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From Kythera to Australia, from Poverty to Prosperity

Paper presented at the International Symposium
Of Kytheraismos with the theme: Kytherian Identity
Organized by the Institute of Kytheraismos

Kythera 24-26 September 2004

Dr Nicholas P. Glytsos

1. What has left the exodus to Australia

According to the recent Australia population census, the Greeks of Australia were in 2001 of the order of 449,000 people, of which a rather large proportion are of Kythera descent. Most of the Greeks that immigrated to Australia between the end of the 19th century and 1940, originated in the islands of Kythera, Ithaca and Kasteloriso. This emigration has greatly affected the situation in these islands. The consequence for Kythera, which is the interest of this paper, was that the exodus to Australia of the 1950s and 1960s deserted the island, resulting over the subsequent years in decayed houses and ruins everywhere, transforming many places into “ghost villages”. Looking around in the island one sees in all villages ruins that would be even more without the recent intensive reconstruction of old or the construction of new houses. This is due to the development of tourism and the rise of the standard of living of Kytherians, as well as the coming of other Greeks who buy or build houses, and the return of some Greek migrants for shorter or longer periods of time.

The population of Kythera from 8,178 persons in 1940 is today (2001) 3,532 people and without the foreigners less than 3,000. From 1965 onwards, those who die annually are more than those who are born. If you look around, and if you can distinguish the Kytherians from the foreigners that have flooded Kythera, you will see only old people. The school children are by 30 per cent less than the population of 80 years and over of age and 80 per cent less than the 65ers and over. All of these are the long term consequence of the postwar overseas emigration and to a lesser extent the movement of people to Athens. During the great emigration period to Australia, 1951-1971 alone, the population of the island declined from 6,507 down to 4,102 persons, a fall of about 37 per cent.

The chain migration from father –to son- to brother and so on, depopulated whole communities. The elderly Kytherians with close relatives in Australia express often their sad feelings that emigration separated families for ever. Characteristic of the intensive emigration of Kytherians to Australia and less to other countries is the fact that out of the 27 kids that we were going to school from my little village of Dokana, 17 emigrated to Australia and 2 to the USA, whereas 7 of my cousins went to Australia and the USA. And this is not a special or unique case; it is rather the rule for most of the families in Kythera. These kids and so many others left the island, particularly during the first postwar years because they did not have anything to eat or shoes to wear, they did not have where to work, and most importantly, they did not envisage any hope that things would improve in the years to come. They saw, however, a future and an opportunity in Australia and that is why, if they had the chance, they were leaving the island in great numbers.

2. What the Kytherian arrivals met in Australia and what they managed to achieve

Having the syndrome and the ambition of the immigrant not only to survive but to succeed and to start a new life in the new country, Kytherian immigrants, as any other Greek immigrants, worked hard and long in an unknown environment without speaking English, requiring several years of work to pay for their journey to Australia. Some of them, as Nick Poulos, who went to Australia in 1951 at the age of 12 1/2 years worked, as he himself said, 5 years 18 hours a day 7 days a week to pay for his fare. Since their integration in the new country was difficult they had the necessity to be together with other Kytherians and the need to organize, either around the church that was the basic nucleus of Greekness and the orthodoxy, or creating brotherhoods that helped them both to be in familiar and friendly environment and to integrate in the Australian society, which was not easy, given the prejudices of the time.

During the long emigration period from Greece to Australia, there was a gradual change in the form of employment of Greeks. Upon their arrival and the first years of their stay, the Greeks with the very low educational level and the lack of any technical experience could not be employed in Australian enterprises as employees, therefore they were forced by the circumstances to create their own business or become employers. However, over time and as they were gaining more experiences, learned the language and as new more educated cohorts of Greeks were arriving, the form of their employment was changing towards offering more depended work, having acquired the qualifications for these jobs. As a result, while, in 1947, about half of Greek immigrants were self-employed or employers, by 1981, this proportion went down to 24 per cent.

With their own insistence and hard work, the Kytherians managed not only to survive and to integrate, but to reach high achievements and dominate, even some to be distinguished. Years back, as Tamis notes, “The Kytherians who [in 1945] represented the backbone of the Greek Community in Sydney, influenced and controlled the Community. The economic integration of Greeks and therefore the Kytherians in the Australian economy is today complete. The level of unemployment of the Greeks as a whole does not generally differ from the average unemployment of total Australian population. Only some Greeks of the first generation who are employed in declining industries suffer more unemployment compared to the rest of the population. Furthermore, in times of recession of the Australian economy, as for instance during the period 1981-1991, the average employment of Greeks was affected roughly in the same way as the employment of total Australian population, the rate of unemployment increasing analogously. Thus, any employment problems that may exist are more or less common with those of total population; they are not special to the Greeks.

By the same token, the income of Greeks is not materially different. The average income of Greeks reaches 95 per cent of the average income of total Australian population. However, at the lower end of the income scale, at least in the State of Victoria, for which I have data, the proportion of first generation poor is much higher than the corresponding proportion of the total population of the state (29.7 per cent against 15.3 per cent).

