• Maria Vamvakinou’s family passport (Supplied)
Maria Vamvakinou's experience of migration in the 1960s had a profound impact on her life, inspiring a passion for cultural diversity that remains a driving force in her political career.
Sacha Payne

SBS News
1 Jun 2016 - 2:20 PM  UPDATED 1 Jun 2016 - 8:32 PM

Like many others riding the wave of post-war migration from Europe, the Vamvakinou family left the small Greek island of Lefkada in 1963, in search of a better life.

The family moved into multicultural Carlton, in Melbourne's inner north.

"Everyone around me when I moved into Carlton, our stories were all the same," Ms Vamvakinou told SBS.

"Our parents came here because they had to, their birth countries were no longer able to provide for them."

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For her homesick parents, holding onto tradition was vital.

"My parents managed to continue to remain strongly Greek, psychologically," Ms Vamvakinou said. "They had to.

"It was very important to them that we continue to speak Greek, and the [Greek Orthodox] Church was significant in creating that infrastructure."

Maree and Maria

A young Maria just wanted to fit in, which she said led to a kind of "double life" where she was called Maree at school and Maria at home.

"I could speak English during the day and then I would speak Greek at night," she said.

Her traditional Greek lunches were a source of embarrassment.

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She threw away her home-made sourdough sandwiches, layered with zucchini and capsicum. She thought of it as "peasant food".

"It did not compare to the Australian students' [lunch], usually white-sliced bread with a thing called Vegemite or hundreds and thousands."

The 1970s brought greater acceptance and even celebration of diversity.

"In the '70s it was very hip to be ethnic," she said.

"Everyone suddenly realised that these migrants were culturally vivid and fascinating.

"They came with this inheritance that in the 1960s was rejected," she said.

"We were told, 'go home or don't speak that language'. In the '70s it was embraced, and for me I realised then that the political process itself was key."

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Life in politics

Ms Vamvakinou became politically active after befriending South American students in high school, many of them political refugees.

"I joined one of my Uruguayan friends in going to Trades Hall to hand out leaflets," she said.

"I ended up staying there and helping out the migrant workers committee. It kind of all started there."

Ms Vamvakinou first became a secondary-school teacher before becoming the first Greek-born woman elected to federal parliament in 2002.

She remains a fierce advocate for multiculturalism and among other roles, is the Deputy Chair of the Joint Standing Committee on Migration.

Her mother didn't live to see her enter politics but Ms Vamvakinou's political career was a source of great satisfaction to her father.

"I remember when I was elected to parliament and someone asked my dad how he felt," she said.

"His response was, 'My decision to come here has now been validated'.'"

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