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Call Me Emilios

News

Cite as: December 2012 86 (12) LIJ, p.22

Emilios Kyrou called himself John as a schoolboy because he wanted to avoid racist taunts, the Supreme Court judge reveals in his autobiography.

We are in the small village of Sfikia, northern Greece, circa 1965, and here comes young Emilios Kyrou with his hands stained dark brown after a day threading tobacco leaves. The five-year-old runs to his father Yannis and mother Stergiani, themselves returning from another hard day toiling in the tobacco fields.

The trio head into a small home, without electricity, gas, running water or operating toilets, they share with extended family.

Fast-forward to 2008 and the stains are long gone and Emilios officially becomes Justice Kyrou after being sworn in as a judge of the Supreme Court of Victoria.

This extraordinary journey has been chronicled in the autobiography Call Me Emilios which takes readers through his childhood journey from Greece to Australia and into early adulthood.

Justice Kyrou shies neither from the racism he experienced in his adopted homeland nor the arduous but happy life in Sfikia, where he expected that one day he too would become a tobacco farmer.

But it was during these formative years that his parents would teach him his first great lesson in life.

“Ever since I can remember, my parents would say to me: ‘You must get an education, otherwise you will be poor and ignorant like us’. [But] despite the hardship of life in Sfikia, I do not remember being unhappy. It was the only life that I knew,” he wrote.

But that life changed forever when in early 1968 his parents sold their stock, pocketed the 500 drachma (about $200 today), packed some bedding and clothing and, without knowing one word of the English language, joined the migrant trail to Australia.

Yannis, Stergiani, Emilios and younger brother Theodoros (Theo) berthed in Port Melbourne on 5 April after 28 days at sea and excitedly boarded a bus to the Broadmeadows Migrant Hostel in the dark.

They awoke in the new outer north suburb where most residents were blue-collar workers or armed forces personnel and predominantly Anglo-Celtic.

Justice Kyrou told the LIJ that he was “constantly on edge” after arriving in Australia.

“We were leaving a culture that we were familiar with and where we had a place, to a culture with a different language, different customs and mores and initially was not welcoming,” he said.

“It was a startling change and I tried to stay under the radar so I would avoid attention and be as invisible as possible.”

He was also exposed to racist Australians and the prolonged abuse he received would cause the greatest inner turmoil of all.

The first years in Melbourne for Emilios Kyrou saw a succession of moves between backyard bungalows and houses shared with other migrant families. He attended three different primary schools. But at school or in the streets his homemade clothes and crew cut – against the shaggier style of the times – made him stand out.

“I was easily recognisable as a foreigner. The Australian children at Broadmeadows Primary School (where he was enrolled in 1968) had no time for a new kid who did not speak their language. I remember being called wog, greaser, dago, choc, bald choc, spag and other derogatory, racist names,” he wrote in Call Me Emilios.

In his welcome speech to Justice Kyrou in May 2008, (http://tinyurl.com/bcjpc5p) former LIV president Geoff Provis said while the term “New Australian” was widely used in the 1960s, “it was not much used in Broady”.

“It was a tough neighbourhood and school life in Upfield High School mirrored the neighbourhood. People called a spade a spade and a wog a wog, not distinguishing between Greeks, Spaniards, Italians and any other foreigners,” he said.

“The family moved to Broadmeadows at a time when few migrant families were heading to the tough neighbourhood. He worked hard at his studies and even harder not to show it.”

Justice Kyrou said his name stood out to racists more than anything and he would avoid using it.

Then, in 1970, he took advantage of a change in schools to adopt John as his Christian name – Yannis in Greek – and was introduced that way to his new classmates.

“It was simple, sounded Anglo and was short,” he told the LIJ.

“I thought if I gave them an Anglo-sounding name I would not receive racist taunts.”

But at home, in the Greek community and at the Greek school he would attend twice a week he was always known as Emilios.

“In a sense I straddled two worlds. In the Greek world there was a celebration of everything Greek, but in the Australian world it was keeping that either low-key or concealing it altogether. I lived a dual life, if you like, and that was difficult,” he told the LIJ.

But although his grasp of the English language would improve dramatically, Justice Kyrou said it was also very difficult to adjust in a range of ways.

“I remember watching the evening news and hearing the constant references to ‘degrees’. I mistook the word for ‘the Greeks’ and was confused because I thought the weather presenter was announcing how many Greeks had arrived in Melbourne that day,” he wrote.

