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Kafedaki with Anna Papoutsakis

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Anna Papoutsakis is the epitome of philanthropy and philotimo (love of honour), she is a passionate Greek Australian who is very proud of her Hellenic heritage.

Anna is a school teacher who has been volunteering at orphanages in Vietnam every year for the past 5.5yrs and has raised tens of thousands of dollars for the children there and has literally changed the lives of these young kids.

She took some time to chat to GCT about her upbringing, family and Greek heritage, which has influenced her endless volunteer work.  

What is your name and line of work?

 Anna Papoutsakis. I am an Early Childhood Educator currently teaching the Bachelor of Early Childhood and completing my Masters in Educational Leadership.

Where were you born and where do you live now?

 I was born in Sydney and have lived here all my life- except for one year where I lived in Vietnam. I currently live in Maroubra.

What part of Greece are your ancestors from?

My father is from the island of Crete, from Chania. My mother’s side is originally from Leros, however, my mother was born and brought up in Egypt. My grandmother was sent to Egypt at the age of 5 (in 1915) to be a housemaid after a soldier killed her father when he tried to stop him from assaulting a girl in the village. There were too many mouths to feed and so my great grandmother sent my grandmother and her sister to Egypt where they worked as little housemaids/servants and the money was sent back to her mum and family in Leros.

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Have you been to Greece? 

My first trip was at the age of 5 and I still remember it clearly. My paternal grandparents and extended family were still living in Crete and so we went often to see them.

I went to St Spyridon College where we did a Pilgrimage Trip back to Greece in Year 10. This really connected us to our roots and instilled a sense of belonging, which I believe is integral to human existence.

I also studied Greek at Macquarie University and consequently did a short residential course at the University of Athens, which was a great experience. Doing this really made me see how important maintaining the Greek language is in connecting with my heritage.

My most recent trip was two years ago, where I also got my Greek citizenship! All these trips played a huge role in my sense of identity.

What are you working on at the moment?

At the moment, when I am not teaching, I am in Vietnam volunteering in orphanages. I’ve been volunteering there for 5.5yrs now and utterly love it. I have been with the same three orphanages – two orphanages that have children from birth until 16 years and one which is a disability shelter where all the residents have been affected by Agent Orange – the chemical dropped during the Vietnam War. Unfortunately, the dioxin has caused many repercussions as it is said to alter the DNA and so, it has affected future generations and children are still being born with illnesses and disabilities related to this.

People ask me if I have children and I always yes! I have 134!

My passport has 16 Vietnam visas in it. Over the last 5.5yrs, I have collectively spent 23 months over there with the children. It has most certainly been a life changing experience for me. I couldn’t possibly tell you all the stories I am working on without rambling for pages and pages but you can find them on my blog if you wish to read stories in depth:  www.missionnampossible.blogspot.com.au.

I do work with the orphanages as well as head into the rural mountainous regions and support the disadvantaged communities there. I buy many cows (yes! cows!) in my spare time to donate to these families to provide them with a source of income. In the past 6 years I have been lucky enough to support projects from funding extra carers and physiotherapists for the disabled children, vocational courses for disabled residents, planting fruit trees, regular optical and dental check-ups, a vaccination program, helping struggling families keep their children in school by paying their school fees, installing clean water systems into schools… the list goes on.

I also like to focus on children’s emotional and sense of wellbeing. The orphanages ensure they are fed and clothed, but who thinks of their psychological development? I just returned from a trip where I took them all out to the swimming pools, taught them how to swim, we went to the play land and ate at restaurants. I exposed them to their community and gave them JOY. Something simple. But when they return to school now after these summer holidays, they too can tell their friends what they did over summer – and it wasn’t just sitting in a room with four walls for three months. They are stigmatised enough being orphans. These outings provide them with their own stories that they too can share with their friends.

Currently, I am working on building toilets for an orphanage in a rural area to increase their standard of living and hygiene.

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How did you end up volunteering in orphanages around Vietnam? 

 Actually, ending up in Vietnam was a complete mistake! I was meant to go to Africa to volunteer but it fell through last minute. The next program that was leaving was for Vietnam. I had no desire to go to Vietnam, but I went as my leave was approved for that time and it was a now or never situation. From the moment I landed, I felt like I was at home. These children have captured my heart and I cannot leave them.

It has definitely been a life changing experience for me. I spent the entire year there in 2012 and it was fascinating. I had a lot to learn to become culturally competent! I really missed my Feta that year. Whilst I still do not eat dog as they do there, I have learnt to use chop sticks. I did bring olives for the children to try and I must say, they did not like them!

The places I volunteer at, are not tourist areas. At first, I was a tourist attraction. Babies would actually cry at the sight of me having never seen a Westerner before. I would get followed around and everyone wanted my photo.

After my first trip, I came home and cried for four months.

I felt disheartened and that the problems there were so far beyond me and my capabilities that no matter what I did, I would never solve them or begin to scratch the surface of finding solutions to their daily adversities. But I figured that “doing something was better than nothing”. This has become my motto in a way and so, with this in mind, I decided to return. If I could make one child happier, make one child feel safe and secure, get one child doing physio as opposed to lying in a metal cot 24/7, then my mission was complete. I certainly did exceed all my expectations and have truly achieved a lot more than I possibly dreamed of. I have had so much support along the way from my friends and friends of friends that I could not have done it without them and their donations.

