I recently attended a lecture at the Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne and Victoria at their new building, located in the heart of Melbourne. I must say I was impressed with its architecture given the space where it was previously located. I congratulate current president Bill Papastergiadis and his management committee for embarking on a fiscal adventure that will hopefully lay the foundations for future generations of Australians of Hellenic origins.

I entered the lift and up we went to the mezzanine floor where the lecture was being held. I chuckled to myself as I saw posters and other advertising material displayed on the walls, one of which made me smile to myself. It was ITHEA, an organisation that was being managed by my good friend Peter Jasonides (Pontian Lion). I was pleased to see that young Peter had climbed the dizzy heights within the Australian Hellenic community and that finally he achieved the status that he had richly deserved.

I chuckled even further when the posters reminded me when Peter and I worked together for the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese Welfare organisation under the umbrella of Employment Training Connection.

Now, one would wonder what has this to do with the lecture and why the digression? In the first place, I love to take the reader on a ride when reading articles, with a little digression here and there to make it more interesting and intriguing to the palate. Secondly, the short digression enables me to introduce the presenter of the lecture, whom I had never met nor heard of in Hellenic circles and yet I was clearly demonstrating my ignorance of who is who in the Australian Hellenic zoo, so to speak.

The best introduction I can give the lecturer is to paraphrase Wikipedia, which is not always the best place to obtain information, but it’s the best under the circumstances:

“Nicholas Doumanis is an historian of Europe and the Mediterranean world. He is currently an Associate Professor of History at the University of New South Wales. He was awarded the UK Fraenkel Prize for Myth and Memory in the Mediterranean and has since published Italy, Inventing the Nation and more recently, A History of Greece, covering the span of paleolithic to contemporary Greece. His latest book is Before the Nation with Oxford University Press. Nicholas is currently editing The Oxford Handbook of Europe 1914-1945 and writing a history of the Eastern Mediterranean from the Bronze Age to the present for Wiley Blackwell in its History of the World series.

He is a member of the Australian Committee for the restitution of the Parthenon Marbles.”

Upon alighting from the lift I entered a warm, well-lit room which had been reorganised as a lecture room complete with its placement of stage, props, screen microphone and a registration table for newcomers. It was a welcome far cry from the old building, which suffered from the cold and the ravages of the outside elements. The organiser was busying himself running to and fro, ensuring that the lecture environment was set.

Once I noticed that the lecture was about to commence, I took out my mobile and began to record the lecture for future reference and to ensure that any article is based on fact rather than a figment of my imagination. Nicholas Doumanis began his presentation by stating that history of the common man, whose origins began in the village, had not been written and that history had yet to encapsulate their contributions and life stories within the fabric of Australian society. A great opening that captured my imagination and that of a captivated audience.

Many, I may add, were aged fifty plus with a sprinkling of the odd youth here and there. Nicholas went on to speak about a particular migrant who had been born in a village in the north of the Peloponnese and migrated to Australia, where he had worked hard to improve his station in life and that of his family. It was a story familiar to many of us in the audience and we wanted to hear more of what Doumanis had to say.

The life cycle of the migrant who arrived in Australia appeared to follow the same pattern as many others had done from other nations that had shed its poor and underprivileged to Australia. The characteristics were: village, trip to the port of departure (by ship), arrival in Australia, welcomed into a culture that was alien to them, worked at various jobs, saved money for a home, married, children, obtained a trade, became self-employed, educated the children, enhanced the business, relocated to a larger home with a big backyard, emulated his environment to that of the old country such as having a gardens that had vegetables, olive trees, fruit trees and grape vines.

Thus, over a 30-year period, the average migrant achieved a success that was not possible given the same period of time. They had reached the status of a middle-class family with a small business to boot and therefore became a valuable contributor to the Australian society. Those who went onto bigger and better things, such as the entrepreneurs, judges, politicians, authors, sporting greats, businessmen and women, defence force, health and medical industries, community, media, entertainment, unions, welfare, religious, training, and government departments have been recorded and their stories published. All of them having contributed to this home we call Australia.

During this struggle to reach a comfortable life the average migrant family had to take on menial jobs at the start and advance themselves by developing their skills and knowledge and therefore enhancing their status in life. This was easier said than done as it meant huge sacrifices on the part of everyone which in some cases created negative environments that were not conducive to the long term health and well being of an individual. These would manifest themselves later in life, such as mental health, gambling, personal traumas, work place stress, neglect, insecurities and a host of other life dilemmas which entailed prolonged visits to the psychiatrist and psychologist well versed in such matters.

