Melbourne’s Greeks Helping Other Communities Find Their Place in Australia

Bill Papastergiadis, president of the Greek Community of Melbourne & Victoria (with mic).

There are “very few” barriers left to Greeks making their way in Australian society, a prominent community leader has told Greek Reporter.

Bill Papastergiadis, a lawyer and president of the Greek Community of Melbourne & Victoria, was in Athens recently where he told Greek Reporter about how the diaspora was not only preserving its Hellenic heritage, but was extending a hand to other cultures trying to find their place in Australia.

Last week saw the death of the first mayor of Greek descent in Australia, state MP Steve Condous, who passed away on Friday morning after a short illness, aged 82.

Condous had spoken of the racist discrimination he and his father endured in earlier years. However, Papastergiadis — the son of Greek migrants who left in the 1950s — is adamant that the community in 2018 has overcome past obstacles to advancement.

“What you might find is occasionally there might be some subconscious [bias]” he tells Greek Reporter.

“Barriers come from people only because, at the end of the day, people like doing business with people they like. And if you like someone, if you’ve got things in common with that person, quite often that commonality might be your background.

“But on the whole, I’m finding that the representation of Greek Australians in political, cultural, social, academic and business life is at the higher ends of what they could achieve — but it’s been a struggle.”

Papastergiadis’ parents were typical of many Greeks who made the long, postwar journey to the other side of the world. Fleeing economic hardship in a war-torn homeland, they worked hard in Australia and put a high value on education for their children.

Now a managing partner at Moray & Agnew Lawyers in Melbourne, Papastergiadis, a father of two, can see the value put on schooling by the preceding generation:

“It’s been really important to them and we can see that here in Greece almost every family has a child studying abroad, doing some form of postgraduate coursework. And I think that sense of education was not lost on the migrants who left Greece, 40, 50, 60, 70 years ago.

“So although they weren’t educated themselves they valued education. My generation largely all went to university…Most of us got into university, and [it was] law for me.”

Greek Centre in Melbourne

Going hand-in-hand with his legal work, Papastergiadis talks about the work of the Greek Community of Melbourne & Victoria. Far from being a insular group, it promotes and preserves Greek culture while working with others.

It has been at the forefront of revitalizing Greek festivals in the city and has seen a huge expansion in its Greek-language courses over the last six years, from six afternoon schools to 15 at present.

Over the past decade, the organization has also overseen a massive rise in Greek events to over 100 a year. The opening of a 15-story Greek cultural center in 2014 — the largest such hub outside of Greece itself — has underpinned a lot of the community’s cultural work.

As far as Papastergiadis is concerned, providing such an infrastructure for community work offers a space which then becomes filled with cultural activity.

Part of the work is, he says, in “identifying what it means to be of Greek background in Australia. Because that is changing daily weekly monthly and yearly, so we need to constantly rethink who we are and what it is we’re doing”.

But it also means working with others outside the Greek diaspora. Papastergiadis gives the example of the head of Aboriginal community in Victoria whose great-grandfather was Greek and gave a seminar at the cultural center: “His talk was about the synergies and relationships between the Greek community and the Aboriginal community.”

The success of Greek Community of Melbourne & Victoria’s progressive approach has been noted by other diaspora groups in the city. Papastergiadis recalls how Melbourne’s German consul approached him, asking for the “blueprints” of the Greek community’s activity.

“I’ve just recently had the Ukrainian community come and do exactly the same thing. I’ve had dialogue with the Chinese community. They’re coming across and saying: ‘So what are you doing?’ They want to know what is it they can learn from you to make sure that they’re getting that same traction in their communities.

“And so we’re also trying to do that now more so with the African community who are having enormous difficulty in Australia.”

It has been a long struggle from the ‘White Australia’ days, and the Greek community in Melbourne and Australia generally are now irremovable. That young Australian entrepreneurs regularly feature in the country’s rich lists is no surprise, but is based on a foundation of hard work, education and a determination to succeed.

For Papastergiadis it’s not about establishing a nostalgia network but “seeing ourselves and our place in the world”.