Monday, June 30, 2014

Immigrants in Greece, Part 1: Looking for a Better Life in the Changing Land of Greece

 Almost Like I’m One of Them: Lost and Found in the Crowd

My debut on the Greek stage occurred on the last day of May. Okay, it was actually on a slab of concrete outside a community center, and it was really a demonstration of kung fu self defense moves, but it really was in Greece. As an American immigrant here who doesn’t know the system, customs, or language well enough to contribute as much to school, community, or political affairs as I did and would in the U. S., I enjoyed participating in something for a change. I could have just watched the children’s precise forms and stances and the teachers’ awesome sparring, pole maneuvering, and sword slashing routines. But I’d readily agreed to take part in the demonstration with my kung fu teacher, whose parents had come to Greece from Russia, as my father’s parents had gone to Canada from Russia. Although I was startled by the audience’s collective gasp at my kick to the head of my teacher, I was also pleased by that proof that I was finally a part of the action here. Eleven years of sitting on the sidelines has often felt frustrating.

On the other hand, it’s sometimes nice for someone who came to Crete as an outsider to feel like one of the crowd here. One night in mid June, I was one of a few hundred family members at the annual elementary school end of year celebration, where the children dance and present theatrical skits. While my turquoise, pink, and white Asics sneakers contrasted with the dressier, less practical shoes on most of the women, it was one of the two days of the year when I both had my hair cut and styled professionally, and was wearing makeup, so that helped me blend in with the Greek mothers. When I speak, whether in English or Greek, I sound foreign, especially if I compliment someone’s dressed-up appearance, which is not something Greeks do. (Today someone asked where I’m from and whether my children speak like me.) But when I’m silent, I sometimes look like one of them, now that my hair is darker than it was in my first year in Greece over twenty years ago, when I stuck out as a blond foreigner in what was then a far more homogenous country. Now, I better resemble the Greek parents who edge forward toward the roped-off part of the paved schoolyard, crouching in front of the audience to photograph our children’s costumed dances. I can mingle with the crowd as one of them, greeting friends, chatting, and photographing groups of our children, a few of them offspring of American, Italian, or British immigrants married to more or less Greek spouses, a few of them struggling to make friends and to read, write, and speak Greek well, but most of them just kids together at our school. That’s not the case for all children of immigrants in Greece. For example, one Albanian’s Greek high school teachers don’t feel obligated to help him with his lessons, telling his mother he can learn when he returns to Albania, and his brother doesn’t feel that he fits in well with his classmates. We are lucky that my kids usually do fit in. 

“Expatriates” and “Immigrants”

My cheerful, friendly Scottish friend, whom I’ll call Emma, is one of the most open-minded and content of the well-off, first-world immigrants I know here; she suggests that there’s no use getting worked up about what we cannot change, however different things are here from what we’re used to (the educational system, careless drivers, power outages, and frequent strikes I complain about, for example). She has taught English as a foreign language and seen her children through the Greek public schools, where (as she points out) they fit in, although we never will. My thoughtful, courteous Greek-Canadian friend “Sophia” (I am changing all names) more openly shares my frustration with the ever-present cigarette smoke, the hours of sitting in doctors’ waiting rooms, the high incidence of car and motorbike accidents, and the lack of concern about bullying at school, as she takes walks with me and cares for her home and family. Like me, Emma and Sophia are married to Greek men, which gives us an edge when it comes to fitting (part way) in and helping our kids through school.

My North American and Western European friends can be critical of what bothers them here, but they tend to end with the rather Greek question of “τί να κάνουμε,” TEE na KAnoomeh, or what can we do?—except for the one who decided to move back to the U. S. Another American acquaintance at the military base here provided my first warning that “it rains mud” (all over the cars), and she was quite ready for her re-deployment elsewhere. On the other hand, a gay British/American couple who started teaching English to Greeks and ended up teaching online for an American university seem quite happy to remain here into retirement, in spite of the lack of gay rights. And some Dutch neighbors came here to live, work, and adopt a child because they like the area. The stories of North American and Western European immigrants here are more varied than a few sentences can suggest, but generally we are here because we (more or less) want to be; usually, we are here legally, with jobs or at least partners with jobs, and we have what we need. Most of my blog entries focus on my own life here in Greece; this month and next, I want to look into some other lives as well.

