How Gladys Berejiklian became the queen of hearts

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The last fortnight has certainly not sent Gladys Berejiklian into a burst of glory.

His shocking resignation had all the makings of a Greek tragedy with Berejklian falling under the quasi-judicial sword of the NSW Independent Commission against Corruption.

But unlike a Greek tragedy, the exodus of Gladys Berejiklian inspired in me discussions, not of morality, but of sacrifice, strength and grace.

For me, her reign as queen of hearts is one for the history books.

Not your average Joe

Politicians can often be hard to like.

The political world is guided by a process and a tradition to ensure the safety of people and allow them to live their lives in a predictable and familiar way. Speeches are delivered and rules enacted with a pragmatism that seems to prevail forever over ideals. Yet humans thrive on heart and connection.

It’s a complicated dance.

However, Gladys Berejiklian was not your usual politician.

The election of Gladys Berejiklian was a turning point for Australian women and migrants.

She has led New South Wales through drought, the Black Summer bushfires and now the seemingly relentless COVID-19 pandemic.

READ MORE: NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian resigns ahead of ICAC inquiry, says she acted with ‘integrity’

Throughout the pandemic, we have always been able to count on Gladys to show itself consistently. And in a world turned upside down, consistency and reliability are worth its weight in gold.

She spoke to us directly at 11 am most days. She never claimed to be something that she was not. She sported tousled hair like all of us, reminding us that she understood what we were going through because she was going through it too. Despite a political pragmatism that was sometimes necessary, she remained human like us.

Fiercely empathetic, Berejiklian came into our lives, our homes and dare I say, our hearts, as she led NSW through some of her darkest hours.

But above all, her greatest achievement has been making migrants and women feel seen.

A boat full of inspiration

To better understand Gladys Berejiklian’s impact on migrants, it is important to know that her grandparents were orphaned during the Armenian genocide and that her parents lived as refugees in the Middle East, Syria and Jerusalem before moving to Australia where they met.

It is an incredible story that shaped Berejiklian’s childhood and his outlook on life that many migrants can relate to. My own grandfather moved his family to Australia by boat in search of a better life just before the Cypriot war. Resilience has been and never is a choice for migrants. It’s a question of survival.
Berejiklian knows resilience. Intimately. She resisted media scrums, comments about her marital status and judgments about her appearance. She took a beating from all sides, but still came out a winner. She eventually became the most popular premier of New South Wales.

Like Gladys Berejiklian, I had a long last name (Christodoulou) until my grandfather shortened it to Costi. He felt it was too long for Australians to speak out and feared his children and grandchildren would be teased for being a ‘wog’. See, even though it might just be a “name,” it does carry weight. It contained the truth of trials and suffering. But rather than sit still in this truth, Gladys Berejiklian showed me that you can have a long, hard-to-pronounce last name while being a female Premier of New South Wales. Truth has become synonymous with strength and possibility.

Gladys Berejiklian’s mother was a nurse and her father was a welder, respectable jobs with long hours for migrants who were building better lives. My dad had his own fish shop for 30 years, got up at 2:30 a.m. to start his day, and arrived home at 7:30 p.m. at the end, while my mom raised us. I can guarantee that many other migrants have similar stories. They work tirelessly to give their children the opportunities they didn’t have and the jobs they could only want.

READ MORE: Greek side Immigration Minister Alex Hawke

My parents were obsessed with my siblings and I went to college to give us the chance to live the life they never had. Gladys Berejiklian was too. A hard work ethic was non-negotiable and a sign of a successful education. “Work for you” was the slogan that Gladys Berejiklian chose in 2017 when she became Prime Minister. Her deeply rooted belief in doing more and being more for herself and for others was suddenly at the forefront of every speech, movement and political decision she made. She lived and breathed this slogan throughout her tenure.

Growing up, I often worried that being a woman and a Greek Cypriot would hold me back. Gladys Berejiklian, however, has shown me that your background or your gender is not something that can keep you from shining. It is not a problem, a gap or a weakness. If anything, they are a strength and a gift. You are pretty good regardless of what skin you find yourself in.

In a room filled with privileged middle-aged white men, Gladys Berejiklian provided migrants and women with a real example of someone they might aspire to be. She has shown a boat full of people that no matter what your skin color, what language you speak, your traditions, or where your parents come from, you can always accomplish great things. The saying rings true: “You cannot be what you cannot see”.

READ MORE: Turkish Cypriots react to Berejiklian’s message for invasion anniversary

Gladys Berejiklian paved the way for countless migrants and women to live lives full of hope, confidence, opportunity and grace. And for that – regardless of what she did or did not do – migrants and women thank her. I just hope that momentum wasn’t changed by the swearing in of another middle-aged, middle-class white man.

Stefanie Costi is a Greek Cypriot lawyer and writer of Australian origin. Her work has been published in The Australian Financial Review, The Australian Women’s Weekly, Lawyers Weekly and Women’s Agenda.


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