When it comes to immigration, Greece faces a dilemma: the country needs new, young people because like the rest of Europe, it faces a falling birth rate and an aging population.
Yet it’s also struggling with a backlash against immigrants, especially those from Africa and south Asia. Though Greece has become the main entry point into the European Union for undocumented migrants, the country of 11 million is also home to roughly one million immigrants who reside here legally and have started families here. Their Greek-born children want to become citizens.
So Greece is wrestling with a fundamental question: Who’s a Greek?
Greece’s highest administrative court recently struck down a 2010 law that made it easier for the children of legal immigrants to apply for citizenship. The conservative prime minister, Antonis Samaras, wants to replace it with legislation that would require immigrants to show they have a “genuine bond” with Greece.
In making it harder for legal immigrants to become citizens, the prime minister is tapping into centuries-old emotions about protecting an ancient national identity.
It’s an identity Jackie Abhulimen has been hearing about all her life.
The petite, energetic, 21-year-old college student is the second of three children born in Athens to a Kenyan mother and Nigerian father. Her parents met as university students in Greece in the 1980s. She was raised and educated in Athens and speaks Greek fluently.
“I enjoy going out just as (much as) the next Greek kid,” she says, sipping a cappuccino with friends at a jazz cafe in the bohemian neighborhood of Exarcheia in central Athens. “You know, the whole, let’s have fun, let’s drink, let’s dance, let’s laugh. That is so Greek and so familiar.”
A Tough Path To Citizenship
But she’s not a Greek citizen. Unlike the United States, birth in European countries doesn’t confer automatic citizenship. Abhulimen wants to become a citizen and applied for her Greek passport in 2010.
That’s when Yiannis Ragousis, a former interior minister with the center-left PASOK party, pushed to make it easier for people like Abhulimen to get citizenship.
“If someone really wants to become a Greek citizen, something which is an honor for this country, then we must create an efficient, respectful and transparent process through which they can apply for it,” he told parliament in 2010.
Ragousis said that the process of applying for citizenship was riddled with corruption. Unless you paid bribes or had political connections, you often had to wait at least 10 years for anyone to look at your application.
So he sponsored legislation, adopted in early 2010, that fast-tracked citizenship for the Greek-born children of legal residents who had lived in the country for at least five years.
But Antonis Samaras, the conservative party leader who is now prime minister, lobbied to overturn the law, and earlier this month the country’s highest administrative court obliged. Now tens of thousands of people like Abhulimen are in limbo.
“They have been treated like they don’t exist,” says her mother, Lucy Kabira.
‘Defeating’ Foreigners To Protect Greek Culture
Dimitris Christopoulos, who leads the Hellenic League for Human Rights, says Samaras believes Greek nationality is special, derived from centuries of history, and that making it easier for foreigners to become citizens would destroy the very notion of Greek nationhood.
“He is convinced that nationhood is based on racial belonging,” Christopoulos says. “He uses that as a communication tool for his political campaign.”
In a TV interview just before his New Democracy party prevailed in elections last June, Samaras promised to wipe out the new citizenship law and stop giving “handouts” to immigrants at a time when Greeks were suffering.
Growing up black, Jackie Abhulimen was made to feel that Greece was not really her home.
“I was always made to feel from the textbooks how the foreigner is always viewed as something negative, something threatening, something like, ‘They’re coming after us and we must defeat them,’” she says.
Many Greeks believe that defeating foreigners is a way of protecting Greek language and culture, which has survived for centuries through wars and occupations, says Nikos Konstandaras, a newspaper editor and essayist.
“For example, the triumphs of Alexander the Great, they mingle with the fall of Constantinople and the loss of Asia Minor and so on, as if they were part of everybody’s lives,” he says.
Some Greeks especially see the 400-year occupation of the country by the Ottoman Turks as a time when preserving identity was a matter of life or death, he says.
“The fact that their lives depended on the Ottomans’ wishes helped define who was one side and who was on the other, to a very strong extent,” Konstandaras says. “That has sunk in [for] the Greeks. And there is that sense of us against them, all the time.”
‘A Foreigner In Your Own Home’
Stephanos Mwange, a well-known actor of Ugandan descent, has defied that sentiment. He was born and raised in Athens and is a proud Greek citizen. He says Greek history and mythology have always been part of his life.
Mwange is now playing three roles in Hecuba, a play by the ancient Greek tragedian Euripides.
His experience as a naturalized Greek citizen is exceptional: His parents, a doctor and a nurse, are among of a handful of Africans who work high-profile jobs at Greek hospitals.
The police officers who stop other black men on suspicion of being undocumented migrants ask Mwange for his autograph.
He wishes his homeland was more welcoming to people like Jackie Abhulimen.
“Anyone who’s born here ought to have the chance to become a Greek,” Mwange says. “Why feel like a foreigner in your own home?”