Some questions are seemingly straightforward but hard to answer if you’re a displaced person. “Where are you from?” is one example. What do you say when the answer isn’t clear-cut? Do you proudly hold up your Aussie passport even though your accent has traces of Anglo-American interspersed with Grecian elements? And where do you belong when your ancestors are buried in a place whose language you cannot speak?
NAIDOC organisers are right to point out that “Our Languages Matter”. When languages are forbidden, we lose chunks of our identity. Just ask any Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander whose grandparents were not allowed to speak their native tongue in public. The same is the case for my family, Rum Greeks living in Istanbul. Ask them where they belong, and they’ll point to the Byzantine hologram beneath the actual city - a place called Constantinople that no longer exists.
In the years of Ottoman rule, Rums would attend the krifo scholio (secret school) – an underground educational establishment for the Greek language. Some historians would argue that these clandestine schools were just a myth – a fictitious national memory. Other historians refute the child-snatching that lead to the creation of Jannisary soldiers. These fierce Christian warriors made up an elite military force of young Greeks converted to Islam and trained to show absolute devotion to the Sultan.
Years have passed since then, but the trauma lives on in the DNA of stolen generations. For them, identity and languages should not be taken for granted.
For my family, Australia meant freedom to be ourselves and to speak our language. It is ironic, however, that the place that offered me the freedom to learn the language of my forefathers is the same as the one that caused the linguistic misfortunes of the traditional custodians of the land.
But freedom breeds freedom. As migrant families sought a better life in this land, the country’s first people were swept away by their own desire for rights to their language and land.
Of course, such rights are just more rungs in the ladder towards “belonging”. And land and language rights alone don’t guarantee that we will finally accept ourselves as who we are and let go of all the pain. There’s still such a long way to go before the invisible walls come tumbling down. But, yes, let’s begin by accepting that our languages matter.