Life Stories- Asomatiani and Australia

Migrant Profile: Georgios Kefalas

Giorgos Kefalas (1936-     ) Part 1   

Narrated by Giorgos Kefalas

to Vasilios Vasilas

I grew up in a tiny village, Asomatos, where the closest primary and high schools were in the town of Agiasos. My father, Eustratios, was from a family of carpenters who had his own workshop in the nearby village, Ipios and my mother, Maria, was a schoolteacher. As she spent fourteen years in Egypt, she was multilingual, speaking fluent French, Italian and Arabic. My mother was from a wealthy family with a line of doctors who were one of the most generous donors of our island; for instance, one of my uncles, Hatzivranas, donated all his property to the Orthodox Church for a church to be built, and he also built our village’s primary school.
Either my father was an extremely intelligent man or just plain lucky, because the farmlands he bought on both sides of the Evreyetoulas River were extremely fertile and was able to maintain productive orchards- citrus fruits. We used to barter our goods for everything we may have needed. This was godsent during the Occupation because we had plenty of produce to survive; our ten sheep’s milk saved our whole extended family! Unlike most Greeks who struggled during these difficult years, we were quite comfortable.
Above: With my mother, Maria. Circa 1954.
Education was expensive in our day; for me to attend tertiary education, our family would have had sell a farm to fund me moving to Athens- which I thought was wrong. It was my mother’s dream for her children to go to university but this was not my dream; I went straight into work. Following our family’s tradition, I also became a carpenter; I initially worked with two of Lesbos’ finest carpenters, Nikos Komninoglou and Nikos Sartziliotis. However, I had developed an allergy to dust and this forced me to look for another trade- which was painting and rendering with Haralambos Previdoros (1954). Once I was discharged from my national service, I was able to set up my own business; by the time I left for Australia, I had six employees and we were doing some large jobs like government contracts such as to paint our new school at Skalosia.
It was during my service in the Greek airforce- I was responsible for all our base’s building material- that I came into contact with other servicemen who had relatives in Australia. Like many overseas Greeks who used to send money back home to relatives, I remember them receiving cheques of $ 50 or $ 100, which greatly aroused my curiosity. I asked them how long had these relatives been living in Australia to afford sending such great amounts of money. To my utter surprise, they were here for six months or had not even reached a year. This was incredible! Although my business was growing and I was establishing a good reputation on our island, I had this urge to come to Australia; it is no wonder when the opportunity to migrate here with the D.E.M.E migratory program, I jumped for it. I had the contract to build the primary school at Asomatos. While we were working there- it must have been just after midday- I jumped off the scaffolds, caught a taxi to Mytilini’ port and I was on the boat bound for Piraeus. It all happened so quickly. I came to Australia as a tradesman looking for a better future. Another villager and my closest friends, Kostas Valavanis, came out to Australia together. In 1960, my first impressions of Australia was Bonagila’s migrant hostel.
From the offset, I was restless at Bonagila; I felt as though I was taken to some camp and my life had suddenly become idle. I met all these migrants from all over Europe; I asked a German how long he had been at the hostel and he replied, “Eighteen months.” When I asked an Italian fellow, his reply was two years. The least amount of time someone told me they had been there was three months. I could not handle being in such a situation. On top of this was the daily serving of mash potato at dinner; were we in some kind of prison camp? There were so many Greeks- so many from my island. I made my intentions clear to them that I could not stay there and seven of us left Bonagila.
In my pocket, I had a list of three people to find when I reached Sydney (1960): (Sir)Arthur George, Mick Adams and Giorgos Pandazes- another compatriot. At Central Station, I showed the taxi driver these three addresses and he actually told us our best option was to go see our compatriot, as he was wealthy. When their door opened and I saw a map of Lesbos on the opposite wall, I turned to Kosta and said, “We’ll be alright.” We instantly became friends and we stayed there for three days until we settled. I had a beautiful beginning in Sydney. It was not long before I put all my efforts towards establishing myself at my trade; I had an appetite for work! To my advantage, there were not many Greek renderers here. My first job I was offered to paint the Acropolis kafeneio- for 300 pounds! I finished the job in nineteen hours straight, and I thought there was a great opportunity to be had in Sydney. I remember sending back a few hundred pounds to my parents, as my brother, Fotios, was ill; I was happy just to keep a small amount for my daily expenses and rent, and send the rest back home. My landlord was Barbara Agapitakis; my mother had sent her a letter to look after me. As a social outlet, I became involved with our churches- Holy Trinity and St Sophia- where I taught Sunday school for two years. Within the year after I arrived here, my fiance, Stavitsa, who was from Perama on our island, arrived to Sydney for us to get married (1961); in 1966, we sponsored my mother-in-law, Eleni, to come to Sydney to look after our two sons, Stratos and Mario. Life just progressed so rapidly.
Above: As President of the Mytilenian Brotherhood of N.S.W. at a social dance at the Police
Boys Club in Erskinville (Sydney). Circa 1969.
When I migrated here, I never intended to remain a tradesperson or labourer for the rest of my life. It did not worry me that I was overloaded with work, as long as I was saving money towards establishing my own business. It was my mother’s friend, Mick Adams, who introduced me to John Walton of the Waltons Department stores, and he made me department manager of paints- a big thing for a migrant those days. In two years, I was ready set up my own business; however, Waltons did not want to let me go and they offered me anything and everything to keep me: free rent and lease; free telephone and electricity; the shop next to Waltons with access through their shop and the paints department. By 1971, I was able to set up Kefalas Hardware in Marrickville. I attribute three factors to this success: a strong foundation in English, ‘the gift of the gab’ and being fearless in business.