Isidoros Paschalidis went from illegal immigrant, with a primary school education, to pillar of the community in just ten years – and this year was recognised for his hard work and commitment with an Order of Australia.
Born just before World War II on the Greek Island of Patmos, Mr Paschalidis remembers a childhood of hard work and hunger.
“We never had any help from our countries – nothing,” he said.
“We had to plant, harvest, to survive. Then I got into fishing. I worked outside all night in the sea, at 14-years old, with my brother. I got a quarter, but that was still good money.”
“My mother would give us a piece of bread to put in the pocket. Some small things stay in my pocket, and later I pick them out and eat them – it’s true!”
Mr Paschalidis jumped on the chance in 1955 to become a sailor – and seek a new home.
“I travelled all around the world,” he said.
When his cousin asked him to compare ship life to Patmos, he said: “We eat very well – I couldn’t find any drops of bread in my pocket!
“My first thought was to jump off the ship in America, Canada or Australia.
“When I get to America, I got on the bus to New Orleans. I saw a white line down the middle. Blacks on one side, whites on the other.
“I thought: ‘This cannot be my country.’
“In 1960, I came to Australia from Japan, I saw this beautiful city and thought, ‘that’s the place for me’.”
Mr Paschalidis found work – with a bit of under-the-table help – at the Dunlop factory, making mattresses. Employees were expected to make 15 a day, with a bonus for extra. Mr Paschalidis made 30 a day, and within three years had enough money to buy a cafe in Batemans Bay. He brought his new wife, Marika, with him.
In the 1960s, he said, Australians were suspicious of migrants – “they did not know us” – which made early gestures of friendship precious.
“One thing I remember that is very important to me is, when I got the shop, in the first couple of days, a man walked in and said: ‘Welcome, and I wish you all the best.’ That man was the father of Liz Innes – Merv Innes,” Mr Paschalidis said.
“I will never forget that. This is the best thing I ever heard, and made me want to do the best I could, to prove that I’m worth it to be a citizen here.”
Prove it he did. Not only did he have several successful businesses, he dedicated himself to supporting the Greek community.
“In 1972 we had the first dance at the RSL club,” he said.
“I got 650 people there – 150 Greeks and the rest local Australians. I got two dancing groups from Sydney, it was all very well organised, and very, very good.
“We wanted to show the Australians our culture. People had never seen anything like it before, even on television.
“I was happy, because we had invited the ambassador of Greece, the mayor was there, Mr Eric Fenning. It was fantastic.
“When they (Australians) see us for who we are, they open their arms.”
Not content to rest on his laurels, Mr Paschalidis helped found the Greek Orthodox Church, where he still volunteers.
“We do weddings, every year we feed the senior citizens and donate money to the Westpac Helicopter and Marine Rescue,” he said.
“We are open to every nationality.”
Another high point was buying an oyster lease.
“In ‘65 I bought an oyster farm, which I still have today,” he said.
“It was one of the biggest in NSW – seven kilometres long. So I cut it into pieces, and I brought other Greeks here. In those days, you wanted young people to find work.
“At one stage I had ten oyster farmers there – all Greeks.
“I am still laughing about it – when I bought the farm, the Australians gave me only two months. Too hard work! They didn’t know me. I’m still here, more than 55 years later, oyster farming.”
Mr Paschalidis again credited a friendly hand and hard work with his success.
“Mr Alf Innes was a very nice man,” he said.
“He was like a father, and taught me all about the oysters.”
The times were full of opportunity.
“They were the golden days of Australia,” he said.
“When I had the cafe, on Christmas Day I had about 10 people working for me and I’d make about 500 pounds a day.
“In those days, (‘63-’64) you could buy a block at Catalina with 250 pounds. So I could buy two blocks of land for a day.
“When I was in Sydney, if I worked for three years, I could buy a house in Balmain – 2,500 to 3,000 pounds. Now it’s in the millions.
“What chance do the young people have to buy houses today? It’s very, very hard; unless they get help from their father and mother, there is no way. Then, even if you made a mistake, you could finish in front. Not anymore. Now you’ve got to do your homework.”
Mr Paschalidis said passion, friendship and hard work were the secret to his success.
“I do nearly five hours a week volunteer work, sometimes more. I spend my own money. To be successful you’ve got to be working hard, and love what you are doing,” he said.
“I want to thank very, very much Mr Roy Mills and Joe Smith, John and Mary Coupas, and Sam Demetrios.
Without friends, “I would never have done anything”.
“I wouldn’t be in the situation to have this medal. It was very exciting, and I’m pleased with my friends.”