Friday Jul 19

Notes on Greece, Migrants, and More

We are coping, we are getting by, we are waiting for our life to begin. - English as a Foreign Language, Habibi Centre—Athens 2024

On Friday afternoon during conversation practice, an Afghani student brought out pictures of himself; one with his Kalashnikov, and another defending a high ridge with a pistol. He regrets not having a pic with his rocket launcher.  His town fell to the Taliban in 2021, but he has been in Athens only a few months.

Most of the students in my classes don’t report such a dramatic background, but whether from Djibouti, Somalia, Ethiopia, Cote D’Ivoire, or Egypt, most face the homesickness, and stress that is the migrant experience, and their journey to Greece may have been brutal.  The majority of students are unaccompanied teenagers, now far from home. 

We volunteer teachers at Habibi Center, Athens take the students as they come to us.  No background unless or until they share.   They are the Universal Teenager, with all the inattention, disorganization, sleepiness, procrastination, and distraction by cell phones. 

I started teaching in March close to the end of Ramadan, when the days were growing longer, and the hours between Suhoor and Iftar growing longer, too.  Students arrived dehydrated and exhausted at Habibi Center for late afternoon classes.  But they came; even the   ones working hard during the day in some corner of the underground economy.  I started hiding my own water bottle and leaving the room when I needed a drink.

The unseasonable heat-----26 and 27 degrees -----was an extra burden on any young women who dressed in the modest abaya and hijab.  Many flushed faces but they toughed it out until Eid in early April.

The one Coptic Christian in my Beginner class retired the largish gold cross he had taken to wearing.

All my students have had some education, even if not in the formal school system. Even those in the beginner class understand the alphabet and can read a bit.  Several already knew a second language or two besides the one they learned at home—French, Farsi, Turkish, Arabic, Dari, Mandingo.  They had picked up a bit of Greek.  My entire class knew the Greek and the Turkish for “Hurry up, work faster, go faster!”  They were serious about learning English, because it will improve their chances at getting a job, no matter what country they end up in.

There was some uncertainty about just how old some students are.  When a colleague was drawing up a list of student birthdays to celebrate during the coming month, one student responded with a smile and asked—"Well, which birthday should I give you?”.  

There’s a reason they fudge the documents.  Unaccompanied teenagers get higher levels of support than adults do.   When the inevitable 18th birthday arrives it’s not much to celebrate, since it means they must soon move out of their shelter.  An enthusiastic Somali student quit class suddenly to look for housing and a job having realized his moveout deadline was only two weeks way.  A young woman in the same situation showed up at class shaking with nervous tension—she hadn’t eaten for two days while looking for a job and a place to live.  The teachers found oranges and dates for her.

The NGOs don’t suddenly abandon these teenagers, and almost every ethnic and national group has an Athens community association that helps out, but it can be a sobering experience of instant adulthood and reduced circumstances. The school recognizes the migrant experience creates passivity, and robs individuals of agency as they endlessly wait for others to make decisions for them or to provide benefits they need.

But it’s an easy mistake to start seeing all students as traumatized victims when many are well-adjusted given the circumstances, and are independent and determined to build a better life.  They were resilient and quick to laugh.

In some cases, their families depend on their success.  One Afghani student was up at 5:00, worked in a pizza place all day, then arrived for the 5:00-6:30 pm class every weekday.  Several teeth at the side of his mouth were broken off at some point in the past.  As if he’d been hit by a heavy object, like a baton, or pistol, or flashlight.  He didn’t say, and I didn’t ask.

The holding pattern of waiting for papers, or a passport can be very hard.  Many are lonely; often under pressure to succeed, unsure about when they will be able to proceed with their lives, tired of waiting for the state bureaucracy to determine their status. 

Students come and go, and I sometimes wondered what I had in the class.  Privileged young people following parents or older siblings? Young people under a resettlement program? Young men who are gay, and whose parents thought it best to get them out of the country?  Restless teens who hope to make money and go back; others who can’t ever go back?  Perhaps simply the best and brightest in their families who have been sent ahead to succeed. 

They are primed and ready to go but are kicking their heels in the lobby of Europe.   One young Egyptian came to class and played a short clip on his phone for me, translated from Arabic into English. It was a young man’s message to his mother, saying, “I am so sorry I can’t come home, but I can’t come home to you empty-handed.  I’ll return when my hands are full. Until then pray for me. “

In response to a short writing assignment on “what you do every day” one of the young men wrote “Every day I dream of seeing my mother again in the future.”  He often sat in my class with a 1,000 yard stare.

