As the Odyssey festival, celebrating 80 years of South Australia’s Greek community, draws to an end, the President of the Greek Women’s Society of SA, Mary Lucas, reflects on how far the community has come.
When you are poor you can’t help, you can’t give what you haven’t got and it was very hard, but we (the Greek community) needed each other because I can honestly say we were not accepted.
When Mary Lucas migrated from Greece to Australia in 1936 she didn’t speak a word of English.
The first words she and her sister learned were “shut up” and “speak English”.
“It was terrible,” she laments.
“I was 14 at the time; we left the lovely island of Chios and we had no idea the depression was on and we came and found very poor people here and not very intelligent people. Nobody travelled. Geographically Greece was just so far away from Australia and at the time I couldn’t understand what we were doing here to begin with; it was terrible.”
Now at 88 years of age, Lucas has been supporting the Greek community in South Australia for over six decades.
“I came to Australia before everybody else and learned the language. I was able to be grateful to a lot of people and when the masses started coming we were really busy supporting all these people,” she tells.
“By the time they came we’d been through all the shit. It wasn’t very nice not to be Australian back then,” she says.
By the time the next wave of migrants hit the shorelines of Australia following the war, Lucas says a solid support network had been established.
“When all the people arrived here after us, they put together a Good Neighbour Council, and these people were very well educated, they were better than us and they demanded to be heard. When we came we were frightened; we were a minority, but by the time everybody else came we were a force, a voice to be heard,” she says.
Hailing from Chios in Greece, where both her parents are from, Lucas and her family established in Australia in the city centre of Adelaide, where Lucas has noticed great changes in the Greek community.
“I would say it has changed 1000 per cent,” she says.
“These days you get grants to do things, but back when my son (now aged 65 years) went to the Greek school we had to collect money to buy him a bike; they didn’t have money to pay the teachers.”
However, Lucas says the Greek community was very good to a lot of people.
“Later when the Olympic hall was built everybody that came found help, found a job, found a house, found friends,” she says.
Lucas still retains presidency of the Greek Women’s Society of SA, a title she has held for as long as she can remember.
“I’m nearly 90 and I’m still going, it’s been a great support to a lot of people. We gave people the help they needed,” she says.
Lucas says the group began with “one lovely lady who got up and got other ladies and started collecting very little money”.
The group’s humble beginnings were difficult.
As Lucas says, “When you are poor you can’t help, you can’t give what you haven’t got and it was very hard, but we needed each other because I can honestly say we were not accepted.”
The group grew to build a small church, a bigger church, and the Olympic hall in Adelaide, but was mostly focused on “supporting the people that came after us”.
To this day Lucas says the Greek Orthodox community in South Australia is doing the same thing.
“We were there when we were needed, when people needed help and they got the help from the Greek community; there was nobody turned away when people started coming by the hundreds,” she says.
The Odyssey festival, which concludes this week in Adelaide, was a celebration of 80 years of the Greek community in Adelaide, which Lucas was proud to be involved in.
“Years ago it wasn’t very nice to be a Greek person, now, since the other countries came, everything Greek is lovely,” she says.
“The Odyssey festival is something very special, there’s been something happening everyday, and there’s something for everybody, young people, old people; you can be a part of the Greek community and it’s been very successful,” she says.
“The Odyssey now is a showcase. George Dalaras was here the other day and it was a full house; the festival has gotten a very good response, everything was well attended, everything!”
Aside from her presidential commitments, Lucas also surrounds herself with family, which includes three children, seven grandchildren and four great grandchildren.
“I am very fortunate to have family,” she says. “My house is full of happiness and love.”