Having just returned with a first-hand look at the exodus of Syrian refugees and having met and spoken with several families of Middle Eastern descent who have settled in Greece, here are a few of my take aways on the issue.
Let us not forget: there is a difference between a refugee and a migrant. The boatloads of Syrian families that undocked at Pireaus present a pathetic picture of war-torn people in flight from fear, bombs, and political instability. The groups of refugees I saw in makeshift camps parked around Victoria Square were in transit to countries in the north. These people had no intention of staying in Greece, neither did they impose a threat to the Greek economy or status quo, itself in shambles to begin with. I am sure there are many imposters who have jumped on the refugee bandwagon from countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India who are taking advantage of the exodus to find their way to the EU. For this, Greece is not to blame. A stricter control and regulation of the refugee flow must be put in place by the greater EU.
Then there are the legitimate migrants, people from the Middle East and the third world who have come to make a home for themselves in Greece. A Pakistani cab driver who spoke fluent Greek with 15 years in the country told me, “Greeks are good people. I haven’t had too many issues except for one or two. But there is something in the Greek DNA that will refuse to accept me ever as a Greek.”
AbuShakir, the director of the Muslim community in Kato Patissia, oversees a small underground mosque of about 50-60 members. He fled Aleppo 25 years ago. The mosque has served as a temporary stop over for many of the Syrian refugees waiting to go onto the next transit point. He has given food and a place to stay for hundreds who have passed through, even converting the second floor of the apartment building he lives in into a classroom to provide a space for children with some semblance of normalcy. His eldest son is about to start an engineering track at the University of Athens. He loves Greece and is looking to migrate to the north reluctantly because of the difficulty in making a living since the crisis started.
“I feel more Greek than I do Arab, ” he claims, ” I’ve lived the majority of my life, more than 25 years, in Greece more than the few I lived in Syria.”
His experiences in the country have been overall positive. There have been no complaints or negative reactions about the establishment of this small mosque from the neighborhood. He has witnessed to ebb and flow if the Middle Eastern community through his mosque in Athens. In the previous 10 years many Arabs had settled in Athens, but the worsening economic crisis has affected the vulnerable immigrant population especially hard, he states. They have relocated in droves. Now it is his turn. “I’ve only decided to leave because of economic reasons. Inside I am very sad to go. I’ve lived the best years of my life in Greece,” he explains. “The sun, the green, the sea, the people-there are so many things to love about Greece.”
As for the talk of establishing an official mosque in Athens, AbuShakir thinks it is a good idea, more so for the Greeks than Muslims. Instead of having 30 or 40 underground mosques that can go by unchecked and under the radar, it would be better to have a centralized one where they can be monitored. Not that he has cause to fear a terrorist threat in Greece. “The Muslims in Greece come to pray and go on,” he explains. “These people are just looking for a better life. most come to board a bus and go straight to the borders. As long as there are no weapons, there is no danger of violence or a terrorist threat in Greece.”
Two jilbab wearing women pushing a baby cart near Agios Nikolaou Metro stop told me their story. They were both once Palestinian refugees settled in Lebanon. Thirteen years ago, the middle-aged one, Om Abdullah, walked from Lebanon to Turkey on foot and smuggled her way into Greece on a life raft through the Mediterranean. She has five children now, the oldest 18 and taking the Panhellinies exams. She told me she is not like the other refugees who go on to the northern European cities such as Berlin. “I love the Greek climate,” she explains. “I want to stay in Greece. I am waiting to be granted rights, a chance to work and love by the Greek people.”
Her friend, a young former teacher in Lebanon, in contrast did seek asylum in Sweden as a double refugee, once from Palestine fleeing Israeli occupation, twice from Lebanon fleeing the Syrian conflict. After two years in the north, she rejoined her husband, who had been working and living in Greece for over a decade. She would relocate citing a lack of work and opportunities in Greece. “In Greece there is nothing,” she explains. “In Lebanon I was a teacher. Here I stay home and do nothing.” From her experience, discrimination varied from a person-to-person basis. “Some people embrace you and others give you bad words, like garbage,” she recounts.
On a public bus heading towards Omonia, I witnessed a scene that indicates the global issue in a local way. A very African-looking woman dressed on traditional flowery robe of her ethnic colors along with her 8-year-old son entered the bus. They were minding their business holding on to dear life using the standing pole on the bus sweltering and crowded with all manner of people on their business.
A middle-aged to elderly man upon seeing them started a rampage, “You people are the scourge of the country. When will it end?” he shouted. “There is no more room for us on the bus and the country. These blacks are taking over. Athens is full of illegals allopodous.” “Allopodous” is the Greek word for foreigner etymologically meaning “those with other feet or foreign footed.” And then he started with the expletives the “g- Panagia and Christo” all that he held sacred.
Now the woman did not retaliate except for a scowl and a passing, “Have I bothered you in any way sir? I am only waiting for a seat to sit down.”
Thank goodness for a youngish man in his 20s who from the back of the bus shouted forcefully with the voice of reason. “Shame on you sir,” he shouted to the old man. “It is people like you that bring shame to our people as an ethnos. This woman has done nothing to offend you. Our ideals have always stood for equality democracy and wisdom. It is opinions like yours that show the barbarism and the backwardness in the present state. Close your mouth and stop shaming us.”
And I thought, “karma is a bitch old man. Who knows if right now or in the near future because of economic necessity one of your grandsons might not be on a public bus somewhere in Germany or Chicago with an ultra-nationalistic old-timer shouting obscenities to him as you have to this woman? History repeats itself and the oppressed once with power are doomed to become the oppressors.
Greeks have always been staunchly nationalistic. Now for the first time they are having to meet the hordes of “barbarians” at their door. It is threatening their national identity. They are grappling with the realities of globalization, something that their European neighbors to the north have had more time to accustom to. Entire neighborhoods in Athens once affluent like Kipseli have been transformed into African enclaves. Without a systematic centralized policy to assimilate these populations that are not going away the average Greek citizen is left up to his or her own to make do. Some are sympathetic, while others are hostile. Residents around Koliatsou Square attest to the terror night raids of some members of the Golden Dawn who have busted down doors to extract illegal migrants.
But the truth be told–migrants are here to stay. Some may go on, but many will remain. No manner of nationalistic gesturing will stem the flow of third- world immigrants looking for a better life within the haze of the European Dream. For a race of people who have built their success and their home country on the possibilities that migration affords, it would be good for the Greek nation and its Diaspora to critically examine their implicit biases towards others who are also looking to better their lot.
[follow id=”greekamgirl” ]