Eastwood: A small Armenian community in one Sydney suburb
Published: Wednesday July 11, 2012
Sydney, Australia - Eastwood is one of Sydney's more sedate northern suburbs, languishing in the shadow of a batch of more glamorous suburbs, basking in its modest fame as the birthplace of Australia's luscious Granny Smith apple.
Like the ancient city of Bethlehem and the phantasmagoric al Scottish highlands town of Brigadoon that come to light only once a year at Christmas and at the turn of a century, Eastwood comes to life at the Granny Smith festival.
The name evokes tenuous images of sylphs and wood spirits, roaming blithe and free.
Only a generation ago, the perception might have been true: trees blanketed this little town to Sydney's north, and the hand of man, with its cumbersome implements, had not yet descended upon the land to ravage its pristine purity.
As the years rolled by, it was inevitable that the trees of Eastwood - there was no Lorax to speak for them - would give way to the onslaught of man. The woods have accepted the encroachment docilely: but what of the sylphs and blithe spirits?
One would like to think they would have migrated to the safest haven they could find, within the enclaves of the tall, imposing edifice, known as the Eastwood Primary School.
All 700 of them.
The school dates its beginnings back to the 1880's, its enrolment mushrooming over the years to top the 700 mark, of whom more than 90 percent hark from non-English speaking backgrounds.
Among the rich mix of Chinese, Korean, Indian, Japanese, Macedonian, et al, is a scattering of Armenians.
This is not the suburb's sole Armenian connection: the mayor of the city of Ryde, which embraces Eastwood, also happens to be Armenian: Artin Etmekjian, whose popularity has won him two consecutive terms running on a Liberal ticket, has the distinction of being the first Armenian in Australia to hold such a position.
Listening to their little children chattering away in 'Strine both among themselves and with their schoolmates, arouses mixed feelings in Armenian parents, but the fluidity and dexterity with which the children manipulate the adopted language, assuages their feeling of guilt at the inevitability of assimilation.
Armenians account for a minuscule section of the multicultural spectrum of this "lucky country" - there are only some 40,000 of them, more than a quarter children - a paltry amount compared to North America where estimates put their number between 200,000 and 2,000,000.
The over-riding majority of Armenians in Australia have trekked from the trouble spots of the Middle East lugging, along with their suitcases, painful and desperate memories of the past and hopeful dreams for the future.
Australia, this land of promise, has been drawing a steady stream of Armenian immigrants for over 50 years now, and with few exceptions, they have settled here harmoniously and have done well.
They may still yearn for home in Jerusalem, Beirut, Aleppo, Baghdad, Cairo or Amman, and still adhere to their age-old way of life, but for their Aussie-born offspring, that is "far out:" no Armenian seriously doubts that in another generation or two, the number left speaking their mother tongue is bound to dwindle sharply.
Where both parents are Armenian - and this could become a rarity in time - the children will have the benefit of an Armenian home and all that entails: language, cuisine, traditions, mores. But if one parent is an "odar," (non-Armenian) then the children have little hope of a fully-fledged Armenian heritage - since the parents and school mates will be communicating with them only in English.
Unless the kids go to an Armenian school. And there are only a handful of such institutions here. One was recently closed and the land sold because of the precipitous drop in the number of students. Another offers tuition up to sixth grade only. To make up for the deficiency, the two Armenian political parties, the Tashnag and Hunchag, run Saturday morning classes that aim to at least give the kids basic reading and writing skills.
Although the over-riding, Chinese majority of students at Eastwood Primary School are being provided with language aids to bolster their native tongue, the minuscule number of Armenian children does not warrant such a luxury. They have to rely on the Saturday classes and parental reinforcement.
Still, Eastwood Primary makes up for the deficiency with a plethora of activities, including extra-curricular programs like instrumental music, dance, chess and space camp, that hone the children's skills and promote their well-being.
(One of the students chosen to represent the school at a forthcoming tournament is Armenian).
The relaxed but dedicated atmosphere at the school, (its motto is "Each can serve"), a refreshing departure from the oppressively Dickensian regime many of the children's parents or grandparents had to endure in the old country, plays a vital role in invigorating and inspiring the children, driven by the vision of the soft-spoken, charismatic principal, Luke Whitney and his staff of 40.
Whitney, who has been manning the helm at Eastwood for the past 16 years, likes to take a hands-on, personal interest in the running of the school and the welfare of his charges. When, out of the blue, one of the Grade 5 children developed juvenile diabetes, Whitney was the first to offer to look after the child's needs and administer the insulin injections the boy started taking.
A world-traveler, Whitney never tires of inculcating into his student's subconscious the need to respect both themselves and others.
"Eastwood, the school and wider community, is a wonderful example of difference being appreciated with the end result being an enriched and dynamic environment to live and learn," he tells me.
Whitney considers it fundamentally important to cater to the considerations and expectations of the various ethnic groupings at school by making it possible for them to preserve, and express, their ethnic identity while absorbing the elements of Aussie culture, and facilitating the assimilation process.
"I believe that literacy - in as many languages as possible, physical activity and music are keys in providing the fertile field for ongoing quality learning and education," he says.
The addition of six new classrooms, and the installation of interactive hi-tech aids, under a countrywide Australian Labor Federal government initiative, has immeasurably enhanced the quality of life for the students.
There's always something to do at school. If it is not an Easter parade, it is a presentation, or a sports event.
And when spring comes hopping in, around September in Australia, there is the prospect of engaging in one of the most successful and enjoyable experiments at school, and at home: breeding silkworms. The tiny creatures subsist solely on mulberry leaves, and when the search for sufficient quantities to last through the season hots up, it's every man for himself with only a handful of the trees around, and scores of children clamoring for the leaves.
As the silkworms, now transformed into moths, start emerging from the cocoons they have been painstakingly building, the glow of delight and wonder in the eyes of the children, fills the heart with palpable, inimitable joy.