By Ilias Karagiannis.
In the eyes of Bill Papastergiadis, there is an unquenchable flame. The flame of creation. Thanks to his tireless efforts, the work of the organisation which he leads, the Greek Community of Melbourne, has managed to become known all over the world.
That is why when he claims, in this exclusive interview with The Greek Herald, that “perhaps our organisation [The Greek Community of Melbourne] is the most active not only in Australia, but in the whole world,” he does not exaggerate.
His comment depicts a reality that the readers of The Greek Herald more or less already know. Interventions on burning issues of Hellenism, cultural events, educational programs for the preservation of the Greek language and the long list of initiatives to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Greek revolution, make the Greek Community of Melbourne the leading force of Greek expatriates. And Bill Papastergiadis the custodian of the community.
Mr Papastergiadis, a distinguished lawyer in Melbourne, was on time for his telephone appointment with The Greek Herald despite living in a constant vigilance.
The pandemic caused by COVID-19 has led Melbourne to a second lockdown. The strict restrictive measures have created unprecedented conditions, which have affected Mr Papastergiadis, on a personal level as well.
“It is difficult. Imagine that in the several months that have passed, I have not seen my mother up close,” Mr Papastergiadis tells The Greek Herald.
“We have been in lockdown for several months. The government is aiming to eradicate the virus before lifting the restrictive measures. There is also a curfew after 9 pm and we can only leave our homes for about an hour. The police are very strict. Things are quite difficult.”
The professional impact and the psychological aspects of COVID-19:
Mr Papastergiadis’ daily life in the law firm he owns has changed drastically.
“We employ about 190 people and in this case all of them work from home,” says the President of the Greek Community of Melbourne.
“The impact on the community is great. Our important program of events has been interrupted, which includes concerts, theatrical productions, seminars, training programs, major festivals, such as the film festival and the Food festival. These are events that have been postponed and this is causing the frightening impact that I described to you at the beginning.
“There is also the psychological aspect to what is happening. There is terrifying stress in the local community. I was talking to a doctor and he revealed to me that half of the patients he sees are prescribed Valium. There will be a long way to return to normalcy. It has already been a long time.”
His meeting with Mikakos and his optimism:
The losses in Melbourne from COVID-19 plunged the community into mourning. The “cost of life” was unbearable for the Greek community and Bill Papastergiadis is one of the people who sought answers to this painful issue.
“We are all devastated. I want to clarify something though. A few days ago, I had a meeting with Victoria’s Health Minister, Jenny Mikakos, and I asked her what happened as we had several victims from a Greek community compared to the total population of Victoria,” Mr Papastergiadis says.
“What she answered was that this was not for certain, since the numbers of casualties from the community show that proportionally there weren’t that many victims. Most of the victims came from the Australian community in general. It is an interesting observation because the media report that the losses of the community reached 20 percent.
“Problems with nursing homes and deaths are not exclusively a Greek issue. There were many nursing homes that faced significant problems, with some even reaching the point of closure. Of course, there were also Greek nursing homes, which were greatly impacted. Some lost up to 20% of their residents.
“As a community we mourn the losses. We mourn in a way that we never have before because we are not allowed to attend funerals, to express our grief for the loss and to offer psychological support to the people who are mourning,” Mr Papastergiadis says.
The health crisis creates a great deal of uncertainty for all of us. Some approach it with unspeakable pessimism and others with restrained optimism.
Which side is Bill Papastergiadis on?
“I am an optimist by nature. People are resilient. I do not underestimate the difficulties caused by the pandemic. Both psychologically and financially,” he says.
“But I’m optimistic about what I read. With the advent of an effective vaccine, I do believe that we will recover at some point within 2021. Then, I believe that our organisation, the Greek Community of Melbourne, will be able to offer educational and cultural support to the community.”
The horrible economic situation and the meeting with Andrews:
When we, hopefully, overcome the health crisis, the difficult course of economic recovery will begin. As Mr Papastergiadis describes, the current economic situation in Melbourne is “horrible.”
“The economic situation is horrible. Many small businesses have closed in the last six months and this means that unemployment has risen significantly. Let me remind you that Melbourne was a very vibrant economy, where unemployment was very low in the past decades. Almost 3 to 4 percent. Estimates now indicate that we will reach 10 percent,” Mr Papastergiadis explains.
“Also, many members of the community in Melbourne are newcomers to Australia and would work in hotels, cafes, restaurants. The hospitality and tourism industry, that is. This industry has been very affected by the restrictive measures.”
Complaints to Victorian Premier, Daniel Andrews, about the extension of the state of emergency in the state are numerous from various bodies. We asked Bill Papastergiadis for his opinion.
“I will express our community’s views on the lockdown directly to Premier Daniel Andrews in the coming weeks and immediately afterwards, we will inform our members, so that there is a boost of optimism and clear information for what is going to happen from now on.”
The flourishing Greek Community of Melbourne as a reference point for Hellenism:
The program of events for the Greek Community of Melbourne are ample. It is an organisation that aims to preserve with great effort and creative vision the principles and values of Hellenism.
“I believe that we are perhaps the most active organisation of the Greek community in the world,” claims Bill Papastergiadis to The Greek Herald.
“I would like to give your readers an overview of the cultural and educational programs offered by our organisation. We built a 15-storey cultural center, in which there are Greek companies, a Greek bank, and on all six floors the cultural and educational events of the Community are hosted free of charge.
