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'Coming to Australia' by Zoe Lambreas

I would love to share with you the reason why I told my students my father’s story. It was... to give hope and shed a guiding light to those feeling useless and disenchanted with their situation in life!

You see, I felt my students were on a honeymoon high on first winning entry into Australia, but then they plummeted to depths of despair once the reality struck them: they didn’t speak much English, they had no work, no income, no network of friends and family, lacked understanding of the Aussie culture and the subtle nuances of communication, no one to guide and encourage them along life’s road, and felt overwhelmed and hopeless. I hate that word “hopeless”!

So I wrote about my father, but I kept the relationship quiet, because I wanted them to speak freely, without thinking they might offend me during discussions and sharing experiences while we were reading as a class. And share they did! It was cathartic for them, as they revealed their journeys and found they had many similar experiences and opinions too. They started to relate and isolation gradually evaporated as class became a safe home for them.

Here is the first true story. 


Theo wanted to help his mother, because his father had died when a boat he was travelling in, tipped over. His father was in the boat with his two grandchildren, who had been holidaying with their grandparents. Their grandfather was taking them back home to their parents when they all fell into the sea and all three died. The grandfather’s body was never found, but the children’s bodies were carried out of the sea and put on a cart pulled by a horse, for their last trip home. Theo was just twenty years old when that happened. He was the eldest son in the family, born in 1920. He had two brothers and three sisters. He had an older married sister, Panayiota married to Stavros, who owned a bakery in the city of Kalamata. Theo’s father had sent him to the city of Kalamata to help out at his sister’s bakery, without pay.

When the bodies of her two children arrived in the cart, Theo was there to see and to share his sister’s grief and pain. The children’s father, Stavros, was so shocked that he lost his mind and was put in hospital. He never got better! Now that his own father had died, Theo felt he had to find work to help support his family, but it was hard to find a job in Greece during and after the Second World War, in 1945. Then, something terrible happened! There was another war in Greece, from 1946 to 1949. It was a civil war between neighbours and brothers. This war was very bad and many Greeks killed each other. Even Theo had been captured and was a prisoner in a three-storey brick building. For some months, he was tied up and had to lay down on a concrete floor, to sleep. This gave him back pain, but he wasn’t killed! They let him go free. Lucky!

After these wars Greece was a very poor country and the government had little control. Theo looked hard to find work and he felt fortunate when he got a job as a policeman, at about thirty years of age.

At that time, young men were walking around the streets of Athens wearing only one arm in their sleeve. The other sleeve was left empty! Maybe it was a new fashion, or maybe they were complaining about the government. The government wanted to stop young men from doing this. They gave all policemen a pair of scissors and told them to cut off empty sleeves. After being through wars, Theo thought this was a bit funny–when he used his scissors to cut the empty sleeves off jumpers and jackets. He didn’t mind doing it.

Another thing the Greek Government wanted was to make sure cafes and restaurants were clean places. They ordered policemen to check the businesses that sold food. If a policeman found any dust, they had to give a warning to the owners. On the next visit, if the dust was still there, when the policeman came back to check, the business was closed down! Theo did not like doing this job. He did not like closing down shops and making it hard for people to run a business. Theo’s job was a good one and he got good money. But when he saw how unhappy people were, and how hard it was for them when he closed down their shops, Theo felt bad. He didn’t want to do this work anymore, so he quit his job as a policeman!

By this time Theo was in his early thirties. He was tall, handsome and full of hope for the future. What could he do now to get some money? He had already helped his sisters find husbands and built houses for them, but now he wanted to help his two younger brothers. Theo knew the olive trees the family owned in their fields were not enough for all three brothers. When each brother got married and had kids, the olives and the oil, from the olive trees, would not bring in enough money. The olive trees were enough for only one family. Theo loved his brothers and decided to help them by leaving the fields for his two brothers. He decided to go overseas for a chance at a better life. Also he knew he would have a job and could send money back to his bothers and his mother. Many migrants had this idea. Theo did not really want to leave Greece but it would help his family to go and find work overseas. Where did he go? To Australia!

So, in October 1953, he got on the ship called Fairstar, which was going to Melbourne. That year, Theo was one of about 75,000 new migrants, who left with much hope, to live in Australia. The Australian Government needed migrants, so it paid for Theo to go to Australia by ship. After that, Theo had to pay back the money by working for two years for the Australian Government. Theo had to work anywhere the government told him to go. He had to do any job the government needed to get done. It was called the Assisted Passage Programme because they helped people to go to Australia. These men, who came from Europe, built Australia. It was hard work. They built roads, railways, telephone lines, electricity and water dams.

When Theo arrived in Melbourne he was taken to a place called Bonegilla. Many migrants went there for two or three weeks to learn a bit of English until they got a job from the government. It is still there and is about 300 km north-east of Melbourne. Theo’s first job was to make railway lines for the trains in Victoria. He worked like a dog, to show the men he was working with, that he was not lazy. However, the workers, who were all Australians, told him to take it easy. “Just relax a little,” they told him. “Take it easy! There’s no hurry!” That was the first time he heard the Australian idea of taking it easy and she’ll be right mate. Theo soon learnt about tea-breaks and when it was time for a smoko. Theo’s job was not easy, but everyone worked hard to build-up young Australia.

His next job was to take the bark off Black Wattle trees in Western Australia. The bark was used for burning and drying animal skins to make shoes. Some left-over bark was put on paths. “The Tan”, the 4 km path around the Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne, got its name because tan bark was put on top of it.

When Theo finished his two years of work for the Government he went back to Melbourne. What job could he find? He took a train out of Melbourne to the end of the railway line. His journey ended in Hamilton, in the western part of Victoria. Theo had been to Hamilton before, so he knew 11,000 people lived there. (An ex-Prime Minister, Mr. Malcolm Fraser, lived on a farm there too.) It is a country place and everyone knows it has the best sheep in Australia: the Merino sheep. Hamilton has two main streets of shops: in Gray Street and in Thompson Street. Theo got off the train and walked along Gray Street and down Thompson Street, looking at the shops.

Working with Aussies, Theo had learnt to drink beer. He enjoyed drinking one or two glasses. When he saw the Commercial Hotel, he went in to buy a glass of beer. It felt good to be off the train and to sit in a cool place with other men. In those days it was against the law for women to drink at a pub: it was only for men.

As he was drinking his beer, he looked around and saw a man wink at him. Theo became very angry and his face turned a red colour. In his country, men only winked at women. Theo didn’t want anyone to have any wrong ideas about him. He got up, walked to the man, and was going to punch him in his face! Quickly some men near there stopped him. They asked him what was wrong. With his little English Theo told them that the man had winked at him and that it was very rude! He was going to teach this man a lesson! The men explained to Theo that in Australia, a wink can sometimes mean “Good day!” or
“How are you going mate?” Theo felt ashamed and said sorry to the man who had winked at him. They shook hands. It had all been a mistake because of their different cultures.

As Theo left the hotel he heard the men laughing at him. His face went red again. He knew he must learn many new things about life in Australia. After two years he still had a lot to learn. He must learn to speak English like Australians! It is true that when we don’t know things, we make mistakes, but by mistakes we can also learn. Unlucky Theo thought he had heard “How are you going Mike?” After his mistake in the hotel, Theo usually said hello to people and winked at them too. To be extra friendly he often said, “How you going Mike?” All his life, Theo did not know it was “mate”, because he thought he had heard “Mike”. He just did not know the words were different. His future family did not correct him, because they thought it was his way of being funny!

Copyright 2024 Zoe Lambreas