Greek City Times is proud to present a weekly historical snapshot
from the archives of the ‘In Their Own Image: Greek Australians’ national project
by photographer Effy Alexakis and historian Leonard Janiszewski.
‘MIGRANT CAMPS’ – TWO PERSONAL INSIGHTS OF EARLY ARRIVALS
During the early 1950s there were two types of immigration centres in Australia – reception and holding centres. The main reception centres were Bonegilla (Vic.), Bathurst (NSW), Woodside (SA), and Northam (WA). New arrivals were sent to these centres prior to being despatched to work under a designated employer. Families were sent to holding centres until their husbands had secured accommodation and work. Scheyville and Greta ‘migrant camps’ in NSW were both reception and holding centres.
Born in Florina in northern Greece in 1928, Helen Piechocki (née Rakopoulou) [seated first on the right] came to Australia in 1952 with her first husband Peter Batin, and their daughter, Rosa Maria. Helen had met Peter, who was Russian, in Vienna, Austria’s capital, after the war (World War II). She had left Greece in 1943 and had remained with an aunt in the Austrian capital until 1945. As a ‘displaced persons’, Helen and Peter initially wanted to migrate to Canada, but according to Helen, the authorities “only allowed Catholic people to go there”. They saw Australia as their only chance to leave Europe, and were relieved when they finally left aboard the ‘Nelly’ for a new start in a new land.
After six months at Bonegilla Immigration Centre in Victoria (on the Victorian and New South Wales border just east of Wodonga) they were moved to Scheyville (near Windsor, north-west of Sydney). Helen obtained work as an interpreter and nurse’s aide in the Migrant Hostel’s hospital – as Greece had signed a major migration with Australia in 1952 through the Intergovernmental Committee for European Migration (ICEM), Scheyville housed a number of Greek families. Peter found work at Port Kembla’s BHP (Broken Hill Proprietary Limited) steelworks (near Wollongong on the New South Wales South coast). However, he had to live close to the plant, which meant that he was separated from his family. Tragically, Peter was killed in a motorcycle accident at Cringila in Wollongong only a year after arriving in Australia.
The inscription on the back of the photograph is, in hindsight, a fitting prelude to today’s multicultural Australia.
“I was at Scheyville three and a half years. I worked with the nurses at the hospital. I could speak some languages, including a little English. I had a day off when they took this photo. They came to get me, that is why I’m not wearing a uniform… My husband had died six months then.”
The Andreou family were Greeks from Romania. They arrived in Australia by plane in 1950 as ‘political refugees’.
Helen’s husband, Andreas, was contracted to work for two years (an agreement required by all ‘assisted passage’ migrants) and was sent from Greta, north-west of Newcastle, to Goomeri, near Gympie in Queensland. He worked on a government pine plantation for six months, clearing scrub and planting trees. The family separation was difficult for both of them to bear. For Andreas, “it was the hardest thing to do”.
This photograph was sent by Helen to her husband during this time. The baby chair had been built by Andreas out of pieces of wood and old nails he had found at the migrant camp before he left for Queensland. Without the security of her husband at the camp, Helen recalls: “The drunks [from Newcastle and district] used to come to the camps, we [the children and myself] were scared at night.”
Andreas also found work in a fruit market in Goomeri, and later at the BHP (Broken Hill Proprietary Limited) steelworks and Commonwealth Steel in Newcastle – a few years running a café in Dungog, just north of Newcastle, proved unsuccessful. He then worked in a mixed business in Mayfield, a north-western suburb of Newcastle.
Andreas is very grateful to have settled in Australia, given his experiences in Europe: “I won’t starve in this country, not like in Greece. I will never suffer in this country. I came here and I will die here. The hardest thing was in Greta… I had to separate from my young family for months…”
Photos: Effy Alexakis
Historical Research: Leonard Janiszewski
© In Their Own Image: Greek-Australians National Project Archives
Since the early 1980s, Effy Alexakis, a photographer, along with historian researcher Leonard Janiszewski, have been travelling around Australia photographing and collecting stories. They have also photographed Greek-Australians in Greece and documented some amazing histories. The images and text provide personal, diverse and powerfully moving insights, about opportunities, hopes and challenges. Collectively, these stories provide personal perspectives of a diasporic Hellenic identity. Their archive encompasses photography, both historical and contemporary, taped interviews and literary materials.
They have published 3 books and numerous articles, and their projects are ongoing. The photographs have been widely exhibited throughout Australia and in Greece.
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