‘They don’t accept you’: Afro-Greeks struggle to be seen

While the Golden Dawn verdict was widely praised, Greeks of African origin say much more is needed to end racial inequalities.

Demonstrators shout slogans during a protest march against racism and to honour Heather Heyer in front of the US embassy in Athens, Greece, 17 August 2017. Heather Heyer was killed as she protested racism in Charlottesville, US, on August 12 [Simela Pantzartzi/EPA]

Athens, Greece – “It’s a victory for the Greek nation in general,” said 29-year-old Eirini Ontoul, as she considers the recent verdicts against the far-right Golden Dawn party.

“Even if it was out of political correctness, all parties finally condemned the actions of this organisation and this was not the case in the past – not everyone had a clear opposition against this party.”

At the end of a landmark, years-long trial, leading members of the neo-Nazi group and their sympathisers were on October 7 convicted of several crimes, including running a criminal organisation and murder. When the decision was announced, thousands celebrated outside the court and the moment was marked in history as a key legal victory against the European far right.

“But to be honest,” added Ontoul, “I don’t think that it’s a victory for immigrants or the second generation.”

Born in Greece to immigrant parents, she grew up in the central Athens neighbourhood of Ambelokipi, where she went to a local public school.

While Ontoul gained Greek citizenship through her mother when she was four, most of her peers have struggled for citizenship for years.

She believes that conversations around race and racism in Greece are only now beginning.

“There was no need [before],” she said, explaining that the Afro-Greek population in Greece is relatively small and young.

For years, people from across Africa did not usually stay in Greece long term; many came as students and would leave after completing degrees.

But in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the trend changed. Unlike those before them, an increasing number decided to stay.

“This was the new generation of people of African origin that decided to claim a Greek identity,” said Ontoul.

Jackie Abhulimen, advocacy officer for Generation 2.0 for Rights, Equality and Diversity, a nonprofit organisation, is also a second-generation immigrant whose own battle for Greek citizenship lasted into her early 20s. She is now 29.

“Greece is still a newbie in these things, [and] you can understand why when you look at the history of the movement of people coming to this country, [which] is still very new,” she said.

Abhulimen was also born and raised in Athens to immigrant parents, but unlike Ontoul did not attend her local Greek public school. Instead, her parents sent her to a private English speaking school.

“That was because my parents, coming to Greece and seeing how Greek society was and facing all of that xenophobia, racism and discrimination, wanted to equip their kids with an education and language that would take them out of Greece,” she said.

In July 2015, the legal battle for citizenship rights hit a milestone with the passing of the law 4332, which gave children of immigrants born and/or raised in Greece the right to Greek citizenship.

But the end of one struggle simply meant the start of another for this generation of Afro-Greeks – cultural belonging.

“You can’t even begin to tackle the cultural until you’ve secured your [legal] status,” said Abhulimen. “Now that we’ve done that, that’s where we are, and that’s why we’re having these talks.”

Following the murder of George Floyd by a white police officer in the US, Abhulimen and Ontoul gathered nine Afro-Greeks together to discuss racism and what it means to belong to Greece culturally.

“We noticed that all over [the world] and especially in Europe people were finger-pointing at the United States about the way they deal with Black bodies and with Black people, but they don’t really focus, to the extent that we want them to, [on] their self-reflection,” said Ontoul.

They discussed what “I can’t breathe” meant to Afro-Greeks; while they do not experience the same level of violence at the hands of the police as African Americans, racism and oppression are still present in their lives.

“What ‘I can’t breathe’ in Greece means [to me] is not having equal access to opportunity simply because of the colour of my skin, period, no other reason,” said Abhulimen.

For Eleni Meredoula, 29, whose family is originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), but moved to Athens when she was a toddler, feeling like she is not accepted in Greek society has been the biggest challenge.

“[It’s] the Greek mentality that they don’t accept you as you are … it takes so long for people to accept the differences,” she said. “These are the kind of things that are making me feel like I can’t breathe.”

Part of the problem lies in language, but also in the under-representation of Afro-Greeks in certain fields.

Yvette Jarvis is a former professional basketball player and city councilwoman in Athens, whose accomplishments include the establishment of a national toll-free hotline for victims of domestic violence and the development of a Greek language programme for immigrant mothers.

She told Al Jazeera the lack of representation, especially in fields such as law, medicine and academia, may damage the aspirations of the next generation of Afro-Greeks.

“You have to first understand that without having citizenship, they’re not allowed to practice, because in order to get into their unions and societies, you need to have that card, that paper,” said Jarvis.

“Greeks need that push, the pressure. Without the pressure it’s not going to happen,” she added.

The lack of representation of Afro-Greek academics is particularly concerning, because, as Abhulimen explained, “there’s so much terminology that hasn’t yet been translated to the Greek language, and the reason it hasn’t been translated is because, generally speaking, terminology and different thought processes are passed through academia.

“Race as a subject matter, especially in the modern conceptions of race, hasn’t really been tackled as much in Greece, and that’s why we don’t have the terminology in Greece.

“For the Greek context, racism as a term has been completely associated with [all forms of] discrimination, and it’s also legislative now … If you look at the anti-racist law, what’s considered racism and racist is basically any type of discrimination, so that’s why Greeks think that something that’s racist is just any form of discrimination [that’s] not associated with race.”

This can be frustrating for Afro-Greeks when trying to have a conversation about racial hierarchies and systemic racism.

“It’s a different type of discussion,” said Ontoul. “They equalise everything and they don’t understand the intricacies and how this manifests and impacts a certain person to the [full] extent.”

Although, both Abhulimen and Ontoul point out that Greeks, especially the younger generation, are quick in adopting new vocabulary and ideas when it comes to issues like racism.

“I’m hopeful, but I’m also confused as well because history has shown that most [countries] have had their ups and downs in regards to this topic,” says Ontoul. “So, I don’t see why Greece wouldn’t follow the same path, even though they’re quick to adopt some positive outside influences in regards to the topics of racism, discrimination and xenophobia.”

Source: Al Jazeera