University of Melbourne Magazine

Through a child’s eyes

  • From boat to schoolyard to Australian future, a new research project will examine the history of our child refugees.

    Professor Damousi at primary school.

    Professor Damousi at primary school.

    It was with no English but boundless energy that Joy Damousi started her educational journey in a crowded inner-city kindergarten in Melbourne. A year later, her English little improved, she was thrown into the local primary school.

    “The schools were bursting with kids who spoke little or no English,” she recalls of those days in the 1960s. “But although my first language was Greek, I don’t recall any problem joining in with children in the street and kicking the football.

    “For us Greeks, Italians, Turkish and Yugoslavs, Australian Rules football was our communal language, bringing us into the mainstream and establishing an insider status, of sorts, in the face of wog and dago labels regularly projected at us.”

    These schoolyard experiences were the start of a distinguished academic career that would lead Professor Damousi to become one of Australia’s most respected historians and the University of Melbourne’s first female – and the Faculty of Arts’ first – ARC Laureate Fellow.

    The Australian Laureate Fellowship recognises world-class research and is the Australian Research Council’s highest individual accolade. The fellowship awarded to Professor Damousi and her team of eight researchers will fund an extensive five-year project looking at the history of child refugees in Australia.

    Her aim, as she explains, is to generate new and powerful understanding of the impact and experience of child refugees in Australia throughout the 20th and early 21st century.

    “We want to explore how this history is tied to Australia’s international role on refugee and migration issues and come to an understanding of the impact of child refugees in Australia in cultural, social and economic terms,’’ she says.

    “In so doing, we want to develop an historical and contemporary framework for current discussions on this aspect of migration and humanitarian policy.”

    This is not a research topic for the fainthearted. Refugees – and child refugees in particular – are a sensitive topic in modern Australia.

    Damousi also admits that her background as the daughter of migrants brings a personal dimension to the exercise. “But this is invariably the case when issues of migration and wartime experiences are concerned.

    “My father George was a village bootmaker who migrated from Florina in the Olympian year of 1956 and then arranged for my mother Sofia, a dressmaker, and one-year-old sister Mary to join him in 1957. They initially settled in George Street, and then Napier Street, Fitzroy, as had many migrants before them.”

    Damousi’s parents were part of the massive postwar influx of Greek immigrants to Australia, one of the largest intakes in the nation’s history. Between 1945 and 1959, Australia took in about 63,000 permanent arrivals from Greece, 24,000 of them assisted by the federal government. Many settled in Melbourne, particularly in the inner-city suburbs of Fitzroy, Collingwood and Richmond.

    Of her childhood days roaming the streets and laneways of Fitzroy, Damousi and her mother hold opposite views.

    While her daughter is unequivocal about her love of growing up in the suburb, Sofia has often lamented the life-defining decision to abandon her rural village, family and community to travel to the other side of the world only to find a different type of poverty and hardship, this time in an unfamiliar and strange urban environment.

    “The very things that I adored about growing up in Fitzroy, my parents despised,” Damousi says. “The squalid, dilapidated boarding houses, the century-old Victorian houses in desperate need of light and repair.” She says Fitzroy’s streets were a gigantic playground, and that this landlocked landscape allowed her to explore youthful freedoms.

    “I grew up listening to Greek war stories being told over and over again by my mother – each time with more literary flourish – but at this moment, it was time to take the memories and run.”

    And run she did, catching and analysing memory as she went, through the laneways of Fitzroy, on to school, university and beyond.