Once were Greeks … the Hellenes of Auckland and New Zealand

It was at the home of school teacher Ilias Pavlidis that it hit me. Auckland is essentially Greece in disguise. For what you will find here, nestled amongst the population of 1.6 million is a small Greek community that brings to you all the wonderful aspects of filoxenia that one traditionally finds in a village.


Image credit: Greek Orthodox Church of The Holy Trinity

Ilias had invited me to his home, just like a number of other Greek people who were interviewed for the article and immediately showed a sense of warmth that I have come to expect from a country that is well and truly on the other side of the planet.

Auckland was settled by the Maori in 1350 and has a laid back style and friendliness that makes it ideal for any migrant, especially a Greek, to adapt to. It is this feature that makes this small community a strong and viable hub for Greek speakers.

Unusually for a Greek community in a large English speaking city, there is not a recognised Greek neighbourhood and almost a dearth representation of Greek businesses. In fact, I had to catch the ferry out of the city to find Greek food on the coast and even that was not owned by Greek people. Admittedly the 20 minute trip and walk through a beautiful country style of a main street was a highlight, as was the welcome sight of a Greek tavern. It probably has room for improvement with food, however, the service was first rate.

Greek Church

The country style feel seemed to be a theme on my journey. I entered the Greek Orthodox Church to meet a priest who immediately inspired me to reassess my own recent absence from church.

Father Pavlos Patitsas oversees the Sacred Naos of Holy Trinity, located 20 minutes from the CBD and on the same property as the Greek Community Centre. In the absence of a Greek neighbourhood, this is essentially it. This is one of the few occasions over the years that I have seen this set up which makes it convenient for the Greek community and ensures that there is no rivalry between church and community.

It was essentially a mission to get here from a previous engagement. When I finally arrived, it was great to correlate the work and life of the Father with his own mission, and that was to serve God, a calling he had known since the age of 5. What makes the Father unique is that he is American, having had his first parish in Ohio 20 years ago. For a good hour I was told of his life’s work, including undertaking missionary work in Kenya. He made a poignant remark which reminded me of why I first paid real attention to the faith. He told me that the ‘Church has many other functions, including as a place of learning and a fellowship.’

The Parish has a regular attendance by several hundred people and not all of them are Greek, a Parish he first encountered in 2009 on a visit to Auckland. I was told that he instantly knew that this was a place for his family. I was pleased to learn that Bible study class has helped to engage with a younger audience who are showing a keen interest in the faith. This in turn will help to continue the longevity of the Greek community for years to come.

New Zealand has become one part of the Diaspora where mix marriages are at a high proportion with up to half of those married in a Greek Orthodox Church being non Greek. A partner not from a Greek background usually receives baptism before the marriage takes place.

Teaching Greek with Mr Cool

Ilias had told me that he is drawn to young people, being a teacher he enjoys having a good repour with his students. I myself grew up with a number of the teaching fraternity who belonged to the dark ages of using a cane and I generally seemed to draw uninspiring mentors until late High School. Yet here was a teacher that oozes a sense of cool, and most likely helps inspire his students as he rolls up to class on his motorbike; a great knowledge of how young people want to be taught.

Ilias arrived here from Thessaloniki, a similar sized city, in 2002. He is the teacher for all Greek classes at the Greek Community. His initial intention was to visit this far away country ‘ as a sense of adventure, to stay for a few years,’ then return to Greece. He told me that when he arrived, ‘it would rain nonstop.’ This may have put an initial dampener on his adventure, however, like just about everyone who visits Auckland, he fell in love with the city and his future wife.

Ilias is also involved in the Greek culture committee and in 2015, there are 15 events planned. In the past they have shown documentaries, recitals, excursions and held a lecture on Homeros. Which in itself is symbolic of the adventure that many like Ilias have undertaken.

A study was undertaken in the 1990’s around ability of Greek people to speak the language at a high level. The conclusion was that a significant portion were able to speak, read, write and understand Greek at an advanced level. This has become a key platform for the Hellenes in the country and indeed the Greek government over the years as they send resources and a teacher to key cities to help maintain the status quo.

A New Zealand and Cretan War perspective from Women Immigrants

Meeting with Dr Evangelia Papoutsaki at UNITEC, I could see that she too had been on an incredible adventure, a journey that had taken her to the most unique areas of the world including Papua New Guinea. She enthusiastically described her stay and developmental work in this part of the Pacific, in a country where there is not one common language, as there over 750!

This was the first day of the new semester, yet Evangelia, at short notice agreed to meet with me and ensured that I was not hungry as I invaded the university lunch. We were soon joined by her colleague, Athina Tsoulis, a film director originally from Adelaide, and who is currently preparing with Evangelia a documentary on Cretan women migrants in NZ.

The two academics have overseen a wonderful oral history project documenting the experiences of Cretan women who came to New Zealand as domestic servants between 1962 – 1964 as part of a work visa scheme.

Their project, funded by the NZ Ministry of Culture and Heritage, explores the historical link between Crete and New Zealand that was forged during WWII, and the impact the war had on a group of women (mostly Chania) who decided to migrate. The study also provided a perspective on how women deal with migration and the impact migration can have on young women who come from traditional patriarchal societies.

