Issues Affecting Macedonians from Greece

By Victor Bivell

This paper was delivered at the Macedonian Conference on Women, Aged and Youth held in Sydney on September 22, 1994.

Thank you for this opportunity to discuss some of the problems that affect Macedonians in Australia and in particular those Macedonians who come from Greece.

These Macedonians have always considered themselves to be, and have always called themselves, "Macedonian". The term "Aegean Macedonian" is only used when it is necessary to distinguish this group from the Macedonians in or from the Republics of Macedonia, Bulgaria and Albania. They are of course the same people, and speak the same language.

Not so long ago these Macedonians were sometimes, loosely, refered to as "Greek Macedonian" but for obvious political reasons this term is now quite unacceptable. Many Macedonians have always considered it unacceptable and this is now the prevailing view.

To understand Macedonians from Greece who now live in Australia it is crucial to understand their experiences in Greece and why they emigrated.

Between 1912 and 1949 these Macedonians experienced five wars: the First and Second Balkan Wars, the First and Second World Wars, and the Greek Civil War. They also lived under the Metaxas dictatorship of the 1930s.

Although the first Macedonians in Australia arrived in the 1890s and came from the part of Ottoman Macedonia now in Greece, their arrival in significant numbers coincides with the periods of major political repression in Greece.

The first significant waves were in the 1920s and 1930s. The most important political event here was the Balkan Wars and the division of Macedonia among Greece, Serbia and Bulgaria as this denied the Macedonian people an independent homeland where they could live and develop in peace.

Instead, in 1913, Macedonians who had lived in the same villages for generations suddenly found themselves a national minority within the new borders of Greece.

By 1919 the Greek Government had commenced a policy of Hellenizing northern Greece and in essence this involved either the expulsion or the denationalization and assimilation of the Macedonians.

As part of its denial that Macedonians existed, the Greek Government assiduously avoided referring to the Macedonians as Macedonians. Instead it used, and still uses, terms such as "Slavophones", "Greeks who speak a slavic dialect," "Macedo-slavs", "Slavomacedonians" or "Slav-Macedonians". The rest of the time they are "non-existent".

In 1919 the Greek Government commenced a so called "voluntary exchange of populations" with Bulgaria and several years later with Turkey. For Macedonians in eastern Macedonia these exchanges were compulsory and today would be known as ethnic cleansing.

Between 1922 and 1925 Greece brought in over 600,000 Greeks from Turkey who took over the homes and villages of the departing Macedonians.

From 1926 new efforts to hide the existence and past presence of Macedonians included the replacing of all Macedonian geographic and family names with Greek names. Many Macedonians in Australia still carry these Greekafied names.

In the 1930s under Metaxas the Macedonian language was outlawed, even as a spoken language at home. In this period over 5,000 Macedonians were interned in prison camps.

Thus throughout the 1920s and 30s this political and cultural persecution resulted in many Macedonians fleeing Greece as political and economic refugees, with many thousands coming to Australia.

Another wave of emigration began with the Greek Civil War between 1946 and 1949 during which Macedonians in northern Greece fought for their independence, but lost due to the intervention of Greece's Western allies, who saw the conflict in terms of the capitalist-communist struggle. As a result of this period Australia continued to receive Macedonian immigrants from Greece into the 1960s and 70s.

Today, Macedonians in Greece are still denied basic human rights such as the freedoms of speech, language, religion, education, etc and this is documented in the Human Rights Watch report Denying Ethnic Identity: The Macedonians of Greece, published in April this year. Thus relations between the Macedonians in Australia and the Greek government have rarely been optimal.

Population numbers
Finding official data on Macedonians from Greece is difficult as the Australian Census and other statistical sources have hidden rather than revealed their presence.

However, from community sources we know that most of the Macedonians from Greece settled in Melbourne and Perth with smaller groups in Adelaide, Richmond near Sydney, Shepparton, Newcastle and Manjimup in WA.

Nowadays they are found in all other Macedonian settlements around Australia. They are also well dispersed into the wider community, with almost half of Australia's federal electorates registering some Macedonians within their boundaries.

The exact number of Macedonians from Greece is hard to determine, but within the Macedonian community they and their offspring are generally believed to make up about half of the total Macedonian community in Australia. Although the Australian Bureau of Statistics, for various reasons, has registered only 75,000 Macedonians in Australia, the figure of 150,000 given by Professor Peter Hill in his book The Macedonians in Australia is considered to be far more realistic. That would give Macedonians from Greece and their families a population of around 75,000.

Problems with the census
The official invisibility of the Macedonians from Greece is a real problem for the whole Macedonian community.

