Koulla Roussos from the Northern Territory is a Criminal Law Barrister who coordinated a landmark Stolen Generations case in the mid-90s and a curator punishing herself by completing a Masters in Curatorship.
Koulla is “born and bred in Larrakia Country” her parents are from the Island of Kalymnos, in the Dodecanese. “My father, who is recently deceased, came to Darwin in 1956 and my mother came with her family in 1963, they met and fell in love.”
Over eight percent of Darwin is Greek and most are from the one island, Kalymnos. “There’s always this sense that Melbourne is the epicentre of Greekness, and yet in real terms Darwin has a significant Greek population… 10% of the population here is Greek, or of Greek descent. “We have strong connections to a wider sense of family here, but also family back on the island.”
Koulla says that Greeks were “critical in Australia’s history of pearling in northern Australia”. Families like the famous Paspaley and the Kailis families of Western Australia “sponsored Greek sponge divers due to the politics of World War II”.
“They hired Kalymnians because they could not hire Japanese, due to the politics of World War II… just as the Kalymnians took on diving the price of the pearl shell declined because of the invention of plastic for buttons.”
Australia’s migration is a palimpsest, as waves of migrants from different eras and born of different politics lay foundations here.
“Kalymnians being a very resilient mob decided to come out of the water to concrete Darwin in the building trade…you know concrete and Greeks,” she laughs.
Many post-war Greek migrants, the pioneering generation, are dying. Koulla like many others of our generation lost a parent recently, her father. “I like to call it our own heroic age” Koulla says of her father’s generation.
She talks of a “modern nation” of Greeks finding themselves here and of “their toil and sacrifices…to embark in a new world without language, with different cultural mores, and to do so well speaks highly of their valour and their values.”
The post-war generation’s resilience “will be missed” says Koulla. They saw so much of the horror of war, an occupation by Nazis, then a bloody Civil War and they suffered poverty, hunger, cruelty and deprivation. As migrants they worked hard, faced racism, and yet were glad to be alive and to aspire.
Now and then they’d have an ouzo to accompany the squid used only for bait by Australians at that time. Koulla has substantial reserves of virtue herself. She acted as a solicitor and coordinator in one of Australia’s largest test cases and politically significant litigations, Cubillo & Gunner v. The Commonwealth – the Stolen Generation case.
Koulla was young at the time and had come back from a long overseas holiday to resume her practise with the Aboriginal Legal Service in Juvenile Justice. The members of the Stolen Generation had heard of her and invited her to apply for the position of coordinator, “which involved coordinating the claims of just over 2000 people.”
Jack Rush QC (former Victorian Supreme Court Judge) was the leading counsel assisted by Mark Dreyfuss, who is now the Commonwealth’s Shadow Attorney General and Melinda Richards QC.
“I coordinated witnesses such as Indigenous women from the remote Utopia regions who could remember their children being taken away… and other remote Indigenous witnesses…and experts in the field of anthropology, history and sociology”, Koulla lays out the complexities of the work involved.
She knew of her people’s histories, the Greek and Hellenistic worlds, but not about the history of the land she was born in and lived on.
“I grew up with Indigenous people… neighbours and close friends, but I didn’t understand as an adult.. the dark history, the secret history this country, of children being forcibly removed from their families, for no other reason other than the colour of their skin.”
Koulla found it unacceptable to have Indigenous friends, colleagues and neighbours who endured that trauma and not work to make it right. The barrister highlights the “interconnections between Indigenous and Greek culture… the sense of family and obligation and the sense of shame” which make Indigenous Australian and Greek cultures intersect and align. The criminal lawyer is near completion of a Master’s program in Curatorship, at the University of Melbourne, which due to Covid-19 she’s deferred.
The weightiness of criminal law is not enough for this polymath. “I’ve had a big love for the arts ever since I was a teenager” and adds that art “helps me do my job as a criminal lawyer better.”
At the moment the advocate and arts curator is enjoying her time back in Darwin and her focus is on expanding her criminal practise. Her work in justice, advocacy and the arts no doubt make Koulla Roussos one of the more formidable minds in Northern Territory and Australia as a whole.
The Cave Podcast series is presented by Neos Kosmos and hosted by Fotis Kapetopoulos. This episode was produced by Ben Cardwell.