• The writer’s adoptive parents Vasilios and Elizabeth on their wedding day in October 1956. (Supplied)Source: Supplied
Peter Papathanasiou was born in Greece in 1974. Following a proposition by his biological father, he was adopted by his aunt and uncle and taken to Australia. Had his aunt's trip to a Greek adoption agency gone to plan, things would have been very different.
Peter Papathanasiou

16 Feb 2017 - 4:59 PM  UPDATED 1 Jul 2020 - 2:50 PM

Despite huge advances in our standard of living, technology, cultural acceptance and sexual openness, there is one issue in Australia that remains rooted in the past: adoption.

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), there has been a 74 per cent reduction in adoptions in the last 25 years. Couples take years to adopt, and often resort to overseas options to lessen the bureaucratic red tape. Adoption remains a sensitive issue, and particularly in Australia where we live with the stain of forced adoptions and stolen generations.

I’m an adoptee; an intercountry adoptee, actually. AIHW reports that about a third of all adoptions are children from overseas. These numbers are also declining due to economic and social changes.

My own story is one of failed adoption, with an old world solution. My parents were very, very fortunate. But so was I.

My parents migrated to Australia in 1956. After 17 years marriage and three miscarriages, they remained childless. The doctors could find no medical explanation.

My own story is one of failed adoption, with an old world solution. My parents were very, very fortunate. But so was I.

Continual attempts to fall pregnant led to ongoing disappointment and tension in their marriage. Their social outings, which were once fun, had started becoming onerous and frustrating. There was a mass of rosy babies and sticky toddlers at every gathering, as if the entire world was teasing them. They were godparents, many times over. But not parents.

My parents finally considered the idea of adoption in 1973. Mum was 43 years old. Dad was receptive to the idea, but didn’t want an Australian baby. He wanted a Greek one.

‘If we adopt a child from Australia, the parents could always try to find us, and then them,’ he told mum. ‘But if they’re 10 thousand miles away, in a country where official papers get lost like tourists, where nothing can be believed, it’s safer for us.’

And so, Mum flew to Greece with a mission: to visit Agios Stylianos in Thessaloniki. This was an orphanage – the Municipal Home for Foundlings. Her plan was to put her case and return home with a beautiful Greek baby. Dad stayed in Australia to keep working and earning money for the imminent new arrival.

How do you mourn someone you’ve never met?
When Peter Papathanasiou found out he was adopted, his biological mother had already died. He didn’t make it to Greece in time to meet his father.

Thessaloniki was a short train ride from our village of Florina. Mum met Dad’s cousin, Nikos, on the platform. He was to accompany her to the interview for support.

At Agios Stylianos, they were ushered down a long, empty corridor and into a cavernous, windowless room. A bald man with a biro and clipboard and a lady with a thick folder, beehive hair, and false eyelashes sat at a solid wooden table. The room smelt of chalk and strong disinfectant. They asked Mum a raft of questions that echoed in the room. The focus of their interrogation was plain:

What savings do you have?

How many properties do you own?

Do you have any other assets?

Do you have any inheritances?

Where do you work?

What do you do?

What money do you earn?

Is your job secure?

Same questions, but for your husband…

and so on.

The message was simple – no children for poor people.

They couldn’t quite fathom the situation – a woman without her husband asking to take one of their precious Greek babies to the other side of the world.

Mum cleared her throat and sat forward. She had prepared for this moment. It was her chance to both become a mother and save her marriage.

‘My husband and I don’t have much to offer by way of wealth,’ she said in her best spokeswoman voice. ‘But what we can offer are our hearts. We come from good families and will be the most loving parents. We feel that is ultimately more important than riches.’

Baldy glanced at mum over his black horn-rimmed glasses. They were so thick that she saw her reflection twice. He could have been writing down everything she was saying, or making his own judgment of her character, or writing his shopping list. False eyelashes fixed mum with a synthetic gaze, said nothing.

First I learned I was adopted. Then I met my biological brothers in Greece
After the initial shock of learning he was adopted, and the subsequent sadness of his biological father’s death before they could meet, Peter Papathanasiou finally makes it to Greece to meet his brothers.

Baldy spoke to Nikos as if he was mum’s husband. She corrected the misunderstanding.

‘So,’ Baldy said, ‘your husband isn’t here today. And where do you want to take this baby…? Australia, did you say?’

They couldn’t quite fathom the situation – a woman without her husband asking to take one of their precious Greek babies to the other side of the world.

Baldy clicked his biro and stood to thank mum and Nikos for their time. False eyelashes escorted them down the long corridor where their footsteps echoed on the cold parquetry. She showed mum and Nikos out of the building, ensuring they left the premises. A heavy wooden door of double thickness slammed behind them; mum heard it latch.

‘Anna is pregnant. If you want the baby, write immediately. Otherwise, they’re going to terminate the pregnancy.’

Mum eventually explained it to Dad. But first, she told her family in Florina. Her brother Savvas listened quietly. Finally, he said: ‘Would you like me to give you a child?’’

Savvas was offering to have another baby for his sister and her husband, to take to Australia and raise as their own. Mum was speechless. Savvas and his wife Anna already had two teenage boys.

Mum returned to Australia to discuss the proposition. In a heartbeat, her husband agreed. Before she could send news to Greece, a letter arrived from her sister: ‘Anna is pregnant. If you want the baby, write immediately. Otherwise, they’re going to terminate the pregnancy.’

The day I found out I was adopted - and my aunt and uncle were my birth parents
Peter Papathanasiou was born in 1974, grew up in 1980s Australia as an only child of Greek parents, and found out he was adopted in 1999 at age 25.

Mum couldn’t write quickly enough. She posted the letter and waited. Her prayers were answered – the baby would be kept. She would fly back in 1974 for the birth. A mountain of paperwork still lay ahead, to arrange the requisite visa, etcetera, but an agreement was in place.

According to AIHW, a grand total of two adoption visas (subclass 102) were issued to Greece in 2013-14. Both were arranged by Greece, not Australia. With the recent Greek economic crisis, there are now reports of abandoned babies turning up all over the country, deserted at maternity wards, bundled inside pillowcases, or packed into cardboard boxes and dumped on doorsteps. Perhaps this will change adoption rates. Humanitarian crises usually do.

But this is my story. If adoption had been easy, someone else would’ve been me. And I would’ve been… well, nothing.

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