Greece and its ‘Xenoi’

Graffiti on the wall surrounding the refugee detention centre at Corinth

Graffiti on the wall surrounding the refugee detention centre at Corinth

My godfather is overly protective. He cares, I understand. He worries. “Be careful when you’re in downtown Athens,” he said one night after I returned late to his home where I am staying. “You’re not in your own country now. This is a ‘xenh hwra’…”

I find the word ‘xenh/xenoi’ to be strange. A strange word, with many connotations. Literally translated, it means foreign. But so often in Greece it means “them”. There are “us Greeks” and “them”. So I sort of took offence when I was described that way, as a ‘xenh’ in the country I’ve been coming to regularly since the day I was born and know well.

Yes, I suppose I am a foreigner here.. but am I a ‘xenh’? When I was younger ‘xenoi’ predominently meant Albanians. “Stay away from them,” I was told while playing on my bike at Varkiza harbor. By the age of six I had learnt to decipher the Albanian nationality through facial recognition and it would automatically trigger alarm bells in my head.

“Warning Theopi. Retreat.” They had been pre-programmed by my relatives and I’m still not sure what it was I had to be afraid of.

Now twenty five years later Albanians are fully integrated in Greek society and are for the most part fully accepted. Nobody looks twice at the taxi drivers who shuttle them across Athens or at the shop owners who sell them their daily milk and bread. Albanian and Greek children live in the same neighbourhoods and study in the same classrooms. Now it’s the other ‘xenoi’ who are perceived as a threat.. the ‘mauroi’ (blacks), Pakistani, and the rest who all fall under the expression ‘et cetera’.

A colleague of mine recently set up a website with friends promoting diversity and multiculturalism in Athens. During his research he approached some Russian women and decided to strike up a conversation about the area.

“So how are things nowadays?” he asked.

“Great,” one woman replied. “Especially now they’ve cleared the neighbourhood from all those ‘xenoi’.. Things are much better now.”

As a Russian, who had lived in Greece for many years, she obviously no longer considered herself to be ‘xenh’.. she was referring to today’s ‘non white’ xenoi, for the majority of whom life is a struggle. A mix of fear, poverty and violence.

The number of racist attacks on migrants is rising. One charity told me recently they receive one victim a day in their office. Bruised, bleeding, battered and desperate for help.

“How do they describe their attacks?” I asked.

“They are just walking along the road,” the volunteer said. “Maybe they are on their way home. A group of guys comes up to them and beats them and then leaves… for no reason at all.”

©Yannis Behrakis/Reuters

©Yannis Behrakis/Reuters A Sudanese migrant, shows scars on his back in Athens. He said he was attacked by a group of men holding Greek flags and left with the deep wounds on his back, throat and neck.

He showed me the conditions inside police stations where many illegal immigrants are kept for days on end, way past the legal time they are supposed to be there. Ten to twenty people in one tiny room.

The conditions at the detention centres too are appalling. Some people are kept, for over a year, in a room with thirty to forty others. No daylight. No opportunity to see daylight for months on end. And no opportunity to apply for asylum. They sleep in dirty bedding, if they even have bedding. And cold water to wash in is only available for an hour each day.

It is no surprise to hear of the suicide attempts made inside the Corinth camp, which must feel like a living hell. It is no surprise that after repeated ignored attempts to receive medical help, Afghan refugee Mohammad Hassan, died of a respiratory infection only a few days ago. He had been at Corinth for eleven months without treatment.

Much of the focus in the media is often on the appalling treatment of migrants by the far right.. the Golden Dawners.. who are accused of attacking migrants in the streets. Yet to read of Mohammad, a man whose life was shamelessly taken by the ignorant employees of the camp which failed to help him.. it seems clear to me, the blame surely lies with the Greek Government and Europe who allow such inhumane behavior to continue and who so often turn a blind eye.

When will Greece’s attitude to ‘xenoi’ change? And when will Europe assume responsibility? The Greek government would do well to respond to what has happened and conduct an inquiry at the very least.

Last week, a friend arrived in Athens and I suddenly got a pang of angst about her safety. She doesn’t know the areas where she should and shouldn’t go. Has she read the travel warnings about the risk of violent attacks against visitors “perceived to be foreign migrants”…The ‘xenoi’?

And once again I heard a faint ringing. The pre-programmed alarm bells from my youth.. that mean absolutely nothing. And I felt guilty.

Because as an Afghan acquaintance told me recently, “whether people like it or not, Athens is a multicultural city. Some hate that fact, but it is true. And it is not something to be frightened of.”

Of course certain areas in Athens are more dangerous than others, but that is the same in all cities. The steep rise in immigrants in Greece since the country joined the EU has angered many, but above all, I believe it has caused fear. A fear of the unknown, of the ‘xenoi’. And that has to change.

So often people ignore the positive multicultural side of Athens. It sometimes astounds me how a nationality often perceived as one of the warmest and welcoming in the world forgets to embrace it.

My new Afghan friend is fortunate enough to have retained a positive opinion of Greek society over the years.

He has fallen in love with a Greek girl and her family is very happy for them both. He says Greek people, or most Greek people, are welcoming. When I visit him, he and his girlfriend are knee deep in furniture and paint as they’re trying to prepare the flat they’ve just rented. They’re excited about their future and with a splash of blue he paints a big heart and declares his love for her.

“Can you tell I’m more romantic?” he jokes.

They have picked their neighbourhood because it is one of the safer ones for migrants and foreigners to reside. Not long after they begin their work on the flat, the new Turkish neighbours come knocking to welcome them. They bring beer and chocolates and soon everybody’s sharing stories and getting to know one another.

As it starts to get dark I leave them to it and walk away feeling happy for them. There is a warm, fuzzy feeling inside my stomach and it stays for the entire taxi ride home. Because for once, instead of the regular sense of sadness, negativity and general fear associated with ‘xenoi’, I am smiling.

And I am hopeful for a happier multicultural Greece.