I didn’t have a single student who wants to make a life in Greece. They all want to leave for London, Frankfurt, Munich, Belfast, Liege, Brazil, Amsterdam—all following a trail laid down by friends, or by immediate or distant family, or just following a rumor about jobs and money.  No-one mentions America.  I’ve been recruiting new Canadians—especially among the African students who were educated in French.

Many of my students would tell me they’ll be absent the following day because they have a psychologist meeting at the shelter.    Some are obviously troubled.  One student at the school has used every writing assignment to work through the experiences of his migration.   His assignment to write a 100-word email to a pen pal became a 1,500-word life story.  He has written the same history in a previous class, and in a previous year.  And yes, he too has a psychologist at his shelter, but he has not healed.

There are sometimes tensions between the students themselves—country to country antagonisms or racism.  Somali’s may show contempt for West Africans.  Some Africans are exasperated by Pakistanis.    In the shelters, where beds can be four to a room, there can be bullying, fights, intimidation, thefts and religious animosity.  This week one Egyptian student showed up with aviator glasses—a cool look to hide a black eye he got in a street fight. 

The majority of students at the school are Muslim.  Some of the young women wear traditional dress.  Some have modernized with extravagance, and tight yoga pants, crop tops, tattoos, dreadlocks, lipstick, and nail polish.  

Volunteer orientation included many warnings about social media. Over the eight years of its operation this school has learned to be cautious—one innocent post in previous years resulted in a young woman being tracked down and beaten. There are people smugglers interested in collecting debts.  And others interested in promising to take you more quickly to your destination for a fee.

We were advised to watch for signs a student may have made arrangements with a people smuggler; to be alert for announcements like “I may not be here next week.  I think I am going to Belgium.”   If they can’t provide any details about who they are going with, what time, what day, or their route, then smugglers may be involved. The school encourages them to keep in touch and call if things go sideways.   One January, a young student told staff he would be walking to Germany that month. 

One lively Somali student disappeared from class and from her shelter in April.  She was aiming for Germany, and we all hope she has not taken a risk that turns out badly for her. 

In Athens there are many NGOs--- state, internationally or privately funded--- and all working to support migrants.    Greek Forum on Migrants has forty different member organizations.  At least three groups hold English language training—Habibi Center, Gecko (the Swiss outfit Better Days), and the American School.  Some students attend all three. Others also attend Athens high school.

Habibi Center, the non-profit where I volunteered, survives on individual donations and fundraising, and has been in operation 8 years now.  It started in northern Greece, providing non-formal education to refugees from nearby camps.  But it is currently in a weary seven-story apartment in Athens near the grit and noise of the central market and the wholesalers’ area.   There are usually four or five short-term volunteers teaching English, introductory IT, preparing students for Cambridge language-proficiency exams, or their high school certificate.  The school has classroom space for forty students at a time. There are often needles and ampules in the doorways of nearby buildings, but while the surroundings are rough, the seventh floor school is a warm and welcoming place for the students.

It’s difficult to know what Greeks in Athens think of all this. The school directors are anxious about anti-immigrant activity.  They don’t give out the school address; by contrast Gecko school has a little map on their website.

The Athenians seem largely indifferent to the migrant flow, although it’s impossible to tell without speaking Greek. Perhaps the indifference reflects only an easement in the financial crisis and austerity measures of previous years.  Unemployment is dropping in Athens, and the transformation of several neighborhoods into migrant enclaves was completed several years ago.  Many of the disgruntled residents moved to the suburbs.   Also, it is clear that the majority of migrants won’t be there for long.

I saw nothing recognizable as anti-migrant tagging when walking through Koloniki, Gkyzi, Kypseli, Neapoli, Exarchia or central Athens.  Lots of anti-tourist messages, and support for Gaza.  When posters went up in Greek and English in Kypseli, the text called out neighborhood men for the increasing number of night-time attacks on women in the streets. Kypseli has a number of African migrants.  The poster authors were very careful to not talk about race.

