Mary Raftopoulos – A South African, Greek, Australian

Bread & Butter is a monthly dinner and storytelling event designed to make you think deeply about social issues. A new storyteller every month shares a personal story with 40 guests in the dining room at the Centre for Stories.

Mary Raftopoulos was born in South Africa to South African parents of Greek heritage. After raising a family and running a small business, she and her husband left their homeland for Australia. On 27 June 2019, Mary shared her story at Bread & Butter, reflecting on how her grandparents left Greece to settle in South Africa at the beginning of the 20th Century and the parallels of their journey.

You can listen to Mary’s story by clicking the play button, or read a transcript below.


Thank you Claudia and thank everyone for giving me an opportunity to talk about myself. I don’t get this very often. I’m told I’m supposed to sit. And I’m using cue cards so I’m sorry, but I have to have them. We always knew that we would have to leave South Africa one day, the crime rate was escalating–murders, rapes, shooting, hijacking– but as long as it didn’t affect us, we were going to leave sometime in the future. And when you live there, the abnormal becomes normal, you learn to live with it, until there’s a trigger or a catalyst. And when the crime got closer to home, then we knew that time had come. My eldest daughter’s brother-in-law was shot in his business, he was thirty-years-old, and he left a wife with two young children. And my daughter and her husband said, “We out of here.” At the same time, my youngest daughter had been going out with a boy, they had been going out for a few years, and he was studying medicine at the University of Witwatersrand, which at that time was world renowned. And unfortunately, he realised that there’s a ‘brain drain’ in South Africa, all the doctors and his lecturers were, they were headhunting, and they were going to the States, and Canada and Australia. And this perturbed him. And then, to his parents, and that’s Kathy over there, the mother, and the father, they managed to emigrate, and he managed to get into the University of Western Australia in his fifth year, to finish his degree. Now my youngest daughter said, “I’ll have to go live in Australia, and how can I go without my family!” So, know we knew the time had come, we finally have to leave.

So now it was to find an immigration lawyer, to apply for visa. And I promise you all, it is a very onerous and very expensive process, it really was. And now what visa were we going to come? My husband was over fifty-five, so he was too old to apply. So, I had to be the applicant. And you come in on a point system, I don’t know if it is still the same, and we were going to come in our assets. It was called a 127 visa and I don’t know if they’ve still got the same visa because they keep on changing them. So because you come in on the points system, if you speak English you get so many points, if you’re young you get so many points, and I remember I was at work, and I got a phone call from the immigration lawyer, and she said, “Mary, please say you’re forty-six!” I said, “No, I was born in ’46!” So, she said to me, “I now have to find more points for you.” Anyway, we managed to get the visa. Then we had to inform family and friends, we had to pluck up courage to tell the family that now we leaving. Because obviously we knew they wouldn’t be happy, because we were going to be far away from them, especially our mothers. And then with friends, we encountered quite a bit of resentment and negativity, and a lot of people were saying, “Oh packing for Perth, are we?” Oh yes it was a thing. Or else it was ‘the chicken run’. And some people would say, “You know, I know so and so, and they didn’t make it, and they had to come back, and they lost everything.” This would make you doubt yourself and you worried, “What if I don’t make it and we lose everything, we’ll be destitute.”

Anyway, we had to get over that. Then we had to sell all our assets. Our lovely home, that was so lovingly furnished and had so many loving memories, we had to sell that. Sell your cars, whatever you could, your material possessions. We had to get a container and get a quote for a container. And then they’d say, “Have you got insurance?” Now to get insurance was just as expensive as sending the container across. You thought, “How do we insure it? Do we insure it for breakage? Do we insure it for this? Do we insure for if the container falls overboard?” and that’s what we did. And apparently, there are a lot of containers at the bottom of the sea, I was told.

We had to go for a police officer clearance, and felt like a little bit of a criminal cause you sat there with a stamp pad, I don’t know what they do with that, they rub that on your hands, you put in on the paper. We had to go to our medicals, and we couldn’t go to any doctor, we couldn’t go to our own doctor, we had to go to specially assigned doctors. And they x-rayed us and they weighed us, they prodded and everything. And you thought, “Please, please don’t let them find anything.” Because if you have some health problem, obviously you would not be allowed to get your visa. Now my youngest daughter and that time twenty-two and she had finished her marketing management degree, but because she didn’t have experience, she was backing to find a job. So, obviously she was dependent on her parents. Now remember she was the one that really wanted to come to Australia because her boyfriend was here already, and the immigration lawyer said, “Send her back to study.” So back we sent her to study and we were called in by the Australia High Commission in Victoria. My husband took her, and they were met by this tall, imposing, rude, obnoxious unfriendly lady. When my husband walked in with her, she didn’t greet them just said, “You get out.” And she grilled my daughter. She said, “This is ridiculous, you’re twenty-two and you’re still dependent on your parents.” And Natalie said, “But in our culture, we live with our parents until we get married.” And she says, “and as for studying, you’re not doing a continuous degree like architecture or medicine.” She realised we had used this as a stepping stone. And she said to her, “I’m sorry, but I reject your application, you’re not going.” Now no ways were we going to leave a child behind, if everybody else was coming. So now, we had to find other plans, and we sent her here to  study. When you come as an overseas student, it’s very, very expensive, because Australia sells education. Anyway, she came in and studied.

