Greek police and immigrants during an identity check, August 2012 (Photo: Pantelis Saitas/EPA)
Belica Antonia Kubareli, a novelist and literary translator, has worked with imprisoned women, rehabilitated youth, and refugees for more than 20 years. In her first article for EA, she uses her experiences to write of the situation for immigrants in Greece:
In Greece, a country of 11 million people, there are 2.5 million immigrants. Considering gray area in the statistics, there may be at least 3 million.
During the last three years, immigrants from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Iran, and Africa have often paid between $3,000 to $5,000 per person to be transferred on Turkish ships via the Mediterranean. Usually the Turkish traffickers abandon them mid-sea close to some Greek island and tell them to swim. Needless to say, many drown. If they are fortunate, a Greek ship might help them and they will get temporary assistance from locals while the police and the State turn a blind eye. On rare occassions, they are detained in a so-called refugee camp, either a derelict school or an open space with tents without food, medication, clothes, and other care.
The immigrants have often been told that Greece is a paradise. Some think of the country as their station on the way to the UK, USA, Canada, or Australia. But almost all are disillusioned once they move to the large cities, such as Athens, Thessaloniki, and Patrai. There they fall prey to different types of mafias. Some become street vendors selling Chinese products or cigarettes and perfumes; some work in restaurants or small home industries; a few resort to petty crime. Prostitution and petty drug dealing is often the only solution for the youngest of them.
Recently the press reported that the newborns of immigrants are sold in the streets of Athens to Greeks for 3,000 Euros. I have personally witnessed the case of a 7-year-old boy who was brought to the hospital after having suffered multiple rapes. Nobody claimed him, and the child died in my arms. There would be no proper burial: the Orthodox Church informed me that it does not bury Muslims, the Muslims said they have no cemetery in the municipality of Attica-Athens, the Catholic church was very sorry but.... The boy was thrown into the hospital’s incinerator while the doctor and I improvised a prayer. Later I was informed that this is the typical procedure for thousands of John Does in Greece and Europe.
Sadly Greece never had a strong sense of voluntarism. It can be confused with disgrace, as it is a matter of pride for many never to ask for help either from fellow citizens or from the State. I have often heard intellectuals say, “Voluntarism should not exist; those who help immigrants are stealing paid posts. Africa became a war place because of the volunteers.”
We volunteers may be seen as rich, lazy, daydreamers who have nothing else to do but care for the destitute. While some mainstream Left, communist, and socialist parties began to pay attention to the issue during the May and June 2012 national elections, they offered no tangible solution. Instead, the problem was passed around amid speculation, propaganda, and debates on TV shows. The Orthodox Church announced in mid-June: “We are feeding 100,000 poor Greeks per month in Athens. The State should do something with the black Muslims.”
Contrary to the images, we are not wealthy. We all work and give some money to rent small shops, where we teach Greek and/or English, and underground storage-houses where we gather donations of medicines, foods, clothes, linen, and furniture. We help foreigners deal with the incoherent Greek bureaucracy, and we work with doctors who vaccinate children and adults or treat the sick who cannot go to a hospital, lest they get arrested.
Years ago, the foreigners were welcomed as the cheapest working force for small industries and agriculture. Now with the economic crisis is at its peak, they are framed as the cause of all Greek suffering. It is a myth --- Luca Katseli, the former dean of Panteion University, published the outcome of 10 years of research which found rural Greece benefited from "coloured immigrants" whose work increased production by 27%.
But it is a powerful myth, exploited by the extremists of Chrisi Avgi (Golden Dawn), who now have 18 members in the Greek Parliament and thrive in the ghettos. Using slogans “Greece belongs to Greeks” “Greeks are Aryans, not blacks”, or even “Hitler loved Greeks”, they have managed to lure unemployed, uneducated people into acceptance of their scapegoats: the poor immigrants and the volunteers. The impact is reinforced by the mysterious ownership of TV channels by Chrisi Avgi, even though it has no official broadcast license.
The extremists portray themselves as protectors of Greeks who dislike their neighbourhoods taken over by foreigners. Dressed in all black, including their helmets, they roam many areas of Athens on motorbikes, holding guns, beating up immigrants, throwing Molotov bombs, and raiding schools and surgeries the volunteers have founded.
Our places are very small and the Molotov burns everything instantly. We run and hide while the extremists destroy what might still be intact. When we first tried to call the Police, their reply was: “Who cares about blacks? Why do you work with them? Don’t you know they are Muslims?” So, we stopped calling.
In the first six months of 2012, we were forced to close down seven schools where we also provided medical assistance. We taught approximately 500 immigrants per school, and our doctors treated at least 50 people per day. We also closed down three store-houses where we used to gather clothes, foods, and medication because the attackers threw Molotov bombs --- luckily late at night, when nobody was in. Most of the doctors and nurses left to work with larger foreign organisations and charities or moved abroad. The teachers, terrified and stalked, quit.
Courts do not accept us as representatives of immigrants, who do not discuss their case openly. Those who still have a home country to go back to, swarm the Ministry of Foreign Affairs asking to leave Greece; those whose countries are in the middle of a war, beg to be transferred elsewhere.
We volunteers try to persist amid fear. The extremists know where we live and haunt us. (Who gave them our addresses?) Some of us have had "accidents" recently, arms and legs broken from motor-bikers who never stop to see what they have left behind.
My fear is that soon immigrants will find ways to fight back against the attackers. Violence will increase, as retaliation will follow. With Chrisi Avgi getting 6,8% in the national elections, the Greeks blinded from fear and despair, and the meda playing on people’s ignorance, the situation will only worsen.