IT’S 5.30am on a bitter winter’s morning in suburban Hamilton, and 13-year-old Eleni Kiriakidis is being dragged out of her bedroom window by a junkie wielding a blood-filled syringe.
All het up on ice, the man has broken into the Kiriakidis family home, stolen two laptops and the handbag of family matriarch Nina, and now, in the dim morning light outside, is ordering Eleni to use the car keys to open the family car and get the hell in.
In a fleeting second, the school girl has managed to grab a mobile phone without her abductor seeing and, somehow, she remains strangely calm.
“I had access to the outside world and I was going to call 000 and just stay on the line so they could trace me,” recalls the now 24-year-old today of the ordeal that would dominate the front page of the The Herald on August 19, 2005.
“All I cared about was that my mum and sister didn’t wake up, the guy was on ice, he had a syringe, I didn’t care about myself.”
There are many details of the ensuing, three-hour saga that stand out.
How Eleni aided and abetted her captor’s getaway and resisted the urge to run when he was sitting behind the wheel of the car, urging her to get in.
How she placated the 29-year-old junkie as he drove around Newcastle, stopping at ATMs to deplete her mother Nina’s bank account.
How she drew on her smarts to help catch her thief, for example feigning ignorance of how to use an ATM so he was captured on its security camera.
And how, when the man visited an acquaintance’s house, she was articulate enough to tell a woman at the address what had happened – prompting a neighbour to drive her to the police.
As horrifying as the situation was, Eleni’s father, George, who was in Sydney on business when the man invaded his home, later told the media that his youngest daughter had always been “strong”.
“I knew her personality and the way she deals with things,” he said proudly.
But Nina Kiriakidis, namesake and matriarch of Nina’s IGA in Beaumont Street, Hamilton, the migrant success story that next year marks 30 years in business, doesn’t like to discuss the event she says “brought me to my knees”.
“Eleni is always very composed, it’s an exceptional trait to have, and she’s definitely sharp,” she emails from her native Greece, where she is holidaying.
“She believes that everything is transient, and it is.”
The 2005 kidnapping was not the first time Nina Kiriakidias feared she would lose her daughter.
Eleni was eight when repeated headaches prompted her mother to take her multiple times to the doctor.
With blood tests returning normal, Nina Kiriakidis refused to be viewed as “just another neurotic mother” and during another trip to John Hunter Hospital, insisted that doctors monitor Eleni for an extra 10 minutes.
“In that period, Eleni brought down the whole of the emergency ward screaming for me, I watched her body in terror as lesions instantly appeared and multiplied by the second,” recalls Mrs Kiriakidis.
Diagnosed with meningococcal and given a lumber puncture, Eleni was placed in an induced coma for 10 days.
“The doctor spoke with George and myself, making it quite clear that . . . she possibly won’t survive [and] if she does, will be brain damaged and deaf,” says Mrs Kiriakidias.
Thankfully, Eleni made a full recovery.
And the medical emergency and the kidnapping saga have, Eleni insists, left no scars.
“They have formed me, sure, but they’ve just made me appreciate simplicity,” she says.
“I’ve never done drugs or alcohol, I just see it as an escape from reality and it doesn’t appeal. I just appreciate life.”
Standing amid the crammed shelves of Nina’s IGA located in the heart of Beaumont Street, Eleni Georgiou [she married her sweetheart Andrew two years ago] rattles off the ever-expanding range of vegan products for which the business is getting a strong real-time and social media following.
“People get annoyed with vegans but I’ve learnt so much from them, they have never forced it on me, they are passionate about it and that makes you want to learn more,” she says with her trademark vim.
In fact, she commissioned some of her new-found vegan connections to survey every label on every product in the shop to see what was vegan-friendly.
“There are a lot of products that are accidentally vegan, like Gravox and tartare sauce,” Eleni explains, standing near an entire freezer full of vegan goods.
“Once we knew what was what, we put green labels on our shelves to indicate every product that is vegan. I think we’re the only ones to do that.”
The long list of largely European foods imported by Nina and George Kiriakidis since they opened the store on February 7, 1987, to satisfy migrant demands continue to be stocked in abundance.
But the gentrification of Hamilton has brought a new generation of customers – from vegans to those with dietary intolerances to young, food-fanatic couples who want the best of the best in fresh produce and deli lines.
“Eleni is building the business to a new level in her own right and she is to be commended for that,” says Mrs Kiriakidis.
“I used to walk into the store and say ‘How can I improve this place’ and she’s the same,” says George Kiriakidis, adding that he is proud of both Eleni and his eldest daughter, Sofia.
“Eleni has that positive attitude, she’s more dynamic [than me] though.”
The store known simply as Nina’s has bounced back from a grim period about five years ago, when the arrival of Woolworths at Marketown and Aldi nearby plus discount chemists in Hamilton made for a tough market.
“We readjusted our purchasing and staffing and pared back costs and got more energy efficient in our operations,” says Eleni.
Though hard to believe, it was never a granted that she would take over the store.
She had plans to go to university before realising she wasn’t convinced it was for her.
But her first day behind the cash register flicked a switch in her.
“I stayed there for the entire day, nine hours, and I didn’t move,” she smiles.
“I love talking to people and I love their energy and I felt good, I felt like I was making their day better. I didn’t want to go home.”
University, she continues, is not for everyone, though sometimes thinks she should do a business degree to make the store better.
“Whatever people learn in their degrees I have got in store – I know nothing about KPIs but I know what customers want,” she says.
“My biggest goal through business and life is to make people happy and whatever I can do, I will.”
With a few investment properties under her belt, she’s also keen to put the wind in the sails of those who have aspirations in life.
“All my friends say ‘you bought your first house at 19, I’m never going to be able to do that and I say ‘well, you don’t have to, but if you want to do something you can do it,” she says.
Father Nicholas Scordillis, priest at the Holy Apostles Greek Orthodox parish in Hamilton, can attest to this trait in the child he has known from the day she was born.
“A few months ago she caught a young man shoplifting and she realised he had a drug problem and spoke to him like an older sister,” he says.
“This young man is now in a rehabilitation program and Eleni has promised him work when he finishes.
“I believe she saved his life and her kindness is the reason he will find his way back to society.”
Assistant treasurer of the Holy Apostles community executive committee and key organiser of the church’s Greek language and dance school, Eleni is proud of her heritage and passing it on.
“I sound bogan, I’m not the Greekest person you will meet, but I’m so proud of our culture, I guess we are warm people,” she says, her eyes lighting up.
“My parents didn’t force Greekness upon me but it’s part of my life and I’ll be working hard to keep that when I have children.”
For now, her focus is on the supermarket: over the past year she has been gradually stepping in as the boss as George takes a step towards retirement.
Plans to completely renovate the store have been shelved in favour of a “makeover” and she has a vision to open more stores and a grocer-cafe business.
She won’t commit to a rebrand that removes the name of Nina, who like George is the child of migrant families whose tentacles in Hamilton’s Greek community spread far.
“She’s mum and she’s what I think of when I think of the store,” says Eleni.
“She’s the most loving human being in the word, soft and caring, and she reflects who I want the business to be.”