Nicholas Doumanis also pointed out that although it was common knowledge that migrants had transformed Australia, Australian historians did not know much about the Greeks (or about the other migrants) and did not know how to express that transformation into the annals of history. Therefore he felt it was important that a history of the average migrant should be thoroughly researched, catalogued and books written to cover this important era of Australian history before it was too late.

At this point of the lecture I wanted to get up and say that he was generalising as other authors had touched upon the subject, but Doumanis covered this by stating that, yes authors a covered the migrant era but it was only about those individuals who had achieved greatness in their respective fields and nothing about the common migrant. I must say that I had to agree with him except for the author Price, who many years ago had covered this very aspect but had not gone onto write about the common Greek migrant.

It is fair to say at this point that for the past 30 years I had been quietly collecting personal stories of individuals because I too had recognised some years ago that the average Greek migrant stories had gone unwritten and would be gone forever. There were some attempts at schools where children were encouraged to write about their parents’ and grandparents’ migrant journeys but that it had come to a stop and there was no coordinated effort to gather all the stories under one umbrella. I also reminded myself of the Latrobe Dardalis archives under the tutelage of Professor Tamis that housed many thousands of records, as well as those that were compiled by Mimis Sophocleous who was located in an upper story office in Lonsdale Street.

The lecture did not stop there but went on to explain to the audience how the passage to Australia was obtained. Doumanis said there were two forms of passage, one being an assisted passage and the other where a migrant came under his own steam. In both cases however funds were exchanged in one format or another. The assisted migrant passage meant that when they arrived in Australia they had to work their passage off until it was paid.

The migrant who paid his way did so by borrowing the money and paying it back and/or selling his personal assets in Greece. Whatever the case may have been all migrants no matter their circumstances or status in life all went through the migrant camps which were former military camps, such as Watsonia, Northam, Bonegilla to name but a few.

It was a harrowing experience which was fraught with worry and stress and not understood by succeeding generations when their parents told their children “we came out to Australia for a better life in order that you can have a good education and do well in life”. I remember as a child being subjected to this time after time until it became second nature.

I would be told this at a time when I had misbehaved or had done something that was not compatible with my parents’ understanding that the world had changed and that they had to change with it in order to survive in a culture to that one was used to. One must have to take into account that many migrants had brought with them the insecurities of their previous environment, a country racked by civil war, their superstitions such as the evil eye amongst others, the food, cultural and community habits, religion and at the same time find means of sending back money to relatives in order that they too could survive.

Nicholas Doumanis ended the lecture by saying that insufficient research was being undertaken and that it was imperative that more work was done to bring to light the many migrant stories of the common man and woman into the limelight. He did however touch upon the many migrant brides that had come to Australia to marry husbands those they had never seen and that their stories on the ships of which there were a few such as the Kyrenia and the Patris in the early fifties.

At this juncture my mind went to our North American cousins, brethren, friends and families and wondered whether they taken the time or made the effort to record the common migrant stories or did they too succumb to the seductiveness of a whole new way of life and fail to record them. I thought of those in South America, South Africa and in the distant lands of Russia and hoped that someone what the courage, commitment and determination to record the Hellenic diaspora story of the ordinary man and woman.

At the conclusion of the lecture many of the audience wanted to ask questions that needed answers and Nicholas Doumanis was only too happy to answer.

I for one was most impressed and I say that honestly, as I am not one to be influenced by those who profess to be an expert on a subject only to find that they were shallow. Nicholas Doumanis was not one of those lecturers and I feel that we shall hear more of him in the future.

I approached Nicholas at the end of the lecture and gave him my card and hoped to hear from him in the future. My parting remarks were jokingly said that “I had heard that Sydney his home town was an outer suburb of Melbourne”. He smiled as we shook hands and I made my way to the lift for the homeward journey. I must say that the Melbourne-Sydney rivalry is still strong even amongst the generation of Australians.

* Peter Adamis is a journalist/commentator and writer. He is a retired Australian military serviceman and an industry organisational and occupational (OHS) and training consultant whose interests are within the parameters of the domestic and international political spectrum.