Now this made me think of my grandparents, who in the early 1900’s were immigrating from Greece, from their tiny little islands near the Ionian Sea. My maternal grandparents came in as a couple, but my paternal grandmother was from the tiny little island of Ithaca Ionian Island, an unsophisticated, naïve, unworldly girl of eighteen or nineteen. Her brother, like many of the young boys in the islands, used to leave the islands at fourteen, fifteen because there was no work for them and they went to Australia, America, South Africa to work and send money home to support their families. And obviously, when you do immigration, you’re inclined to mix with people that you know and that have got the same culture. So he made friends with a lot of the men who came from the same island and he befriended this man and he thought, “This will be a very good husband for my sister.” A letter was sent obviously to the island, and this girl was going to leave her parents, and she never ever saw them again after she left, and she was leaving. I left with a 40ft high cubed container with my goods, and I think back–she must have left with a suitcase or a little trunk. That’s all, on a boat that took six weeks. And I sometimes wonder, I wonder if her wedding dress was in there. And in those days you couldn’t say, “There’s no attraction, he doesn’t turn me on.” If your parents say you’re gonna marry him. And obviously they must have been happy because they ended up with five children, and she found her little community, obviously because there were a lot of Greeks coming a lot from the islands, and she lived there as I say, never saw her parents again.

Then, the day came, the second of August 2002, we got our visa now and this I the day we’re leaving. A lot of mixed emotion on that day. First of all, the trauma of saying goodbye to our mothers and siblings, we were overwhelmed with sadness, and there were a lot of tears on that day. My mother wasn’t too well, she didn’t react very much, but my mother-in-law clung to my husband, and now he was the only son and you know sons in Greek families, he was very important. And she was hanging onto him and was saying in Greek, “Where are you going and leaving me?!” And we also felt guilt that day, me I felt guilty I was leaving a sick mother to my sister, now she would have the burden of looking after my mother on her own. And my husband felt very guilty, felt he was abandoning his mother, and he felt this until last year when she passed away at a hundred. He often went back to South Africa two-three time a year to see her.

Then, the day after you arrive, you wake up in the morning and you get this feeling. “I am in another country, I’ve got no footprint here, I’ve got no roots here, I’ve got no home, no car, no medical aid, no license.” And all this is very overwhelming. “Have I done the right thing? Will I succeed?” but we managed to get over all those hurdles. Then we had our first world problems. We had to find a doctor, we had to find a pediatrist, a chemist. And of course, a hairdresser. We were here a year when we went to see our parents, and when we came back, no sooner did I get back I was here a few days and my mother passed away, so we had to fly back, and phone immigration because you had certain restrictions, and we spoke to a lovely lady and she said, “That’s fine, I will make a note that you’re going back and you’re fine. Go.” We came back, in the post box was this white official looking envelope that we were in breach of our visa requirements because we had not made a concerted effort to find businesses. Our visa was one that we had to get a business within two years and be active in the business. And we were backing, because remember, there were Asian people coming in, South Africans, people from the UK all on the same visa, and everybody’s looking for a business, and it was very hard, even the business agent was actually pulling his hair out, we just couldn’t find anything. And then I remember, it was a Friday, a phone call came it was the business agent. And he says, “A business has just come on the market now. The Kitchen Shop at Garden City is up for sale.” That was the house store, and that was our deal because I love cooking and baking, the kitchen I really do. So, we negotiate with the seller, and everything was agreed. But, we had to go to Melbourne to be interviewed by the French, so my husband and I flew there, I had to do a business plan, I had never done a business plan in my life, but we managed that. And for two days, we were interviewed from department to department, and I remember I had a tension headache and a knot in my stomach. Eventually, the big guy was the last one to interview us, and he was I think South African who had been here for about twenty-two years. And he said, “We accept you as franchisees, but you’ve got two things against you.” We thought, “What?” “You’re South African and your age.” We said, “Why?” He said, “Because a lot of the Australian people perceive the South Africans and being very aggressive.” And there’s another I can’t remember that I was supposed to use. Abrupt, rude people. And I knew that wasn’t true because I think I’m very pleasant. And then he said to us, “Your age. You’ll see.” See we did. We bought the business at Christmas. And the volume of stock that was coming into that store, little did we realise we don’t have the staff like we did in South Africa, to lift these boxes up and down, ten pallets arrived and my husband and I realised, “We’ve got to do this.” And my husband had never done manual work like this, he was in banking, and we sat outside, I can still remember the two of us sitting outside, crying saying, “What have we done? Are we going to succeed in this business?” But, we did. And now seventeen years later, here we are, we happily settled in this country, we now call Australia home. And we are fortunate that our children, and our grandchildren are here. And because of us, they now have a safer life, they have security, and great opportunities. Then I think back and I realise what impact my grandparents must have had on me, my children and my grandchildren. And my grandchildren are proper Aussies, they were all born here, they’ve gone to Greece, they’ve been to the island, they love it, and they still say they’re Greek. They cannot speak a word of Greek. And also, because of us coming here, and because of my Greek heritage, we’ve also met our own little community, a lot of these lovely Australian Greek ladies, and they’ve embraced us as well, and we thank you for that we really do. And then of course, South Africa, South Africa is the land of my birth. And South Africa will always be in my heart, and when I do hear the South African anthem I do get very emotional, and to this day I still go to the South African shop in Osbourne Park and buy a lot of the South African products. And that’s why I say I’m a South African Greek Australian and I have the best of three worlds. Thank you.

Copyright © 2018 Mary Raftopoulos

This story and corresponding images have been licensed to the Centre for Stories by the Storyteller. For reproduction and distribution of this story/image please contact the Centre for Stories.

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