Welcome to Australia

I rarely write about my family.

My grandfather spent his life on a remote Greek mountainside herding goats, like his father, and his father before him, back to the time of the Ottomans and then some.

He developed a keen eye for the landscape, watching from afar as power lines were extended, roads sealed, houses sparsely built. He developed a keen sense of time – of the length of time it would take for an animal or a person to walk a distance that spanned his entire field of vision. This would take a long time – a day perhaps.

Grandfather could tell by their stilted gait when a distant walker was not a local herder but in fact a refugee. He pictured where they may have come from, what they may have fled. He didn’t have to imagine very hard. He had seen death from war and starvation first-hand, more than once.

Judging how far away they were, and how long it would take him to reach the bottom of the mountain, grandfather would greet them at his gate with food and the gesture of accommodation. A short man, he could stretch his arms out very wide. He liked to imagine the language that they spoke, and made an effort to be able to utter some basic words of respect in all the languages local to his country.

One night there was a young family, a couple with a small boy, a small boy like the one we have seen so much of these past weeks, and that night I was also there. Together we welcomed them, we showed them beds, we sat them in front of the fire. We shared a meal, and I like to think we shared an understanding, but I couldn’t even begin to fathom their experience.

When we awoke the next morning, they were already gone. Grandfather had told me that they would already be gone. To thank someone for an overwhelming kindness when you don’t have the language is more than most people can bear. High up on the mountainside with the herd later that day, we could still see their stilted shapes receding into the landscape.

My father grew up not so far from my mother’s mountain: it dominates the landscape of their home. During the Second World War my father saw things that only recently – with his country repeatedly on the brink of economic chaos while finding ever new strengths in resilience and hospitality – only recently has he begun to discuss them. He rarely talks about his past.

The Nazi occupation had struck not only his entire community but also my father’s home, which was used as a base. Father’s family were forced to sleep with their livestock. My father tried to imagine this as something of an adventure for his younger siblings, building treehouses and telling stories.

Years later when I was about to spend extended time living in Germany, my father didn’t know how to respond. He told jokes of what the Germans do to people like us. He knew very well that times had changed, but his daughter living in Germany was not something he had ever envisaged. He was genuinely concerned for me.

My parents arrived in Australia on a boat as economic refugees in 1964, and stayed for fifty years. They did their best to make my sister and I a better life. They transformed this nation by accident, even though their migration was by design, fulfilling an economic imperative for the country that chose them.

The life of every single Australian is touched not merely by immigration, but by the traumas that precede it. This is our history and our culture. We rarely talk about it. Yet across the past days we have seen a refusal to accept the politicised and the mediatised characterisation that we are a nation happy to see suffering people endure yet more cruelties in our name.

Today, women and men on Greek islands make my grandfather’s journey every day. Many times each day. And they don’t have very far to travel at all. Only to hope that those who they welcome are still alive.

The Australian island is too big, too relaxed and comfortable not to stretch out our arms as widely as we can.

 

 

 

Photograph of Logara outside of Skortsinou, Arkadias Greece by Esther Anatolitis.