Albanian immigrants' ordeals as heard on Greek state radio

Gazmend Kapllani

SAT, 19 AUG 2000

Athens, August 19, 2000 - I'm not entirely alien to journalism....Besides the fact that it attracts me (though there are thousands of reasons to be repulsed), every so often I blurt out some article - usually about racism and the Balkan. On "sweep-up operations" and those "presumed to be Albanians" and the "barbarians outsiders" and Balkan ethnocentricity - namely, "pan-hostility." In fact, at the zenith of the war in Kosovo, I even reached the point when the best I found to propose was "Traitors of All the Balkan Peoples, Unite!" (which happened to be translated into English by Verso Publications...)

At any rate, since I want to take this elsewhere, I have to curb my meandering. Let's go straight to the point. Four months ago, totally by surprise - the way miracles usually happen - I got an offer from ERA [state-owned Hellenic Radio] to produce a weekly one-hour show in Albanian addressing Albanian immigrants. Two years before, ERA had opened its doors to the needs of immigrants - legal and otherwise - to be informed. Anyone knowing the situation also knows how much courage, social (self)awareness and open-mindedness to the future one has to have to undertake such an initiate.

Naturally, I accepted the offer. So, every Saturday, from 3 to 4 pm, the "The Weekly Notebook" is broadcast over the ERA2 airwaves. Now, four months later, to my good fortune and satisfaction, the program has become quite well known -- if the bombardment of phone calls I'm receiving is any evidence, since I have no other way of measuring.

In the case of a native audience, how to prepare such a program or how to "treat" its listeners might have just been another journalism lesson. But how you prepare a program for immigrants and what's on the minds of these "types," who we see on TV (more and more frequently) only in paddy wagons in the police report, and (more and more rarely) in various "magnanimous" stories that aim to play on our heartstrings.

So, I decided to quote you the following example:

Sotir C. from Elefsina:

- They held on to my green card validation at Kakavia because, as they said, I'd overstayed the two-month residency allowance in Albania. I'd only stayed 15 days. My employer can also confirm this. I've been enrolled in IKA [Social Security] three consecutive years. But then they recalled my papers. When I went to the OAED [Organization for the Employment of Human Resources], they told me I could get my papers back only if the police say I didn't stay [outside Greece] past the 2 months. I ended up going to a lawyer, who promised me I'd get my papers back. I've already paid him 150,000 drachmas - but I haven't seen any papers. What should I do? Where can I turn? I have IKA, I'm paying a lawyer and I'm living without papers. Can you help me?

There are others like Sotir. Some have stayed outside Greece past the 2-month time limit, which is what the law stipulates. But who informs them of this? Where's the information bureau for them to go to? Others say that they hadn't stayed past the limit, but that the police officer at the border claimed they had. To those who protest, the law (since it's enforced to de-legalize them) then gives them the right to lodge an "appeal" to the Special Commission. But at one OAED they tell you that you have this right, at the other OAED they tell you that a similar case received a reply from the Special Commission that "it's the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Public Order." Where, in the end, can the immigrant turn? To the lawyer, of course, which lately has become a magic word to immigrants. And the immigrants pay. Sotir: 150,000 drachmas (without a receipt!). Veton: 250,000 -- you read it right!- (with a receipt!). Veton had a white card. But when he went to get his green card validation, the clerk told him that he had to prove that he'd been living in Greece since before December 1997 - with paid electric and phone bills or an apartment lease. Where was he supposed to get that stuff, since he's been illegal for 7 years. Where can he get vouchers of his legal status? He "didn't exist" before, so how can he now prove that he "existed"? Well, it's up to him! Otherwise, he could go to the Special Commission. And let him get his IKA stamps the usual way. And so, Veton falls into the hands of the lawyer, who asks those fat sums for an application - and, naturally, into the hands of a probable deportation, since the validation you get when you make an application to the Special Commission says that "the concomitant paper does not ensure the residency of its bearer." What's more, the Special Committee takes at least a year to reply! Which is why Veton leaves his home only to go to work (which he combines with shopping). When he uses transportation, it's mostly taxis (to avoid buses, trains and boats). He very rarely leaves his home. He avoids public squares. There are many others like Veton and Sotir. They comprise the category of "more illegal than legal." Roland, too, is one of them. He had the required IKA stamps [contributions] for 1996 and 1997, but he couldn't manage to accumulate the requirement in 1998. Which is why he can't get a green card. He, too, is sent to the Special Committee. Roland also has another problem. The registry office refuses to register [the birth of] his daughter because - they say - she's not of Greek origin. Then what?