In fact his English improved at such a rate he would be named joint dux of the class in 1971 at Dallas North Primary School. And as he progressed through the education system the racism gradually eased – thanks mainly to his fair complexion, blond hair, blue eyes, use of “John” and the intimidating students gradually leaving school.

However, he would continue to experience racism in the wider community.

“I faced it at the shops, on public transport and when I simply walked down the street. It was not unusual for total strangers of all ages to call out ‘wog’ or ‘Go back to your own country’.”

Sadly, in 1972, he found the activity that would cause him the greatest anguish was walking the aisles of the local Coles supermarket with his mother.

“My heart sank when I saw someone from school or from our neighbourhood walking towards us in the supermarket. I prayed that my mother would not say anything and expose me as non-Australian,” he wrote.

“If someone from school caught me talking to my mother in Greek, I avoided that person in the future. I wanted to fit in rather than be seen as a foreigner. It was a difficult and confusing time in my life.”

All of his fears and insecurities were kept from his parents.

Soon after the family arrived Emilios’s father Yannis Kyrou found work at a Campbellfield foundry, where he would swallow dust and metal particles and arrive home exhausted and covered in soot and continue to warn his children of the need to study hard.

His mother, however, initially struggled to land employment and this caused her to become very depressed.

Justice Kyrou wrote that his mother recently revealed to him that during that time she would watch his brother Theo and himself sleeping and would cry because she felt that she had ruined their futures by coming to Australia.

“She was so wrong.”

She was later employed at the Yakka clothing factory in Broadmeadows where her employer began calling her Stella as he could not pronounce Stergiani. The name stuck.

In 1973, his parents began work at the Ford factory in Campbellfield where his father installed side mirrors and laid carpets and his mother installed door locks and they remained there until retirement.

When they became home owners they were forced to deal with a wider range of non-Greek people than previously and Emilios, as his parents still did not speak English, acted as interpreter for all but routine transactions.

“On many occasions, I found myself not only interpreting for my parents, but also pleading their cause and standing my ground on their behalf. That experience taught me the importance of knowing one’s rights and, a few years later, influenced my decision to become a lawyer.

“It was a coalescence of striving to get into a prestigious course at university and because I had to be an interpreter for Mum and Dad,” he told the LIJ.

“It became apparent to me at a young age that you needed to know the law to protect your interests.”

In 1975, he began to again introduce himself as Emilios.

“As I grew older and more confident, it occurred to me that some aspects of the Greek culture, such as the strong focus on family and community, had much to commend them; and that there were advantages in speaking two languages and being able to draw upon the best of Greek and Australian customs.

“By asking people to call me Emilios, I reclaimed my identity. This was an important step along the path of acknowledging – and later embracing – my Greek heritage.”

In her foreword to the book, Chief Justice Marilyn Warren said it was the “quintessential immigrant’s story”.

“It is uplifting and exhilarating. It is humbling and inspiring, it is also instructive to be reminded of the shameful phenomenon of racist-driven intolerance, cruelty and inhumanity,” she said. “The perpetual human value of immigrating is improvement – of the self, the family, the place. There is an all-pervading passion to find a better life, to search out opportunity and then to work hard to fulfill that desire. To withstand alienation and discrimination is heroic.”

Following graduation from Melbourne University with a law/commerce (honours) degree, Justice Kyrou served his articles at Corr and Corr, now Corrs Chambers Westgarth, stayed for seven years and became a partner. He then moved to Mallesons, where he was a partner for 17 years prior to moving to the Bench.

He became only the second solicitor to be directly appointed to the Bench behind former LIV president Bernard Teague.

Justice Kyrou said the three-year project that became Call Me Emilios began as an opportunity to capture the family’s oral history from his parents before it was too late.

“I relived the good bits and the sad bits, but it was a great joy to go through that. I found dealing with some of the darker issues cathartic and liberating to record it as it was such an important internalised issue for so many years,” he told the LIJ.

“I like writing and it was a nice extension of that interest to write about myself and my experiences and I particularly enjoyed raiding my parents’ photo albums, and going back through some of the historical records.

“I was exhilarated to get the deliveries from the printers and to actually see it come to fruition. I really enjoyed the experience.”

He warned that the book, which ends on graduation from university, should not be seen as one about his experiences as a lawyer.

The book was not the first foray into writing for Justice Kyrou, who from November 1982 to March 1983 worked at the LIV as a research assistant to then executive director Gordon Lewis on information that would ultimately become the source material for their book, Handy Hints on Legal Practice, published in 1985.

Call Me Emilios is available at the LIV bookshop.

Jason Gregory

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