“Now, our new project is the construction of a building nearby, which already exists, and this will cost about $5 million dollars and will be the meeting point for our youth.
“We will receive funding and are in contact with the University of Melbourne, which is one of the top 20 in the world, and a center will be set up for the teaching and study of the Greek language. We have also completed work on the Alphington Grammar School. In recent decades, this school has been recognised as one of the best in Melbourne and Victoria in general.
“We have also commissioned the construction of a replica of the Parthenon in Melbourne, which will adorn the exterior of the Greek Community building in Melbourne. The same marble that the Parthenon has will be used and I believe it will be ready by the beginning of 2021.
“In addition, we will create six more schools, including some for children of new migrants. We will also create a music school, while we also have 14 seminars with prominent academics on the history and culture of Hellenism.
“We organise a series of major festivals, such as the Lonsdale Festival, the Writers Festival, Food festival, which attract thousands of visitors each year.
“We also took action and brought the Medical Tourism Association to Australia, with the President, George Patoulis, to ensure that we can take tourists from Australia to Greece.
“We persuaded the Victorian government and invested about $4 million to bring the Greek national football team here. We hosted the basketball team, too,” Bill Papastergiadis says with a passionate torrent of speech, which emphasises the passion he has for Hellenism.
1821 at the core of events for next year:
200 years since the Greek revolution is an experience that each of us will only live once in a lifetime. This seems to be known to Mr. Papastergiadis who, with his associates, has formed a rich program of events.
“The Greek Community of Melbourne is preparing a detailed and multifaceted program of events to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the revolution. In collaboration with the state government, the Archdiocese, the Consulate General of Greece, we have created a large program of events, which will last for about a year,” Bills says before describing the program in a bit more detail.
“The Antipodes 2021 Festival will be dedicated to the Greek Centennial. We will organise a big dance party as part of the festive program. There will be a series of lectures with top academics and other speakers.
“A Musical Odyssey, asymphonic tribute to the great Greek composers and musicians. The Festival of Greek Writers, the Culinary Festival of Greece 2021 and of course a Youth Conference, where young Greek Australians will get together to discuss issues that concern them. Of course, the 27th Greek Film Festival. It is a very rich program.”
Papastergiadis’ ambition with regards to the Greek language and the future of the Community:
But what is the greatest ambition of the leader of this important organisation for the community?
“To ensure that there will be a smooth transition of the leadership of the organisation to the next generation. That there will be continuous progress in the activities of the organisation.
“Let us all continue to be active in the Community to bring the new generation of leadership to our organisation. For example, on our board we have many members of the community, both third and fourth generation.
“We need continuity, consistency, so that our organisation survives and progresses.”
At the same time, Mr Papastergiadis does what is humanly possible to be able to preserve the Greek language for future generations.
“The issue of community language is important in Australia in general for the last 20 years. We are trying to deal with it. We have 16 Greek schools in operation, plus the Alphington Grammar School. But it is a main problem.”
His second home, Greece, and the concern with Turkey:
Bill Papastergiadis was a frequent visitor to Greece before COVID-19 invaded our lives.
“Under normal circumstances I travel three to four times a year to Greece. I love Greece. I also try to stay connected with Greece, with ministers, with museums, with organisations so that we can keep in touch with them. I love Greece, everything that has to do with language, history, language, philotimo. That’s why I became involved with the Greek community. Greece is my second home.”
The recent tension with Turkey has not ended and it is logical that the community is overwhelmed by anxiety about the developments.
“I am concerned about the tension in the relations between the two countries. We are trying to exert our influence on the Australian Government. With the conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque, we immediately asked the government to take a stand,” Mr Papastergiadis says.
“We contacted the Prime Minister again to offer support for the tension that has arisen in the Eastern Mediterranean. I am concerned and what we are trying to do is to influence our government to offer support to the Greek government.”
The biggest obstacle to investment in Greece and aid:
The Greek Community of Melbourne is trying to contribute to the improvement of the economy in Greece, thanks to the vigilance shown by Bill Papastergiadis.
“Let me give you an example. This year, in collaboration with the Government of Victoria, we would have funded a program where around 100 companies would travel to Greece to consider investment opportunities.
“It obviously will not happen this year, but we will do it next year. There is significant interest from Australia in investing. We all want to invest. But there are three major problems. The bureaucracy, possible corruption and the justice system. I am a good friend of Mr Tsiaras but I have told him that the administration of justice in Greece is a big problem. Also, in tourism. The Turkish people have four tourist offices in Australia and we have none. These are issues that need to be improved.”
Mitsotakis, who kept his word on the expatriate vote, and whether Papastergiadis will go into Greek politics:
The bill on expatriate voting was clearly a topic for discussion with expatriate organisations. We asked the opinion of Bill Papastergiadis on the subject.
“I am satisfied because Mr Mitsotakis and Mr Theodorikakos kept their word. They promised me that they would bring the bill to Parliament and they kept their word. For me this means a lot. Unfortunately, the bill excludes almost 80 to 90 percent of Greek Australians in the region. This is the big problem of the bill. However, it is a very positive, first step.”
Of course, with the momentum that Bill Papastergiadis has, we would not be surprised if he sought to govern in Greece. We asked him if he has such an ambition.
“It is not in my immediate plans. I get great satisfaction from my work with our organisation, the Greek Community of Melbourne, but also with my legal employment. Therefore, my involvement with politics in Greece is not in my immediate plans,” concluded Mr Papastergiadis.