My name is Lucy Negash, and I am a sister, friend, student, woman, and daughter of an Ethiopian refugee. I was born and raised in America with an extremely blessed life, but my father had to struggle and fight for 15 years for his right to live his life the way he wanted to. I was lucky enough to be born in the United States, which granted me the immediate rights and freedoms that my country has given me. I am a junior at the University of Notre Dame, and I decided to study abroad in Athens, Greece to push myself out of my comfort zone, which has easily been one of the best decisions I have ever made. I was inspired by my father’s continuous work with refugees and immigrants, which has led my interests toward non-profit public relations work. I started working with Generation 2.0 for Rights, Equality & Diversity (g2RED) as part of a class I am taking here, which has opened my eyes to seeing another country’s immigration issues, especially with a group of people that I technically fall into as a “child of migrant descent.” As the child of an immigrant, I now know how fortunate I am to have been born in a country that grants me citizenship from birth, while young adults who have been born, raised, worked, played, and lived in Greece aren’t granted those same inalienable rights. This has become a personal cause for me, and I hope to document what I see and learn about through this blog. I am excited and motivated to spread the word about the issue with as many people as I can reach, and I hope my insights will be well noticed. Enjoy!
One of my first assignments was to travel to the Perifereia, or immigration depot, where those living in the Attica area can go to renew or submit papers for their residence permits. In previous years there were multiple depots around Athens that provided services to immigrants and refugees, but on January 1st of 2014, the depots were consolidated into one, with the idea of creating a “one-stop shop” to meet the requests of everyone that needed help. I was unsure what to expect, but when I arrived I was completely blown away.
The 200 or 300 people that were there were either milling around in the parking lot or were pressed in a tight group against the door that led inside. I observed Nikos (the Executive Director or g2RED) navigate the crowd outside as he was constantly mobbed by men and women with questions in desperate, pleading Greek. The sun was beating down, and everyone who wasn’t begging Nikos for help sought shade around the edges of the parking lot. A dark smoky odor clouded the air, and the clicking of komboloi (worry beads) helped calm the agitated men waiting their turn. Even though I couldn’t understand what anyone was saying, it was clear that everyone who was seeking answers was unable to find them anywhere else. The different languages I heard spoke to the vast blending of cultures here, and demonstrated the need for help from people of all walks of life. Nikos later told me that the state does not explicitly advertise what exact papers, photos, and documents are required to apply for residence permits or citizenship, so it is unclear what immigrants or refugees applying for papers would even need to start the process. I was so shocked by this; I couldn’t imagine applying for a driver’s license, college application, or even a study abroad form without knowing exactly what I needed to submit. The sense of confusion and desperation began to set in for me as I truly contemplated the life challenges these migrants and refugees suffered every day; it felt suffocating.
Getting to the front door of the building was a challenge: I couldn’t explain my presence there because of the language barrier, but I had to push and shove past angry old men and women who would push me right back. I began to feel frantic that I might get lost in the fray, even though I had the papers and enough jumbled Greek to explain why I was there. The desperation was clear, and it was so unfortunate to see the lack of organization or knowledge about the process that caused these people to struggle so much. Although the atmosphere was much calmer inside (most likely due to the availability of seating), the half-filled booths and piles of paperwork on the walls confirmed the extent of the overall chaos of the situation. As the people mingled and chatted with their peers while waiting in line, I found myself hiding in a corner to ensure I wouldn’t be singled out. The police stationed at the omnipotent door either were kind and helpful, or brusque and taunting. One officer would tap the glass of the door to taunt the man on the other side, which broke my heart. It took everything in me to hold my tongue and not scold the man for being so cruel and inconsiderate. I couldn’t help but compare everything I saw to the immigration process in the United States, and how I would never see worry and anxiety to the extent that I experienced at the Perifereia. I have had my fair share of negative experiences dealing with the American bureaucratic system, but I was never as lost, scared, or felt as helpless as some of these people did.
Despite the language barrier, I managed to speak to a few men and women waiting in line about their stories and why they were there that day. I spoke to one group of Nigerian men standing outside who voiced their grievances about having to show up at the depot at 3:30 in the morning to wait for papers they wouldn’t receive, only to be again put back in a cycle day after day with no foreseeable end. They were tired of the waiting game, the confusion, and the lack of transparency with the legal system they are stuck in. When they found out I was a student from the United States, they begged me to tell everyone I knew back home about the “injustice” they suffered on a daily basis. They pleaded me to stay and listen to them, and honestly it was hard to tear myself away from their poignant and heartbreaking stories. Another woman I spoke to, Rosemary, was a trafficking victim who managed to get papers to leave Nigeria and come to Greece, but is now fighting for citizenship here. Her husband is Greek, which makes her children full Greek citizens. I was fascinated to hear her story, but thought it was incredible that a woman and mother could live in Athens for a large part of her life, work, marry, and have Greek children, but couldn’t have all the same rights that her family did. I hugged her, and I could feel that she was comfortable in my presence and appreciated the support she received from a total stranger.
Being able to visit the Perifereia taught me a lot about being out of my comfort zone and mingling with a group of people I wouldn’t naturally find myself in, either back in the States or in Greece. As a visitor of the Perifereia, I was trapped by the language barrier and was unsure about where I could and couldn’t go, which I later realized gave me only a small taste of what these people go through every day. No amount of words could describe the emotions and thoughts that blurred through my mind all day, but above all I truly was in awe. I felt blessed to be able and experience just a taste of the panic, fear, and desperation that these people go through on a daily basis, and my only hope is that this experience will remind me that working hard and fighting on the behalf of these migrants without voices will always be worth it.