On September 7, 2023, Dr Spiro Moraitis passed away.
Dr Moraitis, (27/1/1933-1933- 7/9/2023) was a tireless worker for addressing the multiple migrant problems and a driving personality behind the establishment of the Australian Greek Welfare Society – “Pronia”(AGWS), in the early 1970s. He was born in Athens in 1933, the first child of Anastasia and Haralambos Moraitis. He came to Melbourne with his parents in 1939, after having spent two years in Ethiopia. He studied medicine at the University of Melbourne and worked for more than five decades as a General Practitioner in Melbourne after the late 1950s.
As a General Practitioner he became acutely aware of the many health, social, psychological, work and overwork problems faced by the migrants and developed the idea of creating a Welfare Association to effectively address these problems. In implementing this aim Dr Moraitis was instrumental in the establishment of the Australian Greek Welfare Society (AGWS) in 1972 and its subsequent development. He has served on The Greek Orthodox Community Council (GOCM&V) and was its Vice President for the period 1972 – 1974.
Dr Moraitis has contributed several articles, relevant to migrant issues to medical journals. In an interview to me in 2005, (published in Neos Kosmos, English edition, on Monday 12 September, 2005, pages 10-11), he gave an insight of the issues faced by the general Greek community, the problems of migrants, the GOCM&V in the period he was its Vice President and the difficulties of setting up the AGWS.
He spoke first about his childhood and youth years. He was six when his family arrived in Melbourne in 1939 after having spent two years in Ethiopia. He was born in Athens as did his father and paternal grandfather. His mother was born in Russia, but her family came from Castelorizo. Spiro remembered his Ethiopian years. His father was an electrician and worked with the Ethiopian Railways. They came to Melbourne because Spiro’s maternal grandfather was in Melbourne since 1928 and emphasised to his father that there were better opportunities in Australia. Spiro did not attend the Community’ s after hours school. His parents provided him with a teacher, Mrs Piakoulaki, giving him Greek lessons at home.
During his early student years, he did not participate in many Greek activities. Later, at the university he joined the Olympic club, an organisation of young Greek students studying at the University of Melbourne. For some years he used to play Australian rules football for the Olympic club. His studies did not leave much free time to him for many other activities. The Greek community, even in his teenage years was his family.
The forming of the Australian Greek Welfare Society (AGWS)
Spiro and concerned people were aware there was an urgent need for the formation of a welfare body to address the many migrant problems. They went to see the bishop Aristarchos in Melbourne. He understood what they were talking about and for a year they tried to form a welfare organisation within the Church. After 12 months, that would be about 1971, the Archbishop Ezekiel said “No”. He said they were a bunch of communists and should be ignored.
Archbishop Ezekiel didn’t want the Church to have anything to do with this group of people. Probably he did not understand the purpose of a welfare organisation not run directly by the Church. Bishop Aristarchos told them he could no longer help them because the Archbishop did not want anything to do with them. When the Archbishop decided to stop cooperation, the group with the help of Margaret Moraitis, organised a meeting of 50-70 people at their house to discuss the establishment of a welfare organisation. About 50 people turned up including bishop Aristarchos. At that meeting Peter Polites brought his brother Nick Polites who had retired as a businessman and wanted to involve himself in community affairs. He became part of the organisation. Margaret Moraitis made a tremendous effort sending out invitations and encouraging people to attend.
There were three main people in the organising group at that time. Margaret who did all the administrative work, George Papadopoulos who brought the intellectual/ academic side of it and Spiro. They saw that the Greek community needed a welfare organisation. The question was how the organisation was going to get government funding. The advice was that the Church could not get funding because of its brawl with the Community and the Community could not get it because of its brawl with the Church. An independent organisation could get it. So, they formed the Greek Professionals Association and then a sub-committee of that was the Greek Welfare Association which eventually became the Australian Greek Welfare Society. The Secretary at the time was Margaret Moraitis. Others included George Papadopoulos, Nick Polites, Tony Toumpourou, Sam Papasavvas, Eugenia Mitrakas, Savas Augoustakis.
