Members of New Zealand’s Hellenic community (Greek-speaking people who usually belong to the Greek Orthodox Church) came from many places other than Greece, including Cyprus, Egypt, Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, the former Yugoslavia and Russia. There were many reasons for emigrating to New Zealand – ‘the land on the edge of the world’, as they called it.
First arrivals in the 19th century were men, mostly bound for the goldfields. Many returned to Greece, but some stayed on. Between 1890 and 1914 more established themselves as fishermen, street hawkers, confectioners and restaurateurs in Auckland, Wellington and Dunedin.
Those who were successful encouraged relatives and friends to join them. So chain migration began, from poverty-stricken Ithaca, Cephalonia, Acarnania and Lesbos to Wellington. By 1936 there were 82 Greek-born people living in Wellington. Immigrants from Ithaca and Cephalonia settled in New Plymouth, Feilding, Palmerston North, Dannevirke, Napier and Hastings in the North Island. They also went to Ashburton, Temuka, Timaru, Waimate and Ōamaru in the South Island.
After the Second World War dire economic and political conditions in Greece caused a surge in chain migration to New Zealand. Most immigrants settled in major towns and cities, especially Wellington. A few Greek women arrived as brides of returning New Zealand soldiers, and some people were sponsored to emigrate by New Zealand veterans of the Battle for Crete.
During the Second World War a warm relationship was established between the Greek and New Zealand people. Greek civilians often risked their lives to assist New Zealand soldiers during the retreat from Greece in 1941 and during and after the disastrous Crete campaign. Since 1984 Wellington has had a sister-city relationship with Hania (the old capital of Crete) and celebrates Hania Day on 21 May. A Greek–New Zealand memorial in Cambridge Terrace was dedicated in 1995.
Many Greeks from Eastern Europe were made homeless as a result of war and Communist takeover. In 1951 New Zealand, as a member of the International Refugee Organisation, accepted over 1,000 Greek refugees. The men were sent to work in hydroelectric construction and heavy industry where there was a shortage of labour.
Greeks continued to come to New Zealand, through both chain migration and official immigration programmes. Between 1962 and 1964, 267 young women from Crete arrived on a scheme to provide domestic staff for hotels and hospitals. The invasion of Cyprus by Turkey in 1974 led to a rise in Greek Cypriot arrivals. And in 1981, 50 Cretan families were invited to settle here as thanks for helping New Zealand soldiers during the Second World War.
Accurate numbers of Greek immigrants over time cannot be given, as their countries of origin are diverse, and detailed ethnicity statistics have only been available since 1991. In the 2013 census, however, 2,481 New Zealand residents claimed Greek ethnicity.
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 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.
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.
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
The New Zealand census figures listed here show the number of residents born in Greece. Many New Zealand Greeks were born in countries other than Greece.
In the 2006 and 2013 censuses, people were asked to indicate the ethnic group or groups with which they identified. The numbers include those who indicated more than one group.
Burnley, I. H. From southern Europe to New Zealand: Greeks and Italians in New Zealand. Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 1972.
Fragiadakis, Georgios. The Greeks in New Zealand. Wellington: Greek Orthodox Community, 1990. (This work is mainly in Greek, but there is some English text.)
Verivaki, Maria, and John Petris. Stories of Greek journeys. Wellington: Petone Settlers’ Museum, 1991.