Drita from Kifissia: She works as a domestic. She has Saturday night and all day Sunday off. She has two children, 18 and 16 years old. Her voice breaks:

- I came in March, 1998. I'm illegal. My elder son was caught by the police and deported. It was very hard, but I managed to him back here. Since his run-in with the police, he's very scared and and doesn't go out of the house, ever.

Drita bursts into sobs:

- I am sorry ...Every day my son says to me, "Mama, I feel like I'm in prison here. Let's leave. Please Mama, I can't take it anymore." I feel so awful that my child is so terrified. But I want to stay. I've found work here. It would be hard for me to make a living in Albania. I'm illegal. The lady I work for went to IKA because she want to pay my social security. But they told her that since I'm not legal I can't have social security stamps. Can't something be done for us?

Loulieta is in the same category as Drita. A few days ago she wrote: "My husband and I work. But we didn't manage to become legalized. We've remained illegal. I have children who are growing up. Are they going to remain illegal, too?"

How do you answer them? An entire population of second-generation illegal immigrants is growing up in this country. What's in store for them? What are their choices? First choice -- voluntary: to go back where they came from. Second choice - involuntary: the paddy wagon of some "sweep-up operation" and "expulsion". Third choice - obligatory: most will learn to survive illegally, like their parents. They'll learn to perfect the wretched art of being illegal, of not existing. Except that, unlike their parents, they'll know more about this society. And they'll perceive the rejection with greater clarity because they've either been here since early childhood or have been born here. And they'll have even more resentments. They'll be even more dangerously marginalized because they've forfeited the dream of return that their parents once had. Next week, some of these people - numbered among our audience - will find out that they're not welcomed at our hospitals. And besides that, they could come to be treated and end up in a paddy wagon. So, when they get sick where do they go? Why, let them go to hell! And there's the possibility that some of them will, in fact, make an appointment to go to hell. At any rate, what's most disturbing is that an entire population is growing up certain that, "I was born illegal and excluded, and that's the way I'll live." What's their future? The sociologists have the floor. As far as those responsible for immigration policy, I'm afraid they've solved the problem: "sweep-up operations"! Time will tell. I only hope their future won't resemble a trash bin.

Dend from Pangrati: He has the misfortune to travel to work on a bus line highly favored by "sweep-up operations." Dend has papers. He's O.K. Yet, he's lost three days wages to date; three times he was taken to the police station and made to wait several hours: "check of identity papers." "Each time I wake up," he writes, "I cross myself (Dend's Catholic) and pray they won't take me off the bus again and take me to the police station."

Even though many immigrants have been equipped with papers for two years now, they're still ending up at police stations. The justification: check of identity papers. For how many more years? God knows. It looks like immigrants (with preference to those from Albania) will remain "hostages" for a long time to come. Nothing will deliver them from this "curse," not even a green card. If we're honest, the real content of the words "verification of data" mean humiliation and blatant discrimination. Let me go on...

Another phone call: Eddie from Lamia:

- When that compatriot hijacked the bus, I was at my brother's in Crete. The police picked me up. A policeman tore up my green card confirmation. I had a photocopy without an original signature. They deported me. They deported me illegally and I came back illegally. Now, my green card has been issued. And I have regular IKA [social security]. But at the OAED they won't give me the green card because they say I don't have the original copy of the green card confirmation. What happens now? Really, what happens?

But here's where I stop. The dictates of space require it. This was just a small sample. We'll talk again soon.

Original article