards the justice system was so inherent in her she couldn’t even bring herself to walk the same streets as those involved in the legal process. Now she’s a Koori Court Elder.
“She goes into the courthouse and makes herself a cup of tea, and makes herself at home, so not only has it built positive participation with the Koori community and justice system, it’s also helped rebuild and reinforce the role of Elders in the Aboriginal community.”
But now his role is to give a voice to the most vulnerable members of the community – the children and young people of Aboriginal descent.
“The great majority of Aboriginal children and young people live in very strong families and families that have strong culture and society but unfortunately we do have an over-representation of young kids that are vulnerable.
“There is a high level of family violence in our community and my role is to provide them with a voice within government and a great focus.”
As part of his role, he is there to hold government services and government funded services that deliver programs to the vulnerable Aboriginal children accountable – whether that be in education, health, the police or child protection.
“Racism isn’t an Aboriginal problem; racism is a broader community problem, racism is a white problem that’s imposed on us, and there’s a significant part of addressing racism, whether it’s at school or the broader community, and there is still a lot to do.”
And step by step – with the combination of his Greek heritage and Aboriginal descent – Andrew Jackomos is a man, a generous and loving man, on a mission. The pressure is on as the first of his kind in this role, but if anyone can do it, and succeed, it’s a man with a strong sense of social justice, and a man with an even wider smile.