Advocate for Illawarra migrants honoured

George Bartolo and Ken Habak with John Papakosmas (right). Picture: GREG TOTMAN
George Bartolo and Ken Habak with John Papakosmas (right). Picture: GREG TOTMAN

John Papakosmas is known to many as the father of multiculturalism in the Illawarra.

Although he didn't know a word of English when he arrived in Australia from Greece almost 60 years ago, he instantly became an advocate for migrants' work rights and was instrumental in founding the Illawarra Ethnic Communities Council (IECC) in 1975.

The 82-year-old yesterday recalled the difficulties he and other migrants faced in the 1950s and '60s, particularly those working in the steel industry.

"We did not have work rights, we struggled a lot, we were discriminated against, especially because of the language barriers," he said.

"You had to fend for yourself.

"I encouraged [the migrants] to get their own houses and join the unions."

Tonight, the IECC will honour the Wollongong man with a dinner at the Lagoon restaurant to mark his retirement as council vice-president.

IECC chairman Ken Habak said Mr Papakosmas had challenged the system and provided hope for newcomers to the Illawarra.

He took the Greek and migrant community under his wing, approached local MPs with his concerns and pushed for interpreters to be employed at Wollongong's hospital and court.

"A pregnant woman would have to get the cleaner to translate at hospital, because there was no one to interpret for her," Mr Papakosmas said.

He also opened up his home for those struggling to get on their feet.


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