Since the mid-1970s, the Kytherian emigration to Australia has stopped, with the consequence that the first generation is not any more renewed with young immigrants and is gradually shrinking. The rather safe prediction is that in a few years time those surviving of the first generation would retire from economic life, leaving entirely the legacy of their descendants in the Australian economy and society, who already have years ago been playing their own important role.

3. How Kytherian immigrants raised their children and prepared them for a better life

Despite their long stay in Australia, or America and Canada for that matter, Greek immigrants, and among them Kytherians, perhaps even more, tried and managed to preserve their Greek identity and raise their children properly, so that they speak Greek and observe the Greek traditions, in a way to sustain their national identity. They seem to have succeeded on this better than some other nationalities. Thus, in every 100 first generation Greek immigrants in Australia, 226 descendants speak Greek, whereas in every 100 first generation Italian immigrants, 162 speak Italian. This rather high achievement is due to the fact that a high proportion, 89 per cent of first generation Greeks and 68 per cent of second generation speak Greek at home. Another factor conducive to this is the high proportion of marriages among Greeks, as well as the extensive system of Greek language instruction in the ethnic and day schools.

In spite of their low education, or perhaps because of that, first generation Greeks had the ambition that their children achieve what they themselves were unable to achieve, i.e. to be educated and have equal opportunities as any other Australian to progress and climb up the social ladder as equal to equal with the Australians. They raised them accordingly, and their children, in turn, raised their own offspring - perhaps to a lesser degree in the sequence of generations - in a way that without forgetting their Greek origin to advance economically and socially.

This way, the pioneering Greeks, and among them Kytherian, immigrants prepared their children to be educated and acquire qualifications that would enable them to play in fields, such as science and politics in which they themselves could not for understandable reasons play. It is true that the educational level of the second and subsequent generations, particularly of women, is generally higher from the level of total Australian population. A proportion of 23 per cent of second generation (26 per cent of girls and 21 per cent of boys) have higher education compared with 17 per cent of total Australian population, and with only 5 per cent of their parents. Furthermore, the proportion of Greek youth who from secondary education enroll to the university is the highest compared with any other nationality in Australia.

The descendants of the first generation are indeed fully integrated and decisively determine things in several sectors of economic life. Very often they are superior in performance and achievements compared to total Australian population, and even excel and become leaders in political and economic life. Individual economic branches that the Greeks, particularly of the second and third generation, not only demonstrated good performances but have been distinguished, in the last 30 or so years, are the fishing industry, construction, pearl trade and the food industry. Where they have a dominating place is furniture manufacturing, having a market share of 80 per cent. They have also demonstrated a high performance in real estate, taxis, gas stations, tires and clothing.

4. What would Kythera be without emigration

From the viewpoint of the sending country, migration is a multidimensional phenomenon, having a mixture of positive and negative implications for various aspects of economic and social life. These implications are more severe for a small and poor community that Kythera was at the time of the great exodus of people to Australia. With the benefit of hindsight, one may wonder what Kythera would have been, had so many of its inhabitants not moved to Australia and elsewhere. Some may say that if all these people stayed put, the island would not have been depopulated, at least until the tourist industry was developed. In this line of thought, some could go as far to suggest that, instead of having today so many foreigners (about 20 per cent of total population or about 40 per cent of the labour force) to sustain the economy and demography of the island, we would have our own people around who would fill the vacuum and do the job, taking the place of the foreigners that would had never come, because they would not be needed.

Who could, however, say with some degree of certainty what the situation would really have been if! And more importantly, what would be the personal achievement of all those who in difficult times for surviving on the island left? Judging on the basis of the existing conditions at the time of mass departure, would be difficult to admit that the island and its people would have been better if emigration did not take place. Most probably these people would live in poverty like so many who did not move, depriving themselves and their children of the opportunity of a better life in Australia, where naturally they worked hard but they had the chance and the opportunity to do so. I am afraid that for all those years until Kythera started to develop and the standard of living of people to rise, thanks partly to the transfers by the Kytherians of Diaspora, we would still have ruins all around with the difference that people would live in these ruins in misery and poverty. In my view it is less painful to have just ruins or ‘ghost villages’ than ruins with people in them.

In the context of this discussion, compare in addition, the place that would have to day the then would be emigrants in Kythera, doing the jobs that the foreigners are now doing and consider their own contemporary position and that of their children in Australia, described above. Apart from that, Kythera would be deprived of the money they sent to relatives or their donations that improved directly or indirectly the infrastructure of the island, i.e. the hospital, the aged peoples home, and even the high school that was built earlier, mainly with donations of Greeks from the USA.