The secondary message of the May Day demonstrations this year was “End the War in Gaza” not “Justice for Migrants.”   Even at the recent football games organized by Global Forum on Migrants, the posters at the site were about civil rights victories. One of the women’s teams took the field proudly waving a Palestinian flag.

Despite border tightening by the Greek state, migrants continue to arrive by land and on the Greek islands then move on to Athens. By the end of April, 11,349 people had arrived by sea and 1,540 by land.  No deaths were reported, although in early May three people were missing from a boat that capsized.  Greece is on track to receive as many migrants as last year--approximately 50,00o. 

Most keep moving north to other EU countries after they get papers, but some stay.  The last number I heard was 664,ooo immigrants in Athens, at work in food delivery, retail, restaurant and construction.

Organized attacks on migrants have stopped since the neo-fascist party Golden Dawn was banned.   Of course there are racist incidents. Last week in a road rage incident, a driver attacked a Wolt deliveryman, (and immigrant), at a traffic light. But other Greek drivers got out of their cars and came to the rescue.  

The police are a noticeable presence on the Athens city streets, but mostly that is about cowing the anarchists and football hooligans.  They do periodically sweep the Metro stations looking for undocumented migrants.  One student reported he was jailed for hours when he could produce only a photocopy of his documents.   Shelters keep the red ID card on file to prevent loss, theft or sale.  Photocopies don’t satisfy the police.  These encounters can be stressful, and can trigger earlier experiences.

But the teenagers in my classes were nonchalant about police stops.  One black West African said he gets stopped a lot and has to explain he has no passport, and that his ID card is at the shelter.  The police tell him to go home.  Unfair, racial profiling, but not particularly oppressive compared to what migrants may experience on the journey and at the borders.

Migrants certainly have nothing good to say about border police. The student who constantly relives his experiences writes about extortion and theft at gunpoint.  Money and phones are taken   Migrants can be locked up with criminals in a holding tank where there are physical and sexual assaults.  Conditions at island camps for those arriving by sea are harsh. 

These are conditions created by the EU and the Greek nation state policies.  But Athens is different.  When migrant numbers spiked in 2015 during the Syrian conflict, there was an effective political coalition between progressive municipal authorities and pro-refugee activists in the city.  It continued when rescue operations were banned and criminalized by EU states.

According to researcher Berna Turam [i] the Athens political coalition successfully resisted anti-immigrant forces in the community and in the state during the initial waves of migration.  They put a focus on reception, housing, and health and their most important achievement was the creation of safe areas by concentrating housing and services around Omonia Square, the Victoria neighborhood and Kypseli. 

Despite the subsequent right wing civic administration, and changes in policy Athens has continued to be a city of refuge like Palermo, Barcelona and Marseille.  These cities also have adopted more humane policies than their state governments.

When Mitsotakis and New Democracy won the national elections in 2023, the western media took this as evidence of widespread Greek anti-migrant opinion and support for the EU/Greek hardening of borders.

But in the municipal elections the right wing in Athens was voted out, and a PASOK-Syriza coalition was re-elected.  New Democracy lost almost half of the regional elections, and lost Thessaloniki.   In Athens, the victory of progressives should mean more services and support for the migrants who continue to arrive and more cooperation between the political system and advocacy groups. 

Being swamped by migration isn’t a new phenomenon for Athens. From the destruction of Chios in 1821 through to the genocide in Smyrna in 1922, wave after wave of impoverished ethnic Greeks fled Asia Minor ahead of periodic border changes, wars, ethnic cleansing, and genocide.  Thousands arrived after a formal population exchange with Turkey and were spread out in makeshift camps throughout Athens. They all needed to be accommodated and integrated into the city and the rest of the country. There is a poignant exhibit in the gallery of the old parliament on Stadiou Street that documents a century of displacement, and the bewilderment, anguish, fear, and trauma ethnic Greeks experienced.

The Museum of Greek Culture, near the ancient Agora is equally eloquent in displays about the Greek diaspora and the hardship and homesickness that emigrants faced in their search for a better life.

Unlike the Greek state, it seems Athens remembers.


Mary Rowles is a former organizing and bargaining direct at the British Columbia General Employees Union (BCGEU) and a member of the board of Social Policy’s parent organization, the Labor Neighbor Research & Training Center.  She volunteers now as an English Second Language teacher in Canada and various countries.


[i] Turam, B.  Refugees in borderlands; safe places versus securitization in Athens, 2021

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