Making a living in New Zealand was a challenge for the first Greek immigrants. Though many had been farmers, they could not afford to buy land. Instead they relied on family labour to run restaurants, fish-and-chip shops, fish wholesale outlets, milk bars, grocery stores and shoe shops. Others became factory and manual workers. The next generations, benefitting from improved education and living standards, moved into a wider range of work, including professional occupations. Purchase of inner-city land enabled some immigrant Greeks and their descendants to become landlords and property developers.
Maintaining family and national ties has been vital for Greeks. In Wellington, suburbs such as Mt Victoria developed a distinct Greek character because immigrants clustered together for community support. Now Miramar is the city’s main Greek enclave, with significant numbers in Hataitai and Seatoun.
As well as bringing family members to New Zealand, Greeks have traditionally sent money home, and both immigrants and the New Zealand-born make return visits to Greece. World political events affecting Greeks are followed closely, and strong views are held about issues such as the Turkish occupation of Cyprus. Greek organisations representing different regional or national sub-groups have helped sustain the culture. Greek newspapers and radio programmes have also assisted. But time, distance and intermarriage have eroded the language.
The Greek Orthodox Church
The unifying force of the community remains the Greek Orthodox Church. From 1924 New Zealand was part of the Greek Orthodox archdiocese of Australia and New Zealand. Until the 1940s, when a church was built in Wellington, the all-important sacraments of marriage and baptism could only be performed when a priest visited from Australia. In 1970, New Zealand became a separate diocese with its own archbishop. The church upholds Hellenic ideals by co-ordinating community activities and supporting Greek schools to teach children the language.
Adaptation and survival
For years Greeks faced prejudice and pressure to fit in with New Zealand life. The growing popularity of Hellenic festivals – celebrations of Greek dance, food and music – suggests that other New Zealanders now recognise the contribution of Greek culture to a diverse society. Such events are also a sign that the Greek community is more confident about asserting its difference.
Where the heart is
The son of Greek immigrants comments on his parents’ experience of starting a new life in New Zealand:
‘My father never thought to go back to Crete. He was passionate about New Zealand. It gave him a lot of things, he loved the people here, their politeness. My mother still feels she made a mistake coming to New Zealand … her life should have been with her family in Greece. New Zealand has not entered her heart.’ 1