Many put the question whether emigration is in effect ‘a blessing or a curse’ and depending on their point of view they interpret it one way or the other. I think that realistically at least for Kythera, under the circumstances prevailing at the time of the rush exodus, and the benefits accruing thereof to the migrants themselves and the island at large, emigration could be characterized as a ‘shift from a curse to a blessing’. In the immediate postwar poverty stricken Greece suffering from high unemployment and the non-existed possibilities of individual survival, not to say anything about prosperity, where else would daring people turn other than abroad?

5. How the multiple implications of Kytherian emigration materialize

By way of a conclusion of this presentation, the various implications of emigration from Kythera, could be formalized in the framework of a sequence of five chains or chain reactions, which as the Olympic Circles are related. The first chain, call it demographic, works its way through the serial emigration of members of one family, that apart of the sad consequence of separating families, leaving usually the parents or grant parents behind, deserts whole villages and has further longer term implications of decaying demographic developments of the island - the young leave the old stay and reproduction is falling.

The second chain of reactions is related to the identity of migrants and the preservation of the material and not only the folkloric Greekness. Integrated but not assimilated in the Australia society, the Kytherians transfer, as I noted earlier, to their children their Greek identity, including the Greek language and the Greek orthodox faith, and they nurture them in the way to inspire nostalgia for the ‘unknown’ country of their ancestors and the urge to visit and know it.

The third chain is the economic. Despite their bad memories from the deprivations they suffered in Kythera, they never forget their country and they don’t leave alone their relatives. They supported them when times were difficult and they also supported Kythera when it was mostly needed, helping to build the infrastructure of the island. Family members who stayed behind saw their life to be improved and through this the economy of the island to progress. In 1975, the remittances of immigrants in Australia to their relatives in Greece, including money transferred by them for investment or other purposes, was of the order of 15.4 million US dollars, raised to 18.8 million in 1985 and 30.4 million in 1993. Every Greek immigrant in Australia transferred (1991) on the average 150 US dollars per year. With the possibility of some error, assuming that the Kytherians were no different in their remitting behavior from the rest of Greeks, and say that they represented even one –tenth of Greek immigrants (various much higher figures have at various times be presented), one may calculate that the Kytherian immigrants in Australia would at the time transfer to Kythera about 2 million US dollars annually, which corresponds to about 700 US dollar per inhabitant of Kythera.

The fourth chain reaction, call it political, concerns the support of the Greek Diaspora in political or international difficulties or crises that Greece is at times facing. This is done either with the activation of Greeks of influence who due to their position or their power can lobby, or through the massive mobilization and pressures collectively exercised by the Greeks. Note that, as it is known, the Greeks of Diaspora are often more patriots than us who leave permanently in the country.

Finally, the fifth chain that completes the Olympian circles is related to the nostos, the returning home either for periodic short or long visits or for permanent stay of still young economically active persons. They rebuild their old houses or build new ones, and one way or another, help the economy of the island and reinforce their ties and the ties of their children and grant children with the island, which is perhaps the most important channel for retaining the Kytherian identity.

In the final analysis, each one of these five chains may work autonomously, but they are also connected and operate in combination with each other, because in the process there are in force reactions and counteractions among them. As the Greek athletes won several metals in the recent Olympic Gaims for Greece, so the Kytherians of Australia, acting through these polymorphic related channels of migration, are in their own way Olympic winners, bringing to Kythera many gold, silver and bronze metals.

Brief Curriculum Vitae

Nicholas P. Glytsos, Ph.D. (Economist)

Dr Glytsos was born in Dokana Kythera and he graduated from the Kythera High School. He holds a B.A. (Econ.) degree from the Athens University of Economics and Business, a Diploma (Economic Development) and a Master’s (Econ.) degree from the University of Manchester, England and a Ph.D degree from Syracuse University of the USA.

Dr Glytsos is Principal Researcher and for many years held the position of the Head of the Division of Labour Economics at the Centre of Planning and Economic Research in Athens, Greece. He was also appointed Visiting Fellow at Princeton University in the USA and he has taught in American and Greek Universities. For four years he served as an elected member in the Executive Committee of the European Association of Labour Economists (EALE).

For fifteen years, Dr Glytsos was the Greek Delegate at the Employment, Labour and Social Affairs Committee of the OECD in Paris. Four of these years he was the Vice-Chairman of that Committee. For six years, he was also the Greek Delegate at the Economic Policy Committee (for Labour issues) of the European Union, in Brussels and for another six years Greek Representative in the European Union Network for Migration (RIMET). He also served for two years as Vice-Chairman at an ad hoc Committee of the Council of Europe, on migration, in Strasbourg. Currently and for the duration of the period 2002-2006, Dr Glytsos is the EU-Wide Evaluator of the EU project EQUAL in Greece.

Dr Glytsos has presented – very often invited – scientific papers in tens of international conferences in various parts of the world, has published two books (monographs), as well as tens of papers in esteemed international journals and international and Greek collective volumes of very well known publishers. He has also been referee on behalf of several high quality international journals and on behalf of Greek Universities and Research Institutes.

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