Arts & Culture

Growing up Greek in Australia

Award-winning Australian historian Professor Joy Damousi shines a light on the immigrant experience for refugees of a bygone era

Published 18 November 2015

I am the child of Greek post-war immigrants. I grew up in the inner-Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy in the 1960s and early 70s. The landscape of my childhood was bound and defined by the narrow, meandering streets and lanes of the area. And I loved it: the laneways, the alleyways, the bitumen and solid old historical buildings. My parents may have came from the tobacco farms of rural Greece but my earliest memories are of being an inner city kid.

Joy Damousi started school with no English, but her’s was not an unusual situation: most of her classmates were in the same boat. Picture supplied

Was it simply the glow, the freedom and innocence of childhood that made me love it so much? Or was there something about that time and my personal circumstances, which arouse such memories?

Childhood is a time of roaming and freedom, and mine was eventful. We lived next door to a decrepit and decaying boarding house for single elderly men. It periodically caught alight and the fire brigade would use our passageway to put through their massive hoses in the early hours of the morning. My mother ran about keeping us out of the way and my father raged through the house cursing the owner (who he believed lit the fires to get the insurance). I loved the excitement of the fire sirens and lights going full throttle, neighbours spilling and milling onto the street just as the sun was rising.

The things I adored about growing up in the inner-city were the very aspects my parents despised. The squalid, dilapidated boarding houses, the drunkards on the streets and the century-old Victorian houses in desperate need of light and repair drove my parents’ ambitions to move out as soon as they possibly could. And you can’t blame them. The suburb had been condemned and the sensationalist press undertook a major campaign to highlight the outrageous poverty and slums this once-gracious suburb had descended into by the 1960s.

My mother would remind us repeatedly that this was not what she had given up her life for in rural Greece when she made the life-defining decision to abandon her village, her family and community, to travel to the other side of the world.

George Damousi (in sunglasses) and wife Sofia (centre) with family and friends in Florina in 1956 before making the momentous decision to leave. Picture supplied

My father, George, a village boot maker, migrated from the northern Greek town of Florina in the Olympian year of 1956, and then arranged for my mother Sofia, a dressmaker, and one-year old sister Mary, to join him in 1957.

George Damousi in Gertrude Street in Melbourne’s inner-city suburb of Fitzroy, soon after arriving in Australia from Greece in the late 1950s. Picture supplied

In migrating when they did, George and Sofia were part of the massive post-war migration of Greek immigrants to Australia, one of the largest in the country’s history. The immigration policy implemented after the Second World War saw large numbers of Greek immigrants arrive in Australia. Between 1945 and 1959 there were around 63,000 permanent arrivals from Greece, of whom 24,000 were assisted by the Australian government.

My childhood locale was a village within a village of marginality, a gaggle of Greek communities, working-class Irish and Aboriginal families. But I didn’t feel marginal in my grand universe. The social workers and sociologists of the 1960s may have labelled us “latchkey kids”, but the freedom of the streets provided a gigantic playground which was decidedly lacking in the tiny concrete backyards of our un-renovated turn-of-the-century terraces.

Every day Sofia Damousi pinned the latchkey to her elder daughter Mary’s school clothes before heading off to work in a boot factory in Fitzroy. (Detail of Fitzroy Primary School Grade 2B in 1963). Picture supplied

Language was not a barrier for us kids, coming from Greece, Italy, Turkey and Yugoslavia when we played football in the streets together. For a child like me, with no English but an over-abundance of energy, it was through another religion – football – that “Australianness” would enter our home.

It may be a familiar story now, but it’s remarkable how for kids from non-English-speaking backgrounds football immediately brought us into the mainstream, which our own parents found difficult at that time.

It was also, I suppose, a way of rebellion for me. My father made a point of saying how inferior Australian Rules football was to soccer. It was a point of slight friction between us. Looking back, it was an indication – the first of many – that my identity was not going to be simply Greek, and that this embrace of football signified an immersion in things outside Greek culture.

The Vietnam war came close to home when one of our boarders – a young Greek ladcalled Perecles – was smuggled out in the dead of night to be mysteriously and dramatically flown back to Greece to avoid the draft. His number had come up but his mother, a widow, was not going to have her only son fight in a remote, meaningless war. By the time the uniformed police arrived the next day to collect our draft dodger, Perecles was well on his way to seclusion on the island of Rhodes.

I was the reluctant family interpreter for conveying the unfolding drama of the whereabouts of missing Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt. In the hot, steamy summer of 1967, we hung around the tiny linoed kitchen with a Kookaburra stove, watching the rolling black and white news reports of the country’s leader who had gone for a swim in surging surf and had not emerged. “What, they still haven’t found him?” my mother kept asking in disbelief at a nation that could lose a Prime Minister.

Greek friends and family in the Damousi’s kitchen at Napier Street. Picture supplied

The referendum in 1967 to include the Indigenous population in the Commonwealth census passed me by, and perhaps this not surprising. The Aboriginal Legal Service – painted defiantly in Indigenous colours – was around the corner in Gertrude Street, and our daily contact with Aborigines continued. Legislative changes were almost irrelevant on a day-to-day basis to those around us whose communities had been decimated.

But certainly the conscience of the middle-classes was beginning to feel guilt, and the political climate had begun to swing. Many years later, sometime in the late 1980s, a close friend of mine told me with great embarrassment that in the 60s her school ran bus excursions from her leafy suburb to the slums to see how the poor lived. These children of privilege would arrive, look around at the small, workingman’s cottages, the narrow streets, the lack of trees and playgrounds, and answer assignment questions on the geographical differences between the sizes of their houses and those of the poor. Moral judgments would then be passed on the cleanliness or otherwise of the buildings and surrounds. The poor were to be pitied and needed help. We may feel disgust at such an obvious enforcement of class today, but the fact that “the poor” were at least being identified and recognised to be in need of welfare was a far cry from previous views when they were blamed for their lot.

The inner-city suburb I knew growing up was a world in flux. I saw many immigrants in our street come and go, back and forth to Greece, not uncommon at the time. We eventually moved into more salubrious surroundings in the suburbs of Melbourne. And during the 1970s, the renovators moved in, the prices shot up, and so began my father’s laments of lost opportunities in real estate.

Our familial connections were unbroken however, as my parents continued to work in the inner-city boot trade. But they eventually lost their jobs, falling victim to the end of the economic boom during the 1970s. Century-old factories folded under the pressure of Asian competitorsandgave way to eagerly sought-after warehouses and apartments.

After arriving in Australia Sofia Damousi spent her working life on the factory floor of the inner-city boot trade. Picture supplied

The changes I have seen reflect the changes in me. I guess it’s an obvious point to make, but true nevertheless – our biographies and identities are closely connected with the place within which we spent our formative years. And for me, that is the Fitzroy of my childhood.

– As told to Gabrielle Murphy

Professor Joy Damousi’s most recent book Memory and Migration in the Shadow of War will be published by Cambridge University Press on November 30.

Banner image: Grade 1 class photograph of Joy Damousi’s sister Mary in 1961. Picture supplied.

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