The study outlines how young single women from Crete took a massive gamble; ‘moving to a country they knew very little about and which had a very small Greek community that could provide them with support unlike the many post-war Greeks who migrated to Australia.’

Their research provided a voice to a group of women who had been neglected in historical records. Having read through some of the transcripts, it almost brought a tear to my eyes knowing what these women went through . Arriving in such a foreign place, one that was much colder than the sub tropical temperature of Crete would have been difficult, for any person let alone someone who did not know the English language.

I was told that a significant portion of these women migrated back to Greece or to Australia (chain migration) around 1980 onward.

Greek Community

Arriving at the home of the Honourable Consul of Greece, I was sure to find an enthusiastic man who wore his heart on his sleeve. This much I had gleaned from our email exchanges. And I was not to be let down.

Mr Nikos Petousis has the passion of a young man. A look around his home and study revealed a large library collection and pointed to a man with a thirst for knowledge. Our conversation soon revolved around the steady the maintenance of the Greek community.

Born in Greece I asked how he came to be a resident in Auckland. He told me that his Uncle had met a Kiwi soldier in Kalamata, Ernest Clarke, after the war. He had been left behind in Greece. The soldier was grateful of the protection and support that the locals had given him. As a thank you, ‘the ex soldier obtained a 6 month visa to work in Auckland.’

The young engineering graduate who did not speak English made his way to the other side of the world at the age of 19. It was a 2 month voyage in 1956. Despite initial disappointment in the very rural surroundings he would eventually grow to love New Zealand and chose to stay. He taught himself how to speak English and with his thirst for engineering was soon making 11 pounds 6 shilling, a salary more than his Kiwi sponsor!

Mr Petousis told me that he took his Auckland born grandchildren to Greece, which in turn inspired them to learn more about their heritage, including the classics.

Since 2012, there has been a steady stream of Greek professionals arriving, though not enough to make to make a huge splash. In essence it will become a difficult task to maintain the Greek way of life in Auckland in generations to come, therefore it is important that everyone in the community contributes.

Donald Montes was one of the first of recent arrivals, touching down in 2010. Born and raised in Athens, Donald has opened a business that imports food products from Greece, supplying deli’s and shops. A convenient way to make up for the lack of

Greek eateries in Auckland!

Having become the Vice President of the Greek Community, I was told that ‘we organise all the national days and try to promote other initiatives through our school that promote our culture (lectures, movie screenings).’ The close knit community uses the Community Centre as a hub to bring them together as they strive to maintain their culture in a distant land.

The early Greek speakers in New Zealand

New Zealand has a population of 4,500 Greek speakers, less than 1000 of those are in Auckland. The Greek media is located in Wellington, which has traditionally gained the lion’s share of Greek migration. Many have gone on to become chain migrants, moving on to Sydney and Melbourne. Perhaps for the better weather or being closer to Greece, reducing flying time to just 24 hours!

Greek migrants seem to have come from the Ionian Sea, Crete, the Peloponnese, Lesbos, Makedonia and Cyprus.
In 1798, a Greek sailor is said to have settled in Dunedin, Mr Constas, who was from Sparta. It is believed he is the first to have moved to the country permanently. In 1832 Captain Economou arrived probably to Auckland and fell in love with a Maori girl.

The Captain was present at the signing of Treaty of Waitangi in 1840. It is rumoured he was an advisor. Seaman Nicolas Demetriou Mangos from Syros arrived in New Zealand in 1844. The 17 year old jumped ship because his Dutch captain was reportedly cruel. He was sheltered by an Irish family, and later he married their daughter.

The 1874 census recorded forty men and one Greek woman Nikolas Fernandos (or Mantzaris) from the island of Ithaca is considered the first known immigrant to New Zealand. From 1890 Greek people arrived to establish themselves in the fish trade, street vendors, confectioners and restaurateur owners in major cities.

War refugees

In 1951, New Zealand, as is evidenced time and again by their hospitality to refugees and new migrants, took in 1026 ethnic Greeks from Romania, persons who had been displaced by the Greek civil war (late 1940’s). Stop for a minute and think about what these people went through. The disaster of the civil war which followed the NAZI occupation of Greece, then having to flee to Romania before finding a new home in a country with few Greek speakers. A plaque was unveiled in 2012 in Wellington to commemorate their arrival in the country by boat all those years ago.

A play by John Vakidis, ‘Tzigane’, explores what these people went through. This was a well received play that touched upon the very real stories of people who did not deserve such a fate, to be separated from Greece due to their communist sympathies.
By the 1960’s, there were possibly up to 7,000 Greek speakers as Greece felt the effects of famine and poverty outside of Athens. This is a sad period of Greek history. Despite the economic crisis that the country currently experiences, nothing can compare to having little to put on your table during this period. One million people, around 20 % of the Greek population migrated.

Auckland and indeed New Zealand has always been welcoming of new settlers. The intransient attitude that many of us experienced in Australia, has never been evident here. At least that is the feeling I was able to glean. Auckland, the community and the city were welcoming for a Greek Australian as it has been to Hellenes over the years. Therein lies their charm for they are as hospitable and open as any person I have ever met in Greece. And as long as there is a Church and a Community Centre, and a sense of pride in Greece, the community will remain.


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