Elfa Moraitakis has been the CEO of SydWest Multicultural Services for the past six years. She is responsible for the SydWest four centres at Blacktown, Mt Druitt, Penrith and Rouse Hill. She oversees the work of 200 organisations members who provide a range of services to the many culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) communities in western Sydney.
In the Blacktown area, where the organisation’s headquarters are based, 182 languages are spoken, Ms Moraitakis told Neos Kosmos. the organisation strives to provide culturally-appropriate settlement services to help people establish roots in Australia.
“The nomination is very humbling for me. I feel we are in the sector to do the best we can – it is not about accolades,” said Ms Moraitakis. “The nomination will help publicise our cause.”
“Many come in on humanitarian visas and may are isolated from support services that are available to them. Not everyone has a smartphone and can set up their MyGov account.
She said that funding was often available to look after new migrants on humanitarian visas for their first five years of settlement and had no access to services after that.
She said that volunteers and students helped to support the ongoing work of her staff to help the communities where the funding would not go.
Assumptions were often made that many migrant children in Sydney’s western suburbs had access to computers and the space in their homes to study and this was not the case.
“My own background as the child of Greek migrants helps as I know how it feels: I have a lived experience, I see it, live it and I understand the gaps in services, health and communication.
“Cultural awareness is not ‘one size fits all’. We know that what will resonate with a Greek will not work with the Chinese community,” said Ms Moraitakis who added that the COVID pandemic had exacerbated the need for better communication with the multicultural communities.
“When COVID hit, we were the ones who brought in all the community leaders to pass on health information to their communities. It was the most appropriate and logical thing to do. We were not funded to do it but it was done as part of our social responsibility (to the communities).”
She said the traditional divide between East and West Sydney, which was already wide, would grow even greater in the wake of the pandemic. This included a widening gap in services, education and mental health.
“There is an eerie silence about domestic violence and we know that the incidents will spike after COVID.”
The pandemic had imposed a great strain on the way the organisation carried out its work.
“Most of our staff have a lived experience as migrants or refugees themselves. The COVID situation has brought on fatigue and for many (of the staff) their individual traumas have resurfaced. When you assist others, you have to be careful to not take on the trauma of the people you are helping. But in this situation, you also live with your own fears and concerns.”
To counter this, Ms Moraitakis said she had put in place programmes that supported the staff as they worked from home. This included stress management programmes on Zoom including fitness and yoga classes.
“I drop into the smaller (Zoom) team meetings and have a laugh let them say what they feel.
The pandemic and the various lockdowns – Sydney is in the 12th week of its current lockdown – have forced new ways of working and reaching out to people that was more reliant on online services and for those who were not technological savvy, through the telephone.
“Our staff worked hard to bring people online. For the rest, we maintain contact by telephone and make sure that they know we are there for them.
“Some of the people who have come online and see each other (on screen), will say how much they miss each other,” said Ms Moraitakis.
She said more established migrant communities, such as the Greek community could reach out and offer help and support.
“There are individuals who are helping others but Greek community leaders could reach out to the leaders of other communities and ask what they needed. For example, they could donate laptops to help students with their studies.”
She said employers needed to get over the misconception that other migrants and refugees were not good employees as those who came to Australia wanted to work and to make their contribution.
“So, coming out of COVID, we will need a very good assessment of how the situation went and to set up a recovery framework for multicultural organisations to work closely with the communities. We have been ignored and this ought to change.”
Ms Moraitakis retains a strong link with the Greek community of Sydney. Her early years she spent in Sydney but when the family returned to Greece in 1973, she completed her schooling in Chania. She returned to Sydney in 1984 and embarked on a sociology degree at the University of New South Wales and enrolled for Modern Greek studies at the University of Sydney.
She joined the Greek Herald becoming the first Greek woman journalist in the “ethnic” media of the day. She went on to join a localGreek community radio station.
She is married to former SBS journalist Vasilis “Bill” Gonopoulos 21years ago. Mr Gonopoulos’ children and grandchildren still live in Melbourne and between them, they have four children and nine grandchildren.
The couple established the Aristotelis Greek Language Education School in Sydney and are both passionate about the teaching of Greek.
“We have very strong connections with the Greek community and it defines who we are,” said Ms Moraitakis.
♦ Over the coming days, Neos Kosmos will interview the other two Greek-Australian finalists for the Third Sector Awards 2021: Ben Vasiliou CEO of Youth Projects in Melbourne who is also a finalist in the CEO of the Year category; and Kathy Karatasas, the CEO of the Multicultural Child and Family Program, a finalist in the “Influencer of the Year” category. Public voting for the nominees closes on October 1. The winners for each category will be selected by a panel of judges drawn from the sector and will be announced on 4 November.