According to Greek social scientist Dr. Irene Sotiropoulou (in an interview at Chania’s impressively renovated public library this month), there is a “hierarchy of immigrants,” from the perspective of both the native-born and the foreign-born, which separates generally well educated, middle- or upper-class Western European and North American “expatriates” from often less educated, less affluent “immigrants” from such places as Eastern Europe and the former Soviet republics, with more recent and more impoverished immigrants of color from Africa and the Middle East considered even lower on the hierarchy, perhaps along with Greece’s neighboring Albanians, and more susceptible to racist and xenophobic violence. Those lowest on the hierarchy are probably most likely to be rounded up and sent to jail or detention centers without committing any crime beyond lacking certain pieces of paper. (More on that in next month’s blog.) Those higher in the hierarchy, on the other hand, may enjoy a relatively good life here.

Working in Greece for a Better Life

I met Ioana, an energetic, friendly, intelligent young Romanian law student who had won tennis tournaments in Romania, when we were looking for a part-time babysitter for our first child. Although we thought we wanted a Greek babysitter to help our daughter learn better Greek when her father wasn’t home, Ioana was the warm and caring one who immediately sat down on the floor to play with our toddler, unlike the polite but distant Greek kindergarten teacher or the unkempt young Greek woman who came with her boyfriend and apologized for not having had time to wash her hair. The best person for the job, Ioana cared for our children and other kids on and off for years, bringing her son along to play with mine after our boys were born just months apart, working at a café’s play place, teaching tennis to children at a private school, and studying her Romanian law books at night, returning to Romania to pass her exams with higher grades than the students who attended classes. We respected each other’s educational attainments, intelligence, and drive to learn. Although we never discussed the terminology, Ioana might have been called an expatriate, since (as the word implies) she always intended to return to Romania by the time her son was ready for first grade. And she did so, escaping the Greek economic crisis and returning to a home she and her husband had bought and furnished with money earned in Greece. They came to Greece to save for their home and future, then returned to their homeland so Ioana could practice law there, and we lost contact.

So it’s not only Western European and North American “expatriates” or “immigrants” like me who are here in Greece because we choose to be. However, our reasons for the choice are often very different from those of people from other parts of the world. Ioana chose to be here in order to earn money to invest in a home. Some young Ukrainian and Russian women I’ve seen in shops lately, now that we have more wealthy Russian tourists visiting Crete, must have chosen to come to earn money. So did Irina, a calm, kind, pleasant woman in her thirties who left her two young children with their grandparents and came to Greece from the country of Georgia seven years ago, when war with Russia had made life difficult. Irina fled from the relatively quiet capitol, where Russian goods no longer filled the empty supermarket shelves, and staples such as diapers were available only thanks to American and German aid. She passed through a war-torn village with its houses on fire, then made her way through Turkey to Greece by bus. Like many of those who have not suffered intensely from the political or religious persecution or violence that could give them the official designation of “refugee” or “asylum seeker,” Irina and her husband came here because they could not earn enough in their homeland. Due to the war with Russia, they couldn’t get the wood necessary to run the carpentry business for which they had borrowed money using the one-room house where they lived with their two children as collateral. If they did not find a way to earn money—which they could not do in Georgia then—they would lose their house and have no place to live. Yet there does not seem to be much inclination, either here or in the U. S., to grant “asylum” to any “refugees” running away from poverty, overcrowding, or potential homelessness. But what could Irina and her husband do?

