My family and I arrived in Melbourne on Cup Day in 1968, seeking a better life, following conflict in our homeland of Cyprus.
After a gruelling 23-day journey by boat, I began at the local state school two days later. At the age of 10, my brother and I were the only ones in the class who could not speak English.
Think about that.
In those days, the word multiculturalism was unheard of. The key term used was assimilation. There was no support for children of non-English speaking backgrounds. I taught myself English from Prep books.
Going to school in the Eastern Suburbs of Melbourne as the only non-Anglo kid I was bullied, even bashed by other kids and stirred about what I ate for lunch. I learnt to develop a taste for Vegemite sandwiches, as it was easier than being picked on for the olives, cucumber and Vienna bread I used to eat hiding behind the shelter sheds.
They say one’s childhood experiences really make them the person they are.
At parent-teacher interviews I had to translate to my parents. My teacher said they shouldn’t expect much from me, and the only career options I should consider were becoming a butcher or a baker.
I promised myself that I would prove that teacher wrong.
Five years and two months later, I had knuckled down, studied hard and at the age 16 I received a letter of offer to work at the State Bank of Victoria – now Commonwealth Bank of Australia (CBA).
Seeking a sense of belonging, I went by the name Chris. To this day, there are past colleagues who still know me by this name. I identify with Chinese and Indian Australians who adopt an Anglo-Saxon name. I went by Chris for 12 years before I decided to proudly identify with my birth name at work.
I believe it’s important that we all identify with the names from our cultures of origin. Nicknames can be a good means to overcome difficulty in pronunciation – like how I sport Huss rather than Huseyin. It’s very Australian to give a nickname and it’s a sign of affection. What’s important is that we’re still identifying with out culture proudly, and not adopting alternate identities to assimilate.
I went on to complete undergraduate studies in accounting as well as a Post Graduate Diploma of Financial Services Management and a Masters of Management degree from Macquarie University. I became the first Turkish Bank Manager in Australia, where I learnt my cultural identity and bilingual ability had strong value for the business.
I have now been with CBA for 44 years and am General Manager of Multicultural Community Banking, Australia, and I’ve been a proud ambassador of A Taste of Harmony for 6 years. It heartens me to see colleagues coming together and engaging in positive and friendly conversations about where we’re from and the rich diversity that makes us great.
I encourage you to register your workplace to hold A Taste of Harmony event, and start meaningful discussions in your workplace about diversity and inclusion.