Violet Roumeliotis, the daughter of Greek migrant parents who came to Australia in the 50s from the island of Chios, triumphed over 4,000 applicants to win one of Australia’s most prestigious business awards.
As CEO of community-based organisation Settlement Services International (SSI) since 2012, Roumeliotis has overseen a dramatic growth on programs offered by the not-for-profit service, which specialises in social cohesion and social integration by helping new arrivals to Australia settle into their communities.
“During my acceptance speech I put a challenge to businesses in Australia to actually turn their attention to organisations like ours,” she says.
For over a decade, SSI has assisted tens of thousands of people in the disability sector, foster care, refugees, asylum seekers, immigrants and the unemployed, intent on giving a voice to vulnerable Australians and raising awareness of the economic value of migration, and Roumeliotis says corporate Australia must do more in assisting new arrivals.
“Last year SSI made a profit of $14 million and that money was put towards programs and projects that are important to our community. When I started as CEO, my goal was to diversify and within three years we went from one program area which was refugee resettlement, then we moved to eight, and today we have 13 program areas.
“SSI’s mission and vision are very clear. We are very much values-driven which is about people meeting their full potential as well as working in collaborations. We have 45 different partnerships today. We have regional organisations, we have multicultural, we have mainstream, we have ethno-specific faith organisations and we all collaborate. So, the model is robust, and government loves the model and that’s how we are able to grow.”
Over the past four years Roumeliotis has seen revenue grow from $9 million to $110 million and from 60 to 600 staff and she says her work was inspired by her parents’ journey.
“When I accepted the award, I also talked about how I was very much defined by my parents’ story and those that have come before me,” she says.
“The corner shop and the takeaway shop that a lot of Greeks worked in, as well as my parents, was for many years the salvation for a lot of Greek immigrants of the time, because they couldn’t find other work. Having your own business gave you power and a bit more control of your life.
“My mum and my aunties were all active in the community and invisible in the mainstream because they didn’t speak English well. I grew up thinking everyone has the right to meet their potential and just because they don’t speak the language, or they have come from elsewhere, they should not be stopped and that is what fired my interest. So, my speech focused on that and I acknowledged my 86-year-old mum and she was in tears.”
Roumeliotis also made reference to her father who she says instilled a set of core values that have been with her throughout her life.
“My dad instilled a sense of social justice,” she says.
“He always said, ‘you should see what you can do for someone else not just focus on yourself’. The other clear message from him was about community leadership because they mortgaged their family home and bought land in Bankstown and he was the founding president of St Euphemia Greek Orthodox Church on the first committee.
“People would say to my dad, ‘oh no, you’ve got three daughters’, but he would reply, ‘no, I’m lucky.’ He was a conservative man, but he had great integrity, he valued education and he always said, ‘you have to get education because no-one can take that from you.’ It was about building a sense of determination and living your life. About you making the decisions about your life and not blaming others or depending on others. So those strong messages and values – that hard work pays off, became instilled in me. Seeing potential lost inspired me to make that change and make sure that doesn’t happen, so it was a no-brainer that I would go into this area of work.”
Even though Roumeliotis is proud of her roots, she does feel that certain members of the Greek community need to change their attitude when it comes to how they perceive asylum seekers and refugees.
“There is a terrible thing that happens when a new group comes and that is they get vilified,” she says.
“They are looked upon as being different and that they are not going to fit in. There is a lot of Islamophobia. My greatest disappointment are fellow Greeks who are horribly discriminatory and racist and will make comments. And I will say to my peers this is the kind of stuff people used to say about our parents and grandparents. I can’t believe when people say, ‘well it was different when my parents came, they worked hard, these people are bludgers, they are terrorists.’ It’s really shameful and my message to the Greek Australian community is that we need to step up and re-think our approach to new migrants.”
Roumeliotis says she sees no difference between Greeks of her parents’ generation and asylum seekers and refugees of today who come to Australia looking for a better life.
“These are people fleeing war and jumping on boats,” she says.
“Some of them don’t know if half of their children are dead or alive. People who are living in Australia as asylum seekers for six or seven years, they are people like you and I and if you give them an opportunity they will step up – they are enterprising.
“Our entrepreneur program is there to help refugees to start up their own business. Research tells you that subsequent generations of humanitarian entrants and refugees do very, very well in Australia in education levels, in starting up successful businesses and in employment.
“Professor Graham Hugo did this ground-breaking research that showed that refugees are the most entrepreneurial and enterprising people in the country above all Australians.”
While SSI provides a range of services, Roumeliotis says one of the most critical aspects of their organisation is the area of refugee and migrant settlement where Australia is a world leader.
“These services are world class and that’s why we have such a socially cohesive country,” she says.
“Migration scholars from across the world come here and look at Australia’s system of settlement – it’s the most sophisticated in the world. Even Canadians will say that.
“People that arrive via the UNHCR as refugees and are sponsored to come here are part of a program that runs for 18 months. It is literally picking people up from the airport, putting them in short-term accommodation, enrolling their kids at school, getting them enrolled with Medicare, getting them enrolled with Centrelink for support payments for a period of time until they start looking for work and getting them enrolled in English classes.
“If you go into local neighbourhoods you see great acts of kindness and people interacting and that cohesion comes from supporting people. So, when they first arrive they get a sense of belonging and they link into their communities. Look at the Greeks and Vietnamese – they are aspirational communities and they have done very well, and it will be the same with the new arrivals as well.”