Irina’s husband applied for political asylum, since their country was at war, but due to his lack of a good lawyer and connections, they believe, his claim was rejected. So Irina paid a smuggler 3,000 euros to bring her to Greece—ironically, that was considerably less than she would have spent to purchase a visa to come here legally, as she would have liked to do. She did not have enough money to pay the smuggler, but she was able to earn enough to repay him in Greece. I met her when she was caring for the elderly, disabled parents of a Greek friend as a live-in helper. She said she was grateful to have a job, clothing, and everything she needs, glad to have the chance to earn enough to repay the bank loan and purchase the materials to extend their single room into a comfortable house for her family, and for another house for her children to use when they grow up. By Georgian standards, Irina earned a very good salary here, enough that some of her relatives complained that she was a rich person with an easy life, although by Greek standards (never mind American ones!) she was a hard worker with a low income and no vacation time. She sent almost all of her earnings back to Georgia, where her husband had returned to live with their children and build their house with the help of family and friends. While Irina missed her family and was anxious to see them, she said she was content, with no complaints about her treatment here. She came this far in order to be able to live happily with her husband and family in the future, once she earned enough to provide homes for them all.

Irina said she was content, yet—even with my children here with me, not growing and changing unbearably far away, even with far more of everything than my family and I need--my own feelings are mixed. At this point, I consider myself an American immigrant in Greece, and my children think of themselves as Greek, since this is where they’ve lived all their lives (in spite of dual citizenship and a few vacations in the U. S.). But if I had the chance to return to the safe, peaceful, semi-rural, comfortably middle-class American life of roomy houses and large, grassy yards shaded by giant sycamores to play under that I got used to when I was growing up, I’d do it. (I frequently think about how much difference it makes what we are used to.) The question is, does that exist any more? If it does, is it accessible to me and my family, economically, professionally, culturally, and socially? I know my memories are heavily colored by nostalgia, and I am repeatedly, deeply disturbed by all the reports of shootings, bigotry, inequality, drug abuse, and college debt (to name just a few) in the U. S., so I am no longer sure where my place is—apparently a common problem for those of us who live outside our homelands. And of course the question of the best place for my bicultural, bilingual children and my multilingual, highly educated Greek husband could be a different story—except that it can’t, right now, so it has to be a story of compromise and continued adaptation. But not as extreme a compromise as Irina’s; as I keep reminding myself, we are fortunate enough to have the opportunity to work out our story together.

I am fully aware that the country I grew up in and the peaceful, prosperous life I knew as a youth remain far more accessible to me than any peace or comfort in their homeland can be for most of the millions of refugees, asylum seekers, and other less fortunate migrants fleeing into Europe these years. I felt isolated when I came to Greece, in spite of my Greek husband’s efforts, but he, his new co-workers, and my helpful new neighbors helped me adapt, while my previous year in Athens and my earlier trips to Greece helped to train me for my life here. My education helped prepare me for difference and change (as well as the comfort of books and online resources); my class, new connections, and white skin smoothed the way for a kind welcome from those to whom I was introduced. (It took more time for me to befriend grocery clerks, mail carriers, and neighbors with no clue about who I am, but some polite words and smiles and an occasional introduction from a new friend eventually did the trick with many of them.) It felt like a big deal to pack and prepare for my momentous move overseas, and then to extricate myself from our piles of boxes in a neighborhood where I could understand very little of what people said. But my Greek husband D was always here to help me, and it wasn’t hard to get here. When we came, a law granting financial support for the repatriation of well educated Greeks like D even enabled us to pay for help with packing and fly business class for once in our lives.

Over the Mountains on Foot, With Small Children

For Elisavet, a generally cheerful, hard-working, efficient Albanian, it was an entirely different story. In 2002, Elisavet first crossed the mountains between Albania and Greece on foot, with her husband, her year and a half old son, and a group of other Albanians desperate enough to get to a country where they could find jobs that they paid a smuggler 1000 euros to lead them through the mountains, through the waist-high waters of a river, and to a bus—which Greek police boarded to arrest them and take them to jail (even the toddler!) for a day and a night before returning them to Albania. Their 1000 euros lost, their passports stamped “entry forbidden for 5 years,” they were sent back to the country where Elisavet’s mother received 50 euros for her monthly pension, a total of 5 euros per day was (and still is) a typical wage for 12 hours of hard work, a loaf of bread cost 1 euro, and a kilogram of meat cost 10. In that land where electricity was available for two hours in the morning and two hours at night, so winter heat came from burning wood, a sick, malnourished child told the doctor that he’d last eaten meat at a wedding celebration years ago.

