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‘Education is freedom’: How Giota Hrissis defied Greek norms and paved the way for others

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“Too many,” Giota Hrissis says with a laugh when I ask her how many students she has privately tutored in the Greek language over the years.

“Over 200 students at least.”

Among the list are people as wide-ranging as Australia’s Ambassador to Greece, Arthur Spyrou, and even the Vice President of the Hellenic Club of Sydney, Bill Kritharas.

In a touching move, Mr Kritharas, along with other past students, Tina Koutsogiannis and Betty Ivanoff, decided to register Giota’s name on the National Monument to Migration at the Australian National Maritime Museum.

Now, as I sit down with Giota and hear her incredible migration story and her defiance of old-school Greek expectations, I can see exactly why her past students decided to register her on the Monument.

‘He wanted girls to be educated’:

Born in 1939 in the village of Kalavryta in southern Greece, Giota was the eldest daughter of ten children. She says her parents paid a lot of attention to her education.

Giota as a young woman.

“My mother and my father, they never separated the boys and girls,” Giota explains.

“My father especially, he wanted girls to be educated because he thought boys can go to the forest and cut wood but with women, you didn’t know the future. You didn’t know if they would get married and to who. They would have to make their own living.”

In Giota’s case, she began to secretly communicate via letter with Stelios Hrissis – a Greek migrant in Australia who she became interested in after he sent her a photo of himself.

Eventually, she decided to leave her family behind and joined Stelios in Australia. They married in 1961.

(Left) Giota and Stelios. (Right) The photo Stelios sent Giota when they were courting.

Stelios worked as a painter whilst Giota was a dressmaker at Nobel Fashion on Oxford Street in Sydney. In the afternoons, she helped teach Greek to children at the local Greek Community Schools.

Her social and work life were thriving, but Giota says married life wasn’t always as idyllic.

“When I first arrived in Australia, I loved it. Stelios was a quiet and good man, but the truth is we had a lot of problems,” Giota says solemnly.

A warrior for education:

Like many Greek men at the time, Stelios told Giota she wasn’t allowed to drive. She defied him and learnt to drive in secret.

Later, at the age of 42 and when their only daughter Marcia was 20, Giota defied her husband a second time and decided to get a degree in teaching from the University of New England.

Giota and Stelios with their only daughter, Marcia.

“Stelios said, ‘if you go to university, we will separate.’ My daughter told me to go but he moved into another house,” Giota explains.

“I asked him to come back but he said, ‘if you don’t burn your books, I’m not coming back’ and I said to him, ‘only Hitler burns books’.”

The couple ended up living in separate houses for over 20 years, but this didn’t stop Giota from achieving her dream. She went on to complete her degree and become a private tutor to help children keep the Greek language alive.

Giota with her university degree.

“Learning a second language, doesn’t matter what, is like exercising the brain. You broaden your knowledge and conceptions. It’s very, very important,” Giota says.

“I try to inspire the kids to pay attention to education because to me, education is freedom.”

‘If you save one child, you save many’:

Education is so important to Giota that even now, at 84 years of age, she continues to privately tutor Greek even if it’s only for a handful of students.

“People who I used to tutor… I’m teaching their children now as well. I used to get them in trouble all the time and now I’m teaching Greek to their children. It’s really amazing,” she says with pride in her voice.

When I ask Giota why she keeps doing it, her answer is simple.

“If I stop, I consider myself dead,” she says.

Giota today at her home filled with books. Photo: The Greek Herald / Andriana Simos.

“I mean I have very few people to communicate with beyond ‘what I’m going to cook’ or ‘how to make moussaka.’ I want to talk with people philosophically.

“I still have a few things to sort out and I don’t want to reach a stage in my life where I wonder ‘what have I done with my life?’

“For now, I focus on knowing that if I can save one child, I save many.”

Wise words from a Greek migrant who clearly continues to fight for education, for equality and for fairness in Australian society.

Honour our Greek immigrants on Australia’s National Monument to Migration at the Australian National Maritime Museum. Register by 29 July 2022 (date extended by popular demand) to be part of the next ceremony in October. To register please visit https://bit.ly/3Pwax38 or call 02 9298 3777.

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