They encountered difficulties in setting up the Society. Neither the Church, nor the Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne and Victoria understood the purpose of it. The Community wanted to start something of its own but did not know how to go about it. They were saying “we have the priests; they are our own social workers.” The Welfare group were saying “we need professionals.”
So, the Church was not available, nor the Community. The Cypriot Community, then at Waratah Place, Melbourne, gave them some space and they opened there a small office. Some friends invited some members of the welfare organisation to become members of the Greek Community. Spiro’s uncle Constantinos Koutoupes was at the time, in 1968, the Vice President of the Community, so quite a few members of the welfare organisation joined the Community, because politically you need a strong organisation. Spiro became involved with the Greek Orthodox Community in the election of 1972 when people came and asked to do something in the Community with people who knew what they were talking about. By then his uncle, Constantinos Koutoupes, had died.
At the election of 1972 the opposition to Elefantis ticket won the election and all 19 seats in the Community Council. Andeas Skrinis was elected President and Spiro was elected Vice President. The AGWS’ office was brought from the Cypriot Community to the Greek Community’s building in 168 Lonsdale Street.
Things, however, did not change much. Some people on the Council knew what the welfare members were talking about, but the majority did not. The President Skrinis seemed to understand but he was too much involved with politics. Some others had their own agendas and setting up a professional welfare organisation was not part of it. For example, the purchase of 40 acres of prime land property by the river in Lower Plenty at a cost of $38,000 at the time was rejected by the Committee although it was planned to be utilised for Community projects for Youth and the elderly. The land was bought subsequently by the Ivanhoe Grammar Boys’ School.
The Welfare group had their own agenda which included setting up elderly citizens clubs, setting up nursing homes, setting up a welfare organisation, setting up a lobby group to lobby governments. You need a strong lobby group to lobby the government for the rights of migrants.
The AGWS was first housed in the Cypriot Community and after 1972 in the GOCM&V. It was not fully developed, then, and they thought if the Community took up the policies, they might not need a separate organisation. But seeing that the majority on the Committee did not understand the need for professionals to lobby the Government for the rights of migrants, they maintained from then on, the Welfare Society as an independent body. Margaret and Spiro in his practice were seeing the migrant problems and needs constantly. They saw the poverty of migrants, their hard work, and its consequences and that their children consequently also suffered. AGWS was modelled on the Italian (COA-SIT) and Jewish Welfare Organisations.
Issues and problems of the Greek Community at the time
In 1972-74 when Dr Moraitis was on the Committee, he saw the following major needs: Number one, it needed a strong lobby group, number two, it needed a professional organisation to provide for the needs of migrants in their own language, number three, it needed to develop elderly citizens clubs because by then the Greek community was becoming an elderly community. Number four, the Greek Community needed old age homes and nursing homes. Number five, the Community needed to provide for the cultural side of things.
The Community provided the Greek School but in Spiro’s opinion not in the professional manner needed. The Community schools of 1972 were not much different to its schools of 1959. Not only the schools but also the teachers and their attitudes. In actual fact the Greek School set up in the forties by kyria Vrachna, Stathis Raftopoulos and Nina Black was far superior to any Greek schools set up in the late 1950s, sixties and early seventies in the early days of mass migration. The school of the forties was bilingual, not monolingual as occurred with the schools of mass migration.
Dr Moraitis left the GOCM&V in 1974, he only stayed there for two years. He was dissatisfied with the level of understanding of the real problems. In his opinion, the Community needed to become mainstream, so they could lobby governments. In the Welfare Society those issues were discussed a lot, that’s why they opted to take the name “Australian Greek Welfare Society”. The name was adopted after a lot of thought and discussion. It was about Australians of Greek background.
The biggest failure of the Greek Community, at the time, in Spiro’s opinion, was the lack of unity. His friend, the teacher Costas Yiamiadakis was working very hard to get everyone not to agree with each other but to get some form of unity towards the Government. In the Committee of the Greek Community there were 19 people. There wasn’t much unity, they agreed to disagree. Some did not understand the issues. They would say “We don’t need aged people’s homes because the Greeks look after their own aged persons.” But he could see at his practice that this wasn’t the case. Part of their program was to build aged people’s homes. The Greek Orthodox Community had some land in Gore Street, Fitzroy which could be ideal for this purpose. He suggested it but he did not get much support.
