It is only the early ’90s. The West had begun to penetrate deep into the Balkans. Greece did not belong to the West for a long time and it had already begun to be considered by some as a land of salvation. Somewhere there, between Europe and the Balkans, there was a small country with only a few million inhabitants, which had just left Communism behind and made its first steps towards the neighboring countries. In 1991, the first “batch” of people arrived in Greece, many of whom had crossed the mountains walking for days to reach Kakavia and, from there, to the rest of the country. It is noted that the first wave consisted of Greeks of Albania who were separated as “Northern Epirotes” by the Albanian citizens. Despite Greece being promising, nobody could know what would happen to them. A future of uncertainty and hostility, and a country that, in addition to its “foreigners”, is also welcoming a “trend” that will infiltrate those who grew up in that decade. And that is “albanophobia”.
Giorgos (Armando*) came to Greece with his parents and his two siblings in 1995, when he was 1 years old. Their first option was Corfu. Then they moved to Keratea and from there to Athens, where they have been living for the past 20 years. The five of them decided to say goodbye and leave their brothers and sisters behind, building a new life in Greece. “It was difficult in Albania at that time, especially for a family with three children”, Giorgos says. “My father came from a Greek village in Albania, so Greece was a good choice for us as my father spoke the language and we could get legal more easily”. Giorgos remembers his first years in Greece, his first friends and first days at school.
“It was difficult in Albania at that time, especially for a family with three children”, Giorgos says. “My father came from a Greek village in Albania, so Greece was a good choice for us as my father spoke the language and we could get legal more easily”.
Giorgos remembers his first years in Greece, his first friends and first days at school.
“Every time they asked me my name, I would never use my Albanian name”, he remembers. “I preferred to use the name Giorgos. I had just started kindergarten, when my teacher asked my mother to baptize me. Now, only my father calls me Armando”.
But as he explains, the adoption of the “Greek” name was not his choice. “I was afraid that if I told my real name to the other children, it might have seemed strange to them and they would not want to be my friends”.
The mother was a cleaner, the father was a builder
The situation for Greek expatriates in Albania seems to have been less difficult, as they had the advantage of speaking the language. However, most of them were exploited as cheap workforce in construction and manual labour.
For Giorgos’ mother, however, things were different, as it was difficult for her to get used to, since she did not speak the language. Many Albanian women, like Mrs. Aphrodite, moved on with their lives in Greece by working as cleaners in family homes.
His mother did not speak the language; only a few words and everyday expressions she had learnt from her husband. That is why it was difficult for her to integrate into the new society and find a job. “It was difficult for her at first, yes. But there were good people who were willing to help us”, he says. “My mother works as a cleaner, my father as a builder”.
“There were, however, times that things were not so easy for her. There were moments when she felt that the ladies for whom she worked behaved disparagingly to her, mainly by indirectly insulting for her educational level. In Albania, it was difficult for people to study at the time when our parents grew up. They needed money. That’s why most people chose to work after school”, he says.
As he was narrating me about his years as an “Albanian child” in Greece, he recalled an incident – which perhaps many of us have witnessed – that outlines more or less Greek society’s attitude towards the “foreigner”.
“In the sixth grade, I won the draw for being the flag-bearer in the students’ parade”, he says. “I remember there were children, and even my friends, complaining about the fact that an Albanian would bear the flag. I could not understand it. In my eyes, it was very honorable for a country to give the flag to a foreign child. It shows that this child honors that country”.
“Here we fuck the Albanians”
When it was time for him to serve the homeland, Giorgos had heard that the army was a “strange place”, he said. In the military camp he expected to meet all kinds of people.
“We hear a lot about the army every day and the people serving it. However, the first time I was in the camp I had not seen or heard anything strange, until a sergeant visited us one day”, he says.
“I do not know what you’ve heard, but here we fuck the Albanians”, says Giorgos, laughing, a little embarrassed. “But that moment was an isolated incident for me”, he explains, “No one else had spoken to me in the same way”.
However, the time is running out for Giorgos’ parents in Greece and they are thinking about going back to their homeland.
Look, my mother has reached a certain age and she cannot continue to work as a cleaner. Over the years problems have arisen, for example her legs hurt. For how long would she hold on?” he explains.
“My father, a nearly 60-year-old man, was recently forced to emigrate for a second time in his life because the demand on building sites has decreased. He had to work and make money”, Giorgos said.
“My father received very few pension stamps, depending on how he would work. My mother’s work, however, was undeclared… No one cared about these women”, he says. “Now that they are about to be retired, they are thinking about returning to Albania. They loved Greece, but unfortunately they see no future here. They will go back to be at least with their loved ones.”
The fear of the far-right
A few kilometers away, in Attikis Square, Victoria, an 18-year-old girl, tells me how a child grows up in the heart of the Greek capital, not far away from the stronghold of Golden Dawn.
“I was just in primary school, when the Golden Dawn began appearing in Attikis Square. They had not hurt Albanians, at least in front of me. But they had attacked other immigrants, such as Pakistanis. Once they had attacked a man in the square, they stabbed him and left him lying there. That was enough to make residents and my parents worried when I was out in that area”, she says.
“They had never attacked us”, she continues. “Only the police treated us somehow weirdly. Many times police officers showed up at the square to stop and check the Albanians there”, she says and explains: “They did not even check them most of the time. They just arrested them on the pretext that they did not have papers. They had arrested my father once, who did not have his papers with him. However, the problem was solved the next day. That happened a lot”.
“I had restrictions from my parents. They were afraid. They are still afraid. Not just when I go out at night, but even in the morning. There have been times when they told me to avoid speaking Albanian on the bus or train. You do not know how someone could react”.
In the 6th Gymnasium of Athens, which Victoria attended a few years ago, the majority of students were immigrants. “About eight out of ten children were not Greeks. Most of my classmates were Albanians. That made me feel very comfortable. It was a very good environment and I was not afraid of expressing myself or speaking”, she says.
Victoria was born and raised in Greece. She has been living in the area of Attikis square with her parents for the past ten years. As a second-generation child, she should have acquired citizenship. Five years after she filed the necessary documents, she is still on hold.
“I need the papers to continue my life here in Greece. I was born here, I have studied and I have my friends. I do not understand why a state cannot accept a child. “I understand that they may see me as an alien”, she says, “but my life is here”.
We have been running into the “foreigners” of Albania in our schools, neighborhoods and mass transit for twenty years. Twenty years later, they have been incorporated into the Greek society, which has started to take its first steps to accept those people who were considered as people who “came to their country to steal their jobs”.
In the early years, when the Albanians first knocked the Greek family’s door to ask for a job, they did not expect -probably- such a behaviour which would stigmatize a whole generation of immigrants.
The label “illegal immigrant” will be on the news headlines for the next few years, accompanying the attacks on the Albanians. The murders are even explicated as Greek people’s anger or fear. Only in 1991, 15 murders of immigrants committed by Greeks were recorded. First they came for the Albanians…