The lesson I’ve learnt the hard way is that you can’t help everyone. As much as you want to, as much as you think it necessary, it just isn’t possible. But, it is important to take away the little things rather than spiral into depression at the hopelessness of it all. I don’t think of all the misery but the beauty that remains.

How has your upbringing influenced the work you do today?

 My grandmother, my namesake, who I lived with my entire life, had a profound influence on my life and on how I viewed the world. She worked as a nanny for many of the Aristocrats and affluent people in Egypt. She was even the nanny for the Prince of Egypt at one stage of her life! I always wonder if I inherited my love for children from her. She always used to tell us to be kind; be kind to everyone and do not judge others. She would say that I was neither better nor smarter, only luckier. I was lucky to be born in this country and be able to have all that I have. And so, I feel like I have a responsibility to do my bit in a sense. To pay it forward in a way.

My mother was in an orphanage her entire life. She always instilled in us a sense of appreciation for all the opportunities that were present in our lives.  To this day, I cannot pass a homeless person/ a person window washing etc without stopping and either buying them some food or asking if they need anything. I still remember the day my sister gave her last amount of money to a homeless man and then had no money to get the bus home and ended up walking home for an hour because of her act. But this is how we were taught to interact with others: without any expectations of receiving anything back in return. Being truly altruistic.

Both my grandmother and mother are formidable, resilient women who have had a tough life, and so have taught my sister and me to be strong independent women and to fight for what we believe in. I guess some of our ‘Cretan blood’ also emerges when we become tenacious and head strong about certain topics and it has shaped how we work today.

Being able to go to St Spyridon, a high school where our culture was valued, where our traditions and beliefs were embedded into our everyday school life, where Greek was compulsory to take (which I am so grateful for now!) has also left an indelible mark on me as a person and has influenced my personal philosophy. I had a great sense of self there, where I was free to pursue what I wanted. I was presented with a holistic experience with academia, music, drama, dance, sport, religious and spiritual guidance which steered me through the tumultuous adolescent years. I can honestly say, I look back with fond memories and truly enjoyed my high school years. Doing charity work and donating to causes was also undertaken, which I guess contributed to my current philanthropic path.

What inspires you?

 The children. Seriously. I know it sounds cliché and cheesy but they really do. Vietnam is my ‘reset button’. I feel so at peace, so at home with the children. When the routine, monotony and challenges of my life get me down, all I do is think of these kids and immediately things are back in perspective: that focus on what truly matters as opposed to the mundane or superficial. That’s one gift these children have given me without even realising it. We pray for the big things and forget to give thanks for the ordinary, small (and yet really not small) gifts.

These people I come across in the rural areas are so poor and have nothing (some days not even enough to eat) and yet still smile and manage to be positive and see the good in the world. Not once have I heard them ask ‘why me?’. I am in awe of them. I believe that they see life as a privilege and not a right. And that teaches me something.

Moreover, this resilience that Greeks have against tyranny and oppression – our entire history, inspires me. The other day, I was trying to settle my 4 month old niece and a verse from a very old song my Yiayia used to sing popped into my head that I began singing to her as I was bouncing her “Kalitera mias oras eleftheri zoi – para saranta xronia sklavia kai filaki.” “Better an hour of freedom, rather than 40 years of slavery and prison.”

Even my niece, 4 generations down the line, will learn about our history and her cultural heritage as it is so rich and deep and something to be proud of. Our history and who we are makes me feel proud to be part of this culture. Getting my Greek citizenship and National Identity Card when I was in Greece last, was one of my highlights of that trip. It’s a feeling I cannot explain.

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What is one piece of ancestral knowledge that you remember to this day?

My father has a portrait of this moment of our island’s history and every time I go over to his house, he can’t help himself but reiterate the story to me (just in case I have forgotten!) It is an iconic image of Spiros Kayaledakis (Kayales) related to the 1897 Revolution for the Union of Crete. When heavy fire destroyed the flag pole and tore down our flag, this heroic man used himself as the flag pole to raise our Greek flag under heavy fire. His action actually ceased the bombardment and Crete consequently won its independence from the Ottoman Empire a few months later. Every time we return to Crete, we take a photo with the statue, us in the exact same position, EVERY TIME.

Aside from your family, which Greeks have influenced you?

I can’t really point out anyone in particular. There are many. The little yiayia at my church who makes the koliva and always tells me a story with a moral at the end; my “thia” at the local chicken shop who has been working stupendously at that shop, 7 days a week for the last 34 years; one of my mature aged Greek students who has immigrated here and is putting herself out there and retraining for a new beginning; the Greek family friends who lost their 11 year old daughter; the residents at my yiayia’s sister’s Greek nursing home – each one of them, with their own stories to share….. there is much to say about the Greek spirit.

If I look at Ancient Greeks, I can say Aristotle; Aristotle introduced me to the concept of εὐδαιμονία Eudaimonia –how we achieve happiness through virtue.

I link this to what I do in Vietnam and how I connect with my friends – I think that compassion leads to happiness. Joy comes from that connection to others.

What is your favourite Greek food?

Just one?! I could eat galaktobouriko and loukoumades at any time of the day! People who don’t know me still look at me funny when I tell them I eat Feta and olives every morning for breakfast with toast. Or when they see me put Greek yoghurt over my rice (not sure if that is a Greek or Egyptian thing) but rice with yoghurt is still my comfort food. So much so, that my mum tells me, the first sentence I ever strung together was when I was around 2.5yrs old, she asked me what I wanted to eat and I replied “rizi me outi’ (yaourti). I also love dolmades and gemista.