Leaving Lesvos, arriving Australia

Amateur historian Vasilis Vasilas talks to Sarah Robertson about his five year quest to document the migration stories of Mytilene

“It’s crazy how a hobby turns out to be an incredible journey,” says high school teacher and Greek community amateur historian Vasilis Vasilas, “but that’s the way it’s turned out.” Vasilas has spent the last five years collecting and preserving the migration and homeland stories of the Mytilenian community of Australia.

He’s visited about 550 homes in New South Wales, Canberra and Melbourne, and published about 800 stories and photos on his website, www.syndesmos.com, and in his self-published book, Journeys of Uncertainty and Hope.

Speaking to me from his home in Sydney, he says he is putting the finishing touches on his second book, Our Homeland Lesvos, which is a collection of stories about Lesvos to be published later this year, before he turns his attention to life for the migrants in Australia. Vasilas is modest about his achievement in collecting the growing body of stories and photos and the hours he spends compiling them.

Underlying all the work involved is his clear commitment to gather the stories of first generation Greek Australians from Lesvos before it’s too late. “It’s not a job, it’s a passion,” he says. “We have to gather as much as we can before that generation passes because once that generation passes the stories are lost forever. I think that by maintaining the stories, the photos, somehow we’re maintaining and preserving our identity here in Australia. It also gives access to future generations to search for their background, where they came from,” he says.

Published in 2009, Journeys of Uncertainty and Hope is a collection of anecdotes and photos of Lesvian migrants’ journeys to Australia in the twentieth century. Our Homeland Lesvos serves as a prequel to the first book. It’s about “what these migrants left behind”, Vasilas explains, and “the context and the conditions that Lesvos was experiencing in the immediate post-war years”.

In the chapter about working life on the island, there is a story about workers who would walk for an hour and a half to go to work in olive fields where they would work for two hours before it would start raining and they would be told to go home without pay. “It’s these conditions that prompted people to look at other alternatives,” says Vasilas, “and migration became one of those alternatives for a better future.”

Our Homeland Lesvos is a youthful book, he says. “They’re all young, which is in one way quite sad because Greece lost such a large percentage of its youth and workforce to migration,” he says.

For many of the migrants Vasilas spoke to for the first book, telling their stories was an emotional and sometimes cathartic experience. “A lot of the people haven’t really spoken or actually sat down to think about their last feelings before leaving their country or their homeland. No one’s really asked them to recount that last day, what happened on that last day.”

He recalls one lady who told him about watching her father waving from the dock as she left Lesvos. “She said to herself, ‘if I could jump, I would jump’, but the reality was that she couldn’t. After that she said, ‘ah, Vasili, what have you made me recount!'”

Vasilas believes it is important the books are published in English. “I always say to the older generation that you know your story, your grandchild doesn’t know your story. And there’s a good chance that your grandchild doesn’t read fluent Greek. “And that’s how the story is passed down to the next couple of generations. It’s the passing down – whether it’s old media through books or new media through the Internet,” he says.

Vasilas says initially it was an uphill battle to publish something in book form and he is extremely grateful for the support he’s received from his family and the Mytilenian community in Sydney and around Australia. After the success of a photo exhibition in Sydney in 2009 as part of Mytilenian Brotherhood of NSW’s Mytilenian week, a fundraiser organised by the Friends of Vasilis Vasilas largely funded the small-run publication of Journeys of Uncertainty and Hope. Our Homeland Lesvos will be published based on a sponsorship.

Interstate, he says he’s lucky to have people willing to help him collect stories and photos, particularly George Stavrinos, President of Pan-Lesvian Federation of Australia and New Zealand, and Chris Klidaras, President of the Cultural Association of Agia Paraskevi (Melbourne).

Vasilas has already travelled to Melbourne several times to gather stories and photos, and is currently in Melbourne until Tuesday. It’s the last opportunity for people to tell him their homeland stories before the book is published, he says, although he anticipates he will visit other cities for the website, perhaps even go overseas to New Zealand. While Vasilas has had to limit his hobby to Lesvian migrants, he hopes other people and groups within the Greek Australian community will take on similar projects.

“I think other groups should start to think about doing this. Because it’s not five to twelve, we’re not in a desperate situation but I think in a couple of years, we’ll lose the stories. And I’ve heard, even yesterday, about another community who’s doing that, and I think it’s encouraging. At the end of the day, I think it enriches the entire community.”

Vasilis Vasilas is in Melbourne from Saturday April 9-12.

To contact Vasilis email: vvasilas@syndesmos.net To read stories and view the images he has collected visit www.syndesmos.net/