Another problem was that the Community organisation was too political and lacked unity. At that time, it was anathema to be a supporter of liberals. It was great to be a supporter of Labor. But you need to use both. There was a Labor Government in Canberra but a Liberal Government in Melbourne. Later the order was reversed. You had to be independent. Not to put all your eggs in one basket. They were trying instrumentally to change the attitude. That you don’t worry about Liberal, Labor, National or whatever. You don’t take sides when you speak for community issues. You worry about the “Paroikia”, about issues and you stick to issues.
Another problem was that the AGWS as a lobby group at the time, could not get tax deductibility for its donations – as it wasn’t considered a philanthropic organisation. That was the reason that they created the “Australian Greek Society for the Care of the Elderly -Frondida”, as a separate body, in order to get tax deductibility for donations. In some ways this was a pity because it doesn’t show unity to the Government. The Government tends to play one against the other.
Were there satisfaction and disappointments during his participation in the administration of the GOCM&V?
A disappointment was the lack of unity and the lack of understanding in general, because there were some very good people on the Committee. They were supportive but most of them did not understand the issues. It was satisfactory to have the opportunity to come to know what the Community was about and how politics and the committee work. From that point of view, I learned a lot.
How could the efficiency of the GOCM&V have improved?
Firstly, to reduce the number of the people on the Committee, 19 people are too many. Probably between seven and nine persons are sufficient to run the Executive efficiently. You have large football associations of 30,000 members which elect committees of seven to nine persons. Politically, it might not be feasible in the Greek Community to have a small Committee answerable to a General Meeting.
How did he see the future of the Greek community in Australia?
Greek Australians must become mainstream as it happened in America. In the future there will be drastic changes. One must look at the number of marriages inside and outside the community. In time, except for a small core, there will be assimilation. I am not saying immediately but in the future. We have now in Melbourne about 35 churches. Do you think that we are going to have that number in 50 years’ time? I don’t think so. Unless there is address to changes. Changes emanating from inside and outside the Church. Think of the English language, for example, it has become the lingua franca throughout the world, and yet it is still difficult to have the liturgy in English.
How does he remember a number of people involved in the Greek community during his active involvement with it?
I remember fondly Costas Yiamiadakis for his hard work, for his teaching, for his commitment to the Greek Orthodox Community and his commitment to the Greek community at large.
Dimitis Elefantis was the previous president of the GOCM&V. He was out when we were in. I think he was no better or worse than our committee of 19. He served the Community well in his time, concentrating more on the churches and schools.
Andreas Skrinis was an educated person, he meant well again. I felt that he was more interested in the politics of the Community.
Christos Doufas had an impression on me. He was an excellent person. He was very logical, he had a lot of common sense and humour, and he understood politics. The funniest thing he said was that all the 19 of us should take a boat to the middle of the bay and pull the plague out. He could combine politics with common sense. He had a great influence on me.
Another person who meant well and could combine politics with common sense was Peter Katsimadakos. Neos Kosmos, also through its editor Dimitri Gogos was a good supporter and published many supportive articles.
Other comments and observations?
Our young people now have their own careers in the mainstream. In my fifty years as a general practitioner, I have observed the changes. It is 46 years here since I started as a General Practitioner with Margaret as my secretary. I am very concerned because the community is going through another phase. I am talking about the migrants, about their children. Now the older generation is experiencing health problems, chronic illnesses, arthritis, dementia, ageing. Those are now the problems of the older generation. This includes us too.
Those interested in Bibliography should consult AGWS “Greek Action Bouletin”. Also: “An Historical and Sociological Study on the AGWS” by Graham Lewis James Marsh, School of Social Sciences, Department of Sociology, La Trobe University, 1983. My own archive has been placed with the National Australian Archives in Canberra. Many many people have given their time and effort voluntarily for the betterment of the community.
*Christos Nicholas Fifis is an Honorary Research Associate, La Trobe University