Life Stories- Gera

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Out of the sixty Greek families that lived in the town, half would have been from Gera. It is no wonder when we built the Orthodox Church there (1962), we named it Taxiarhis- the patron saint of our island. I was Secretary of the Greek Community of the town at the time.

I was lucky to begin my Australian experience in Geraltion; getting to know the locals introduced me to the good nature of their character. One year, I was invited by the local Rotary Club to be a speaker at their International Night. As my English still required improvement, I initially wrote it in Greek and then tried to translate it. It was a wonderful Night! In my speech, I expressed my migrant experiences- what I initially experienced, how I overcame my adversities and how content I felt living in my adopted homeland. The audience gave me (what seemed) an endless ovation.

 

Above: A portrait.

Above Right: Standing outside our family business, the Geralton Tea Room. Circa late 1950's. 

It was in the 1960’s that Geralton’s Greeks began to move south- to Perth; their children were growing and they naturally wanted to give them better opportunities in the city. Mersina’s brother and cousins were already living in Sydney, so- after nine years- we decided to leave Geralton and move to Sydney. I had visited Sydney in 1958 and was impressed with what I saw; since then, we often bought the Hellenic Herald to look for any arising business opportunities.

We sent Mersini’s mother and grandmother by airplane, as well as our children, Rita and Michael, while Mersini and I drove 3000 miles to Sydney- including 900 miles across the Nullabor Desert, and 650 of them on gravel! It took us two days to cross the Nullabor- a very lonely drive. The road was an endless straight line and (on the rare occasion) when a semi-trailer was approaching, we would flash our lights from a great distance and then honk our horns when we finally reached each other- out of joy just to see someone! I also remember feeling nervous looking at the petrol gauge; imagine running out of petrol in the middle of nowhere! We stopped over once at a farm and used a manual pump to fill up our petrol tank.

When we finally arrived in Sydney, the reality was I had to search for work. I knew several friends who owned delicatessens such as Efstratios Tsakiris (Epping) and Dimitrios Zarglis (NeutralBay). At the time, delicatessens were experiencing their zenith, as all these newly- arrived migrants desired some of their specialty foods from their homeland. My compatriot, Giorgos Psirras, was working at George Hatzplis’ Balkan Foods, who owned several delicatessens across Sydney, and he got me a job there. This suited me, as I wanted to build up my experience; he made a manager of his six shops and this introduced to all aspects of the work. Searching for a business, Mersina and I found one in St Ives, where we stayed there for the next four years (we later bought another delicatessen at North Turramurra). It was a great shop, and the locals enjoyed the different foods we offered. We advertised that they could find in our shop whatever David Jones offered.

 

Above: Celebrating New Years (1977) at the Mytilenian Brotherhood of N.S.W, as our Committee is cutting the Vasilopita. I am third from the right.

Above Right: At the opening of our family business- the Olympia Travel Agency- in Leichhardt (1977). 

After an eighteen- month holiday in Greece, we returned to Sydney (1972) and bought the Burwood Town Milk Bar in WestfieldPlaza- which specialized in sandwiches and milk shakes. After a couple of years, Kostas Karozis (from Evia) and I bought a delicatessen/supermarket in Auburn- next to the station. However, my wife and I made a decision to move away from the delicatessen business, and we bought a travel agency (1977). By the mid- 1970’s, most of the post-War Greek migrants were established with work, family and a home, and were beginning to return to their homeland. I also specialized in travel to the HolyLands and Constantinople. In 1993, we bought the Palais Reception Centre in Leichhardt, and my son, Michael, now manages it.

The Church has always been in integral part of my family; my father was a church chanter for fifty years- in Skopelos’ Agios Georgios. Hence, I grew up in such an environment and with God’s gift of voice, I continued to chant in Sydney. I have also been a member in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese’s Clergy-Laity Committee for over twenty five years. Although we do not deal with ecclesiastical matters, we deal with practically everything else in the management of the Archidiocese- whether it is its 110 churches or TheologicalCollege. For eight years, I was Assistant Secretary (1993-2001).

In my later years, I have lived annually on our island for an extended period. It is my homeland, where I was born, where I have family members, friends and peers, where I went to school, where I experienced the years of my youth. All the things I experienced in Greece are ingrained in me- they are part of my personal biography.

Australia truly is the best country in the world; it gave us the opportunity to transform our nothingness to something well- achieved. Australia is a nation with deep democratic roots, where every rational/logical person can contribute. Although I believe that I could have succeeded in my endeavours had I stayed in Greece- I am very lucky that I came to Australia.

Editor's Note: Stratis Onoufriades' four years as President of the Mytilenian Brotherhood of N.S.W. will be featured in Syndesmos' inaugural E-Newsletter in September.

I would like to thank Stratis and Mersini Onoufriades for all their time and hospitality to conduct the interview and write up this feature.  Vasilis Vasilas

 All photographs courtesy of the Onoufriades family.