Elisavet rightly laughed at my complaints about being crowded with a family of four in a three-bedroom apartment, lacking the study, guest room, basement play areas, and large yard I grew up with. Her amazingly tolerant response was so good natured that I only belatedly learned the details about her past that led me to realize just how foolish and ignorant my complaints must have sounded to her. Before Elisavet left Albania, she and her husband and two sons slept in one bedroom, while her in-laws slept on couches in the only other room in the house. And that was better than Elisavet’s previous living conditions, where eleven extended family members slept in a one room house at night and worked in a taverna all day, or her sister’s situation, where their family of eight slept on the floor, and the father had to cross the border to earn money to pay for the flour, salt, and rice bought on credit, so their children could have something to eat. Some relatives in Greece--even those who relied on donations of clothing and lived in what looked like relative poverty here--sent money to help them buy food. Another hiked over the mountains to earn money to buy clothes for the children which he then carried back to them on foot—I have no idea over how many kilometers or miles. So what were they supposed to do?

In 2004 Elisavet and her family tried again to enter Greece, climbing into the mountains by night, sleeping all day in a bean field, then hiking through the mountains for another night with a group of Albanians that included their five year old son, who struggled along on his own little legs most of the way (and had trouble walking for months afterward, after all the strain on his small body). Their twenty month old son had to be carried all the way, making it impossible to take more than a few of the boys’ clothes and a pack of cookies for the journey. (I cannot imagine having the strength to carry a child even a fraction of that time or distance, even in the best of conditions.) Whenever a vehicle approached, they jumped into the ditch to hide. Eventually, the Albanians hid behind a herd of goats in a stinky truck. Elisavet had to cover the mouth of her youngest son when police stopped the truck so they wouldn’t hear his crying, which could have led to the loss of another 1000 euros that could have been used to buy clothes and food, as well as another return to their land of poverty. Elisavet was afraid she’d smother her son, and also afraid they’d all be sent back again, as she nervously held her young son’s nose closed, then held his mouth closed, then his nose, then his mouth. Before the police waved the truck on so he could resume his constant, panicked crying, his face had turned red. But he was all right, his brother’s legs recovered, and this time, they made it into Greece. This is not a sob story or melodrama. This is real life.

They’d mailed their passports to Elisavet’s husband’s cousin in Athens to be sure to avoid having them stamped “entry forbidden for 5 years” again. Making their way to Athens, they picked up the passports and were able to take a ferry to Crete, where her husband’s brother was already living, having found her husband a job working with marble. Her husband was able to secure a work permit when he told the authorities that his wife and small boys were here. She thinks they assumed the family must have been here legally, not imagining they could make it over the mountains with such young children. That was 2005, a year when some immigrants “already” in Greece were given residence permits if they could “prove” they had entered earlier--a year of the “regularization” of some immigrants’ status--and that’s why many Albanians came over the mountains that year. They were desperate to take advantage of the regulation, they wanted to be legal residents here, and they needed to find jobs that could support not only those in Greece, but those family members still struggling to survive in Albania.

