This will be my first Christmas away from my family and friends. I do have some relatives and a couple of friends here, but my parents, brother and close friends, my cat even, are in Greece, where I lived most of my life as well.
Neos Kosmos has many times taken on the topic of immigration. I myself am part of the recent migration flux from Greece to Australia, instigated by the deterioration of the Greek economy and high unemployment rates because of the crisis.
Back in Greece ‘awaits’ my house and most of my belongings. Things I bought during 13 years of hard work and studies. Things I was afraid I’d lose throughout the crisis, yet, which I willingly gave up on. I had been thinking to move to Australia, my second home, for a few years now, but it wasn’t until six months ago that I found it in myself to quit my job and book a one-way ticket.
I had no job, no savings, no accommodation. I had no idea what to expect, but it was a risk I was willing to take. At 32, I just wanted to be able to breathe again. The frustrating situation in Greece suffocated me, and knowing there was a way out, not just any way out but the Australian way out, was all I needed to take the leap. Telling my family and friends gave me mixed reactions. My folks were bewildered but supportive, my friends ran the gamut of worried to impressed. A special someone decided to erase my existence from his ‘agenda’ for wanting to leave. Unfortunately, the Greek job hunting scene at that point didn’t offer me any safety or motivation to stay.
I always thought of Australia as the ideal country to live in; nevertheless, dropping everything you’ve struggled for and succeeded in, even, lays some quite hard paths to explore on your feet. After many painful internal monologues that followed me all the way onto the plane, I looked upon the lives of so many people before me who overcame the fear of loneliness and put it all in for a decent everyday life.
George Pappas is said to have come barefoot to Australia in 1814, according to the first official record of Greek arrivals. He married an Aboriginal woman and settled in Sydney. Then seven young men set sail from Hydra in 1829 in a tiny boat. How hard could it be for me in 2014? I was an Australian citizen after all.
When I did come though, broke as could be, I immediately got a job at a Greek restaurant, worked up to 16 hours a day to pay for my expenses and submitted nearly 10 job applications every day for months. All the replies I got were discouraging. Ten years of experience in prominent European media, and overall 13 years of work experience, not to mention studies, meant nothing. I had no previous work experience on Australian soil and even though I was a citizen, plus bilingual, it didn’t make a difference. It felt as if I’d cut my own wings coming here. I didn’t lose faith though and here I am. Working as a journalist again, doing what I love.
Even when I found myself despairing over the hundreds of emails that denied me an interview for jobs I seemed to qualify perfectly for, I knew that if I got one single break I would be given the chance to a much better quality of life. The Greek economic crisis has shaken the people so badly that the hurdles of the Australian job market and the strictness of the laws, stressful as they can be, seem an easier mountain to climb than the Greek financial ruins. While being here, I realised most Greek Australians who had returned to Greece prior to the crisis are moving back to Australia. Not everyone is set to rediscover their second homeland, though, as there is a great number of non-Australian Greek migrants who keep coming to the ‘lucky country’ in search of work and a better life for themselves and their families.
For many others like myself, this shall be their first Christmas away from home. The first lonely Christmas they’ll be wearing a swimsuit instead of a coat. Some have family here, others took the risk of arriving alone on a tourist visa. A few had already found a sponsored job, while some other fellow newcomers I came across are on a student visa, trying to land a job.
How are they coping?
“I came to Australia 15 months ago. Technically it is my second Christmas here. I was born here, but lived my whole life in Greece,” says Dimitra Vrakas.
“As with all new beginnings there are certain difficulties, but this didn’t stop me from coming back to see firsthand what my second home is about. As time goes by, I feel more comfortable with my new surroundings. The only thing that feels different is Christmas. Actually, I don’t feel like it’s Christmas at all. Not with this weather. I’m doing my masters and working part time as a temp to cover my expenses. The challenges and new experiences are so many and intense, I hardly have time to think about Greece. I have some family here and I’m slowly starting to make friends. I like it a lot here. It is a ‘human’ country with a vibrant Hellenic community. I don’t know yet if I want to stay here for the rest of my life. Time will tell,” she explains.
“I come from the Greek island of Chios. I am one of those Greeks who came to Australia to experience a different way of life. I have been living in Melbourne for some 11 months teaching at a Greek school. I might spend my first Christmas away from my folks and the island, I might not have the smell of the Greek turkey in the oven, but I won’t miss one thing. Love. I found so much love here, within the Greek community. I can’t wait for the New Year to find me by the beach, wearing sunscreen and flip-flops and feeling grateful for the life I am able to live here, instead of feeling cold by the fireplace, worrying about the future,” Argyro Koutsouradis tells Neos Kosmos.
“I came here to give a chance to me, for I was becoming depressed. The only difficulty I came across was the long journey. Unfortunately I’m working at Christmas like every year. I’m a chef. I do miss Greece and especially my family. It hurts when you are away at Christmas, but other than that, everything is better here,” says Vasilis Mataras.
“I came to Australia in June 2013. It has been hard for me to get work since I have no Australian experience so I studied building and construction at the University of Swinburne, which was a course funded by the Australian government, which is very helpful with new-starters. The healthcare is also remarkable. However, it is hard not to think of the problems Cyprus faces. The people I grew up with cannot have the same opportunities I am offered as the crisis has turned life into a struggle, where young people don’t see a future. Unable to start and support a family of their own, when they live only to work and be underpaid. The vast majority of Cyprus’ youth is jobless and every day goes to waste with no purpose. I am extremely homesick but I count my blessings every day,” says Haroula Angeli.
“I loved Greece so much and tried to re-settle there twice. The first time I left Australia, I managed to stay in Greece for five years and the other one for almost 9. It did not work. I lost my crops over fires and floods and neither the government nor insurance helped me survive. Here I have a fine job in a hotel and my wife works for a small airline company. We are happy and safe. The law protects our labour and we will spend this Christmas by the beach in Broome and catch fish. Even though we are homesick sometimes, nothing compares to leading a normal life,” says Konstantinos Karounis.
“I feel lucky. I’m not a citizen but I have family here, so I sold everything and came to Australia with my husband. I have set up my own cleaning agency business and have been doing great for three years now. I miss Greece, but I sure don’t miss the situation and the crisis, so I am more than happy to spend this Christmas in Australia, too. I do know of other newcomers who are facing difficulties and are alone here, though,” Ourania Katopodis adds.
“I came here with my wife nearly three years ago. This Christmas we are going to Greece. We want our two-year-old son, who was born in Greece, to spend these holidays at home. We came here and we’re both working 70 hours a week to save money. I had to study at the university, in order to bring my family here on a student visa. It has been hard and we don’t know if we made the right choice. We are making enough money to pay off our mortgage in Greece. We aren’t going out and our goal is to someday go back. We haven’t been able to acclimatise to this way of life and forgive me for saying, most Greek Australians aren’t very supportive of Greek Greeks who just come here to work. As if they forget how they came to Australia,” says Yiorgos Tasoulakos.
“For me it’s one word. Paradise. I can’t really summarise it any better. I’ve been here for a year. I can work. I have no worries, not the kind of anxiety that gets you depressed in Greece. I feel like I’m in heaven. It’s going to be the best Christmas,” says Sarantis Fotiadis.
It looks like Australia has been a pleasant self-development journey for all of us newcomers, through which not a single day goes by unutilised. One can reap the benefits of their hard work, creativity and passion and still live life at its fullest. I feel that the majority of Greek and Cypriot migrants in Australia all feel as grateful to this fine land for the opportunity for a less stressful reality and a better future, despite temporary hurdles. We are all somewhat homesick, but our stay here is definitely worthwhile and makes us appreciate the good side of life.