According to the Racism in Australia section on the All Together Now website, one in five people in Australia are (or have been) subjected to racial discrimination.
Eleni Pavlides is one of these people. A Greek-Australian, she’s an outgoing and observant Bachelor of Arts student at the University of Tasmania. She’s going on to do a Masters of Teaching, and dreams of teaching English as a second language in Cyprus.
Eleni’s family is Greek Cypriot. Her paternal grandparents fled to Australia from Cyprus in 1974 after Turkish troops unleashed the atrocities of war onto the Greek island, causing bloodshed, chaos, and poverty. Her father was born soon after their arrival. Her mother, on the other hand, was actually born and raised in Cyprus.
Her grandparents saw Australia as the land of opportunity, but they were forced into the unhappy lifestyle of working 24/7 in order to make a living. They latched onto any job their lack of education allowed them to attain. Her grandmother, Aikaterina, said that her biggest regret when arriving in Australia was leaving her ten-month-old son, Yeoryios, alone in his cot for about forty five minutes every day so that she could catch the bus to arrive on time to start her shift at the Cadbury’s factory in Hobart.
“I was so naïve,” her grandmother once told Eleni. “I’d pour a shot of whiskey in Yeoryio’s milk bottle before every shift. I’d do this so he would sleep through the forty-five minutes and not cry. I couldn’t lose my job: we needed the money. I didn’t know I was doing anything wrong. I left my mother to work in the city when I was thirteen-years-old. I remember my father would drink to keep warm. I didn’t know I was doing something bad. All I knew was that I needed my child to sleep so I could make money. Money offered security, and we didn’t have any”.
Their son Yeoryios (Eleni’s father) was also a victim of racism. He was born in Australia and could speak perfect English. Despite this, he described to his daughter that his walks to the bus stop were “horrible”.
“Every morning, I would hide beneath the trees so the other boys wouldn’t spit on me and hit me. I’d wait under the trees until I could see the bus driver open the door, so I could rush onto the bus without getting targeted.”
His time at school was equally horrible.
“I was constantly looking over my shoulder. Thank God I was a bigger build than the other boys, though, because if you didn’t fight to protect yourself, you didn’t survive. The teachers never helped. To be honest, I think some of them were scared, and the others just didn’t care.”
But Eleni’s grandparents saved up enough money from working in factories to build a small take-away and grocery store in the Hobart suburb of Clarendon Vale. Their hard work had finally paid off.
But Eleni would eventually became a victim herself.
“Racism is wrong on so many levels,” she says. “When an individual is subjected to racism, particularly at a young age, they start to think they’re different. That was definitely the case for me.”
At various times in her life, Eleni and her family have travelled to Greece to visit her mother’s relatives. After returning to Australia after one of these trips in 2002, when she was eight-years-old, she became a target of racism for the first time.
A classmate came up to her and said: “My mum says that people with dark skin don’t have showers.”
Because Eleni was still learning English at this stage, she didn’t quite understand the hostile meaning behind the comment. In broken English, she simply replied, “No, bath,” explaining that she didn’t have showers.
She eventually twigged on to what her classmate meant. When she got home later that day, she endeavoured to make her skin the same colour as everyone else’s in order to be accepted. She ran a bath and then scrubbed her skin as much as she could, trying to scrape off the black. But it obviously didn’t work. So she got a bottle of baby powder from a bathroom cupboard and smothered herself with it to make herself appear whiter.
Eleni continued to be subjected to racism throughout the rest of primary school, which badly affected her self-confidence and self-esteem.
“I was called a ‘wog’ a lot in high school as well,” she explains. “But being a lot older then, and having already experienced racist remarks in primary school, it no longer bothered me.”
She turned to her family and close friends for support when it got too much for her.
But Eleni wasn’t subjected to racism in college or at university. For this, she’s extremely grateful.
“I think it’s the result of changing times,” she says, “and the changing generations that have let go of backwards mentalities.”
Eleni is now a mature young woman who is more confident in herself and her opinions.
“I think standing your ground is something that comes with age,” she says. “When I was younger, I was very quiet, and got embarrassed easily. So I never spoke up. I think this is why I’m such a dominant person now, because nothing good ever came out of me not speaking up. Australia is a very multicultural country, so when I find an individual who isn’t accepting someone of a different nationality, I definitely don’t stay quiet anymore.”
Even though there seems to be less racism these days, it still exists. All you have to do is read the statistics.
Australia prides itself on being multicultural, but what’s the point of that when some of our international citizens are not comfortable in their new-found home because of racism? It’s obvious something needs to be done about this issue.
Eleni believes that there should be programs and facilities that educate individuals about the impacts racism has on people of different nationalities. She also thinks that Australian children should be taught about the wonders and beauty that each country holds. All this will potentially prevent people of diverse nationalities feeling different and lost due to others making them feel unwanted, as was the case with Eleni and her family.
“Looking back now,” she says, “I can see that all the racism took a toll on me. For example, I’d avoid going to the ‘fun’ areas in the playground because my bullies were always there. I felt as if I was not good enough to go to the canteen or ask to play games with others at recess and lunch.”
Eleni’s advice to those who are currently targets of racism is this: “Don’t deal with it alone! No-one should ever experience it. We live in a day and age where racism is simply not acceptable. So don’t ever feel as if you shouldn’t speak up because no-one will listen. Everyone is important, and every life is sacred.”