Shortly after Elisavet’s arrival in an apartment next to the village supermarket, an elderly Greek woman who’d seen her cleaning her balcony came to ask if Elisavet wanted work. Elisavet didn’t know any Greek then, so she rushed to find a pencil and paper and gestured to the woman to write down what she wanted, so she could find out from her sister in law later. Learning that she’d been offered work the next morning, Elisavet locked her small sons in the apartment with a few toys, a blanket, and a sandwich and apprehensively entered the car with the elderly couple, complete strangers whose language she could not understand. Well before the end of the half hour drive to a hotel they owned, where they wanted her to clean, she began crying with fear and uncertainty about what was going on (as she told me later, laughing then at her understandable ignorance). Once she understood her task, she cleaned all the rooms with an efficiency and determination that must have impressed the Greek couple. That evening, when she was brought home and paid for her work, she found her sons curled up in a blanket, asleep on the floor together. Coming in and discovering that they had no furniture or kitchen equipment, that grandmotherly Greek woman sympathetically touched Elisavet’s cheeks and cried, “αγάπη μου,” agapi mou, my love. And she did more: she soon found them much of what they needed, and continued to employ Elisavet for four years, until she was well established in Crete. I wonder if it was that same good, kind woman who led me to Elisavet’s apartment when she learned that I was looking for someone to help me with cleaning, after my mid-thirties pregnancy left me too tired to hold myself to the high Greek housekeeping standard on my own, and I was fortunate enough to be able to afford to pay for help.

Elisavet and her family fared better here than many of their compatriots, but it wasn’t ever easy for them. While her husband usually couldn’t find work, Elisavet worked all the time. Like many of her compatriots, she cleaned hotels and houses, cooked in a hot taverna kitchen, and worked in a shop—often all on the same day in the summer, when she slept very little and only saw a beach on her way to work. Although she could not afford to buy her son both clothes and shoes for his birthday—only one of them--she spent thousands of euros a year to obtain the documents necessary for her family to live and work in Greece legally. I asked her how things were in Albania recently, compared to Greece, and at first she said about the same: many, many Albanians who’d come to Greece returned to Albania when they could no longer find work here due to the Greek economic crisis. (News reports suggest that “about 20 percent of the Albanian population in Greece returned [to Albania] between 2007-2012” [Some 180,000 Albanians left Greece for home in five years, report says]). But then she revised her view, adding that the only place jobs were available in Albania was the capital, Tirana; elsewhere, Elisavet said, there was nothing. So while many mothers and children were returning to Albania, many fathers were remaining in Greece, hoping to pick up at least some work now and then in order to send much-needed money home, where families mostly ate what they could grow, but couldn’t grow shoes for their children.

I write at my desk in Crete, with the cicadas’ varying humming buzz in the background. Their chorus can crescendo to a roar, but it is sometimes overpowered by the fighter jets that drown out all other sounds on their extremely expensive practice runs to maintain their readiness to defend Greek air space in this world of constant wars, violence, crises, and poverty from which migrants flee. Last week, when our electricity had been cut off for four hours, I informed a friendly, elderly Greek neighbor who was surprised  that he couldn’t turn on his air conditioning (in that first week of temperatures into the mid and upper 90s) that the outage had actually been planned and announced this time. He responded with the usual “υπομονή,” eepomoNEE, patience. I nodded and replied with uncharacteristic, Greek-like tolerance, “τί να κάνουμε,” TEE na KAnoomeh, what can we do? We finished our Greek conversation with the usual “καλημέρα,” kaliMEra, good morning; “στο καλό,” sto kaLOH, literally to the good; and “να είστε καλά,” na EEsteh kaLAH, may you be well. I know the usual commonplace phrases among Greek neighbors, many of them related to people’s health, since these neighborly comments are often directed at me. I usually have electricity as well. I don’t have to flee for my life or that of my children. Sometimes I succeed in feeling as fortunate and grateful as I should, and sometimes I don’t. Appropriately grateful or not, next month I’ll write about more migrants who have faced more difficulties than I could ever expect to endure myself.


I am grateful to the Greeks and migrants who helped me gather information for this blog, the Greek friends who took the photos of the kung fu demonstration and of an immigrant caring for an elderly couple, and the Americans who commented on a draft of this text. They know who they are. All migrants’ names have been changed on my blog to help protect their privacy.

1 comment:

  1. WOW! It's nice adventure to spend time in Greece.Thanks for sharing.