It results from the Census requiring them to put Greece as their country of birth, and requiring the first generation Australian children to put Greece as the country of birth of their parents. Religion is often "Greek Orthodox" as this was compulsory in Greece. Their presence is also obscured because they entered Australia with Greek passports and have Greek sounding names.

The result of this invisibility is that it significantly understates the official number of Macedonians in Australia and overstates the number of Greeks. For example, in the 1986 Census 30.6 per cent of people in Western Australia who were born in Greece put Macedonian as their language spoken at home. The figure in Victoria was 5.2 per cent. In reality the numbers are likely to be higher.

This miscounting no doubt has the potential to affect the provision of many social services.

However, its most potent affect is in the political arena, as seen this year with the controversy that arose over the recognition of the Republic of Macedonia and the attempt to introduce the "Slav" prefix to describe Macedonians. During this period the Greek community intensively lobbied federal and state politicians with statistics about the number of people of Greek origin in Australia compared to the number of people of Macedonian origin. Many of these statistics for Greek-Australians were wildly overstated even against the Australian Bureau of Statistic's figures, and ridiculous figures of up to 1 million Greeks in Australia were publicly used by federal politicians. Australia's politicians from both major parties allowed these figures to influence their rational judgement to the detriment of fairness and multiculturalism. This powerful and sometimes negative influence exerted by statistics describing ethnic groups remains a major political problem for the operation of democracy in Australia.

A more accurate rendering of the real population balance between the two communities would go some way towards taking the political potency out of the Greek-Macedonian conflict in Australia. It would also assist Macedonians in gaining political support for other issues at local, state and federal levels. Thus an accurate census of the Macedonians from Greece and of all Macedonians is very high on the list of the priorities of the Macedonian-Australian community.

Crucial to understanding Macedonians from Greece is the fear which they have experienced, which often falls into the scale of traumatic, and which they still carry to this day.

They fear the Greek Government in particular for what it has done in the past and what it could still do to their relatives and friends who remain in Greece. Many also fear Greek nationalists, even here in Australia.

This fear has many practical ramifications. It manifests itself in a reluctance to identify as Macedonian at public and private levels. Some consider that to publicly identify as Macedonian is to invite the scrutiny of the Greek Government and Greek nationalists, with possible reprisals.

For example, prominent Macedonians from Greece who now live in Australia, Canada, US and elsewhere are regularly denied entry to Greece and thus are unable to visit family and their ancestral villages.

Many Macedonians from Australia who have arrived at the Greek border have been abused, detained and assaulted. Over the years these have not been infrequent occurrences.

Macedonians who retained Greek citizenship have had that citizenship arbitrarily taken away without warning or consultation, despite the fact that this contravenes international human rights agreements.

Such harassment is particularly so for human rights campaigners, those who are seen to be active on Macedonian issues, and those who have changed their Greek names back to the original Macedonian form.

At a national level, there is evidence that the Macedonian community in Australia has been and may still be under surveillance. There is a strong suspicion that successful Macedonians, particularly activists, are identified, and such Macedonians in Australia who have Greek superiors fear interference in their careers.

Prominent Macedonians are also concerned for the safety of their families. The spate of firebombings in Melbourne earlier this year was taken by Macedonians from Greece as a well understood signal.

Thus many Macedonians are reluctant to identify as Macedonian on any official forms, including the Australian Census.

Some Macedonians have handled these problems by joining the other side. Fear and assimilation mean that there are a number of Macedonians from Greece who have come to identify as Greek. Some may have developed a Greek or partial Greek consciousness, but others have simply adopted a safer and more convenient public persona. These "Grkomani" as they are called further complicate the task of identifying the number of Macedonians from Greece as in the Census many place Greek as the language spoken at home.

Education and literacy
Another crucial feature of the Macedonians from Greece is that virtually all have come from an agrarian, village based lifestyle. The development of a Macedonian intellectual elite or professional class was simply not allowed by either the Ottomans or Greeks.

The great majority of these Macedonians have received little or no education. At best they may have one to several years of primary schooling, and thus most are illiterate.

Most however are bilingual in spoken Macedonian and spoken Greek.

This lack of schooling of course impeded their ability to rapidly learn the English language. After decades in Australia many still cannot cope with the English language, particularly in its written form, in the same way that they cannot cope with written Macedonian or written Greek.

This of course has severely limited their employment and social opportunities in Australia and it is only the Australian born offspring who have been able to rise to professional status.

Lack of literacy has also limited their ability to present their history and experiences in written English so that is available to their fellow Australians and the rest of the English reading world. Thus there is a tremendous gap in the knowledge base on Macedonians in and from Greece. When, less than two years ago, my company published the book What Europe Has Forgotten: The Struggle Of The Aegean Macedonians, we were able to promote it as one of the first texts on this subject in English.

