Migrant Voices – Vicki Mitsos

Goulburn Ovens TAFE College, Shepparton

Vicki Mitsos was two years old when her family migrated from Greece to Nathalia. After overcoming the untimely death of her father, Vicki went on to champion the causes of education for migrants and the provision of muticultural services. Vicki worked for many years in the migrant education area of GOTAFE.

I migrated at the age of two from Greece to Australia with my mother, three sisters and a brother to Nathalia in country Victoria. My father had migrated two years earlier. We lived on a 1500 acre wheat and sheep station owned by my Uncle Steve Varvaressos. My father worked from dawn to dusk, my mother ran the household, looking after the children and cooking all the meals for the shearers.

It still brings a smile to my face remembering when mum could not cook Aussie meals. Uncle Steve also owned a cafe and he showed her how to cook pumpkin soup, a good T-Bone steak with mashed potatoes, vegetables and gravy, then to top it all off with ice-cream and fresh fruit, and even how to make a good cup of tea. She couldn't get over how on earth on a hot day of 40 degrees the shearers still wanted to have their hot cup of tea and not a cool glass of retsina wine.

I believe by the third season, the shearers could not wait to shear the sheep on the property so they could have their souvlaki with tzaziki with a glass of cold wine and a sweet slice of baklava with some strong Greek coffee.

I remember at the age of five, I loved running to the shearing shed so I could sing with the shearers; my first Aussie song was "Click go the Shears". We learnt our first English from the shearers, the stock drovers, or even the odd neighbour that dropped by. It was words such as "good aye", or even G'Day mate! She11 be right!, se ya later, put the billy on. But it was good to hear them respond "Yiasou" (goodbye) or even "Kalimera" instead of morning! Talk about sharing cultures. Mum was so isolated; our nearest neighbours were miles away. If you did not speak English, if you did not have public transport, if you did not have a license, times were even more difficult. It was a hard life for her having to boil the water in the copper, washing all the clothes by hand.

I remember a time we ran out of bread. The children were sleeping; I was too hyperactive and did not have afternoon naps. She dragged me across the wheat fields, the wheat stalks scratched my legs, the flies buzzed around, with the sun glaring into my eyes. We reached the neighbour who was kind enough to give us some bread. When dad came home, he had to buy some from the town, which was miles away.

It was not all bad though; there were many good times also. I loved it when dad took us to the local footy match. We couldn't speak English but we soon learned the footy rules. My sisters and I just loved to eat our hot dogs or Four and Twenty pies.

In 1966, we had saved enough money for a deposit for a dairy farm. Our joy only lasted for six months. On a cold Saturday night dad took the family to visit some friends in another town. On the way we were involved in a car accident. My brother and father were killed, my mother lost one of her eyes, and 80% of her body was broken. I was placed in the ambulance with my father who was still alive at the time. He was screaming in agony in Greek. The ambulance officer kept shaking me to wake me up as I kept dozing off. He needed me to interpret for both of them; I was only 11 at the time.

Dad knew he was going to die and kept saying "God, why? I came to the land of opportunity, the land of gold but this language barrier is killing me, make them understand Vicki, I am drowning in blood, save me!" Dad died the following day.

My life changed that night. I suddenly realised what it is like for someone who migrates to a country that does not speak the language.

We lived in the bush because that was where the work was. English classes were not around. Interpreter or translator services were not available. Public transport was not available. Worst of all, to be a migrant woman without English and belonging to a different culture.

I remember going with mum to the cow auction to buy a bull to service our cows. My bid was not taken; we were looked at like we were aliens. What was a woman dressed in black with a young girl doing at a cow auction. This was a man's world!

Another time we went to the bank to borrow money. The bank manager rejected our claim, but when my uncle Steve went, and he wasn't working or managing the farm, the girls and mum were, the loan was approved.

Five years later, my mother, raising four young women, still had not learnt the English language. How could she? She had picked up a little from us but working long hours on the farm, with no license and no English classes were available in country Victoria. My sisters and I had to interpret for her; I hated it, especially if it was the gynaecologist. It was so depressing and I felt so ashamed.

Because there were no interpreting services, you could have the person from the local fish and chip shop or that Greek woman that spoke a little more English than my mother. We lived in a small country town; mum did not want everyone to know our business so it was left up to me to interpret for her. I'm not proud of some of the things I did, I found out it was so difficult growing up with two cultures, two ways of life, Greek at home and English at school.

I wanted to go to school camps with the other girls but mum was scared we were Greek girls and mum was frightened of the unknown. She relied on us to interpret for her to our teachers.

One memory still stays vivid in my mind, when the Principal called Mum in, she explained to mum, through me as the interpreter, how concerned she was about my behaviour and that my homework was never in on time, and I was missing school ... Oh yes, I interpreted alright, however this was my interpretation:

Mrs Stivactus, we are so pleased with Vicki's progress, her full participation in all activities, we are so proud of her!

Mum was so happy, thanking her in Greek, with a happy smile on her face, and the confused look on my teachers face was enough for me to get mum away. I know what I did was wrong. I blamed my mum for my unhappiness, when really I should have been proud of her, I should have been proud of our culture, and I should have balanced the two ways of life into one.

I eventually married Con who is a loving, caring, supportive man. We have three children Nick, Spiro and Vaia. We spent a year living with my in-laws in Melbourne and I remember even more horror stories.

Like the time my father in-law proudly took me to the factory where he was working from the day, he arrived in Australia 20 years earlier. With a grin on his face he showed me his footprint where he had stood for 20 years doing the same job. He worked long hours; scared to say anything about working conditions in case he lost his job. He had no opportunity to learn English either.

My mother in-law and sister in-law used to walk miles to where they worked. Conditions were dirty, they handled heavy metal, but they made sure that they kept their heads down in case they got the sack.

We eventually moved to Shepparton and bought a dairy farm. I got work as an interpreter with government departments. I helped to establish an interpreting service at GV Health and had progressed to become the Centre Manager of the Multicultural Education Centre at Goulburn Ovens TAFE.

The Multicultural Education Centre now delivers the Adult Migrant Education Program (AMES) throughout regional Victoria in places such as Mildura, Bendigo, Ballarat, Gippsland, Cobram, Kyabram and many more with the office located at Goulburn Ovens TAFE in Shepparton.

My passion and commitment for women and for improving services throughout regional Victoria continued when I became President of the Ethnic Council Shepparton and District in 1990. Membership of the Ethnic Council grew from four ethnic organisations to its current membership of thirty-two.

I have joined numerous committees to help advocate for migrants and in 1997 became a Commissioner of the Victorian Multicultural Commission. This is where change has taken place throughout Victoria with my input and recommendations being heard. Access and delivery of services for migrants is now being implemented.

The Victorian Multicultural Commission is a vital link between Victoria's cultural and linguistic diverse communities, the broader community and government. It provides the government with independent advice and helps to set the agenda for the government.

Source: Suitcase Full of Dreams (Reproduced with permission)


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