The Greeks of Australia who are going back home

The experience of three Greek women who moved to Australia - and then decided to go back 'home'

It would not be an exaggeration to say that, in the last fifteen years, Greece has experienced the largest wave of emigration in its history since the 1950s.

There were many who, as children of former migrants, followed in their parents’ footsteps, either out of necessity or for the adventure.

Australia attracted many migrants and so, very soon, the wave of newcomers grew steadily – comparable to that of the arrival of the first-generation migrants many years ago.

Most of them, like the older ones, travelled to the other side of the world with a suitcase full of dreams and expectations. No one knew what they would find in their new homeland or what their new life would look like. But the bar was set high, as the life they left behind, though difficult, was still a good one.

Some adapted easily. For others it was harder. Some came to stay, others had a timeframe in mind, whilst others came searching.

There were also those whose chapter of life in Australia ended when the pandemic struck.

Lockdowns and the travel ban seems to have played a crucial role in their decision to return back to Greece.

Neos Kosmos reached out and spoke to some of them. Below are the stories of three Greek women: what their experiences were like migrating to Australia, and why they decided to return to Greece again – permanently, or maybe just for the time being.

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Katerina Miliou came to Australia with her husband John in 2012.

Katerina Miliou came to Australia with her husband John in 2012. In this photo with their daughter Daphne. Photo: Dimitris Mihalakis

They lived in Adelaide and Melbourne, where they welcomed their daughter, and after 7 years, decided to make their way back to Greece, arriving just a few months before the outbreak of the pandemic.

We left Greece at the start of the economic crisis. John started doing some research for work and found a job quite quickly in Adelaide. So, we got up and left.

The first day we landed in Australia, I remember was a Tuesday afternoon – and the city was dead. There was no one anywhere. I was shocked. We were coming from the bustle of Athens to this empty town, a ‘city of zombies’, as we jokingly referred to Adelaide sometimes.

John started work straight away, and within five weeks I was working too, as a counsellor.

The first thing that made an impression on me were all these “manuals”, the “terms and conditions” they had in place. They seemed excessive, incomprehensible and unnecessary to me.

Of course, now I realise their usefulness, if you compare it with Greece, where we are still trying to invent the wheel. There are no procedures in place here, in Greece. From a professional point of view, I would choose Australia. My work was creative, I was allowed to work using my own judgement, which I prefer to the chaos that prevails here.

In Australia, we felt secure, we had found our pace of life, lovely people, but we always had a sense of doubt whether this was the quality of life we really wanted.

In Australia everything is planned, you don’t find restaurants and cafes open anytime. You don’t have the liveliness and spontaneity that you have in Greece. And this liveliness is what brought us back eventually.

What I missed most of Greece was a sense of familiarity. I didn’t feel that my life in Australia really belonged to me. Most of the time I felt like a tourist.

I also missed my family, my friends, the social life, and even – a little bit – the rebelliousness of the Greeks.

When I returned permanently to Greece, the first days I cried every day unaccustomed to the ugliness, the rudeness and how dirty Athens seemed. The aggressiveness of the people was something I could not fathom. I don’t know if it got worse during the years I was away, but the people in general seemed to me more aggressive. I didn’t live through the years of the financial crisis and I did not know how they influenced society.

Those first few months were shocking to me. But then there was the language. I would order a coffee in Greek and they would respond to me in Greek, in my own language, with a familiarity that would make me tear up. I could identify with this, it all seemed somehow warmer.

I have not shut off the possibility of returning to Australia. If something changes and we want to leave, we’ll easily get up and move. We know the country and there is always a door open for us there.

Our experience in Australia has definitely enriched us. It is amazing to live in a country where there is opportunity and a feeling that you can achieve things and have prospects without necessarily having connections.

Our minds opened, meeting new people, discovering new cuisines. We were independent, alone without any other family, our child learned to speak another language.

This experience gave me the opportunity to see things under a different light. I gained a sense of autonomy and independence and the conviction that I never need to feel pushed into a corner. That I have choices. Of course, you will not find the ideal ‘package’ anywhere.

We do not regret returning to Greece. We have established a way of life, similar to the one we discovered and found that suited us when we were living in Australia.

Our daughter Daphne speaks daily about Australia and the people me met there. At her school I am impressed with her teachers and how they manage to entertain and keep the children focused in a class, remotely. The thing I enjoy most since I returned are the days spent on the beach, with our feet in the sand, the sun burning, talking to friends.

There is nothing like that anywhere in the world.

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Sofia Chaniotaki hails from Ierapetra, Crete and she arrived to Australia in 2015. She decided to return temporarily to Greece, after spending five rich and creative years in Australia.

Sofia Chaniotaki arrived to Australia in 2015. She decided to return temporarily to Greece, after spending five rich and creative years in Australia. Photo: Supplied

I lived in Melbourne from November 2015 until December 2020. My father had lived in Australia, mainly in Hobart for 15 years, until 1978.

From a young age, my sister and I would listen to our father’s stories about his life in Australia which he told us with enthusiasm and nostalgia.

However, we never had the opportunity to visit the country as a family and my father never managed to return after moving permanently back to Greece, although he really wanted to.

The idea and necessity to move to Melbourne came to me in 2013. I prepared for this step for nearly two years before I finally arrived in Melbourne in 2015.