Fear and illiteracy also combine to affect the main source of data about Macedonians in the Census, which comes from the question on language spoken at home.

A survey of federal electorates where there are significant numbers of Macedonians indicates a high percentage of responses in these areas that come under the categories of "Other language indicated but not stated" and "Yugoslav not elsewhere indicated". It is highly likely that many of these responses are from Macedonians.

Lack of pride
Another problem is the lack of pride in being Macedonian. The Macedonians from Greece fought for their independence in 1903 and in 1946-49, but lost on both occasions. They are a defeated people, with all the loss of national pride and personal dignity that that entails.

This lack of pride is exacerbated by their lack of education and literacy, and by the systematic repression of Macedonian culture and the systematic destruction of the Macedonian heritage. For these people there is too little of their history, too few past physical and cultural achievements, which have survived and which can be pointed to with pride.

Alienation of youth
The biggest impact of this lack of pride has been in the first and second generation born in Australia. Educated in Australia these children have high standards against which their illiterate parents and grandparents and their simple village lifestyle simply do not measure up.

Thus many of the children also learn to lack pride: in their families and in their Macedonian identity. For some it has led to a rejection of their identity and heritage.

This lack of pride can also affect their personal self esteem, particularly where other factors that influence self esteem may also be absent.

It is only in the past few years, particularly with the foundation of a Macedonian homeland in the Republic of Macedonia, that this lack of pride has begun to be reversed.

War trauma and mental health services
The experience of up to five wars has traumatized several generations of Macedonians from Greece.

The majority of Macedonian immigrants from Greece are now in their 50s, 60s and 70s and thus were children during the Second World War when Greece was occupied and during the Greek Civil War directly afterwards. If we include the political and cultural war against the Macedonians by the dictator Metaxas in the 1930s, many of these people spent their entire childhood and adolescence in war time conditions.

It is possible that such a prolonged climate of fear could have engendered an existential insecurity that would predispose some of these people to emotional instability and mental disorder.

Where mental disorders do occur, diagnosis and treatment may be hindered by the patient's lack of English skills, lack of education, unfamiliarity with western medical concepts and treatments, and a lack of comprehension of these problems by medical staff.

Child refugees
Emotional instability is particularly probable in the case of the Macedonian child refugees. These were about 28,00 Macedonian children between the ages of 3 and 14 who were evacuated from northern Greece in 1948 and 49 when it became apparent that the Macedonians and their Greek communist allies would lose the Civil War.

For these Macedonians the trauma of separation from their families and villages was intensified by the sudden nature of their departure, their tender age, and by the inability of many to return to Greece.

With their Greek citizenship withdrawn and discriminatory laws that prevent them from returning to Greece, many of these child refugees have still not been re-united with the families in Greece over 46 years later.

There are an estimated 500 to 600 child refugees in Australia. These regularly experience problems such as the inability to reclaim Greek citizenship, exclusion from the amnesty given to Greeks who fought on the losing side during the Civil War, denial of entry into Greece, the inability to visit family even for weddings and funerals, and the inability to reclaim ancestral property.

These are matters of which the Australian government is aware, but lacks the political will to pursue.

Slav prefix
The many problems of the Macedonians from Greece clearly illustrate why the Macedonian community in Australia had such an immediate and strong reaction against the Government's dictatorial attempt earlier this year to rename their community. Such a renaming should be clearly seen in the context of the ongoing policy of denationalization of the Macedonians in Greece with all its ugly human rights implications that are now attracting international attention.

Although the Australian Government is becoming aware of this situation, more needs to be done.

The way ahead for the Macedonians from Greece could be summarized as follows. In regard to government the Australian community of Macedonians from Greece recommends that:

1. The Australian Government influence the Greek Government to recognize the Macedonian minority in Greece and to grant it all the essential human rights as recommended in the Human Watch Report Denying Ethnic Identity: The Macedonians of Greece.

2. The Australian Government investigate the problems of the denial of entry to Greece and the reclamation of ancestral property by Macedonian-Australians.

3. The Australian Government guarantee the protection of the Macedonian identity, heritage and community in Australia.

4. The Australian Bureau of Statistics undertakes a proper census of all Macedonians in Australia, including Macedonians from Greece.

5. Awareness training be available for service providers such as doctors, psychiatrists and others in the health, mental health, aged care and social support sectors.

6. Further support be given for literacy training.

The fulfilment of these basic recommendations is essential to the well being of many tens of thousands of Macedonians in Australia and hundreds of thousands in Greece. For the many reasons outlined above, and others, it is crucial that the Australian Government find the political will to implement these recommendations.