I had various reasons to migrate but mainly I wanted to teach Greek in the schools of the Greek diaspora, and that is what happened. I worked for five consecutive years in the community schools of Melbourne, studying at the same time a postgraduate course in teaching English as a Foreign Language. I am also in my second year of postgrad research in the University of Latrobe, in the department of Languages and Linguistics, specialising in the integration of literature in the teaching of the Greek language. Therefore, my relationship with Australia is not over.

The reason I returned to Greece was because in May 2020 I lost my father due to COVID-19 and I couldn’t say goodbye to him as I would have liked, or be close to my family.

The moment I decided to return to Greece – at least for a few months- was as I was watching my father’s funeral through livestream video. It was tragic and at the same time nearly comical, this whole situation, and it definitely made me reconsider quite a few things.

I hope to be able to return to Melbourne, so I can attend my graduation ceremony. In Greece I continue to teach Greek remotely to students in Melbourne and New Zealand, whilst continuing my research.

My Australian experience was very rewarding. I had the opportunity to live in the country where my father lived and, in some way, this made me feel more connected to him.

Moreover, Melbourne is a multicultural city where I had the opportunity to meet exceptional people from around the world. As far as teaching is concerned, my experience in Melbourne was one of the most interesting teaching experiences I have had.

I feel extremely grateful to have met such interesting colleagues, and I must mention my students, who all these years have given me so much and I really thank them from my heart.

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Sotiria Nika is originally from Kyllini. She came to Australia in 2014 to study, and after six years she decided that it was time for her to return.

Sotiria Nika came to Australia in 2014 to study, and after six years she decided that it was time for her to return. Photo: Supplied

My mother was born in Melbourne, where she lived until she turned 22, so I got my Australian citizenship by descent.

I considered it a privilege, and that one day I should capitalize on it, so when I finished school in Greece, I decided to take the big step and travel to Australia for my studies.

My initial plan was to finish my degree in social work in RMIT, and return to Greece.

However I found myself living in Melbourne for six years, staying two more years to work in my field after I graduated.

I was presented with a wonderful job opportunity and I was very excited. I can honestly say that those two extra years where the best.

I worked as a social worker in the evaluation team of a non-governmental organization that supported the homeless. It was an important and morally satisfying job for me. Working for this organization was a very special experience.

During the first two years I was constantly comparing and trying to find similarities between Greece and Australia. We know how impossible that is, as they are two countries completely different, so, looking back, my attempt to find common ground was a waste of time.

I should have decided right from the start that Australia is not Greece, and seize all the opportunities that came my way.

During those first two years I was very preoccupied, with my mind constantly in Greece, wondering what my friends were doing, how my family was fairing in Greece and why we can’t have as much fun here as we do in Greece and so on. And that was something that did not help me. Instead it turned it into a melancholic and miserable place.

But I was very lucky, and I want to emphasise that, because I soon met some really great people, some wonderful friends who had been living in Australia more years that me and they were extroverted, helping me come out of my shell of misery and finally see what Australia had to offer me.

It was like a magic button that clicked, opening a new road for me.

The way I was thinking changed and I was able to see things under a new light, making the best of Australia, and I really did have a wonderful time. I missed my family, the sunshine, the wonderful weather that lifts your mood, the openness of the people, the carefree and relaxed lifestyle, the fun. You mustn’t forget that I was very young then, only 18, and these were things I wanted.

Later of course, I got used to the Australian way, and I enjoyed it too. People were polite in Australia but I never felt completely at home. I was very lucky that I was able to visit Greece several times whilst I lived in Australia

Even though during the last years, my work and life gained stability and quality, I decided to return as I felt a strong need to be in familiar surroundings, at home.

On the other hand, though, I didn’t want to give up all that I had built with so much effort, reaching a point that was really good, but weighing my thoughts I decided to return to Greece in 2021.

As for my job, I thought about it calmly, telling myself that I am still very young and with the knowledge and experience I had gained I could do many things in Greece. But what finally pushed me to leave earlier than I was planning, was my grandfather’s illness, as I had a huge weakness for him.

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COVID also struck at around the same time, closing us in and wearing us all. The combination of these two events awakened a voice in me that was telling me “Leave now!”

And I did leave relatively quickly. I made the decision end of June and by mid-August I was in Greece, despite the difficulties I encountered until it was possible to go. I was afraid that I would not make it in time to see my grandfather.

Finally, everything worked out.

These were the two reasons that made me leave permanently. By what does “permanently” mean, honestly, I do not know. Everything is relative.

I could have stayed by I didn’t have the emotional strength. The most important for me are people, and therefore I chose to be close to the people I love and I am very happy that I did.

Here in Greece, everything has gone smoothly, much better than I had anticipated, as I believed I would be unemployed for a couple of years due to the crisis. But my profession is extremely useful at this moment in the country, so everything has gone very well professionally.

I continue to work in my field which is also very positive. I started as a social worker in the refugee camps and now I am based in Lesvos where I work with women for an Italian nongovernmental organization. I have not regretted coming back.

I feel that I have gained from my experience in Australia. It shaped me as a person, it gave me an identity. I came at 18, and left at 24, a whole different person that was better, and I am so grateful for all the opportunities that were given to me. I am happy that I had the foresight to seize them. But I also did things, I did not just sit around moping. I was very active and focused on my development in the best possible way.

I would return to Australia only if I had a family and they wanted to go as well. At this moment I am single and I don’t believe there is a serious reason to return. Though I will definitely go back for a vacation to see my friends and do everything we did together whilst I was there.