What It's Like to Grow Up as an Unwelcome Immigrant
immigration

What It's Like to Grow Up as an Unwelcome Immigrant

In the 90s, my parents and I fled from Albania to Greece. Albanian immigrants were considered the biggest threat to Greek society.
February 2, 2017, 11:56am

Image above is a drawing by a child refugee in Athens via This article originally appeared on VICE Greece When I was one, my parents fled from Albania to Greece in search of a better life. They left Albania on January 17, 1990. A van picked us up and took us to the border, which we managed to cross when it was dark. For a day-and-a-half, my parents hiked through the snow that covered the mountains between Albania and Greece, carrying two small children.

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While the two countries are neighbors and weren't all that different culturally, the Greeks generally weren't very welcoming towards us. My parents fled the country shortly before the communist Albanian government decided to open the borders to Greece, which led to huge migration flows from Albania—the likes of which Greece hadn't experienced before. For years, many Albanian immigrants lived on the sidelines of Greek society and were victims of racist attacks; in the year after we came to Greece, 15 immigrants were killed.

Today, you'll hear the same arguments from fascists and xenophobes about the influx of migrants into Greece as you heard back then—that their culture is so different they won't be able to assimilate in Europe. That they're dangerous, they'll ruin us, rape, steal, lie, and carry disease. It shows they haven't learned much from history, because the Albanians, Bulgarians, and Romanians they said it about 20 years ago are now an integrated and mostly accepted part of Greek society.

Of the first year of my life, my parents could only keep two photographs and the shirt I was wearing the day we fled. When you have to carry a baby on your back for days, you can't take much with you. Fortunately for us, Greece was just across the border—compared to what many refugees go through today, our journey was pretty short. I don't remember anything, of course, but the stories my parents told me about fleeing their homeland always chilled me to the bone. I can't imagine how desperate the situation must be for refugees coming all the way from Syria, Iraq, or Afghanistan.

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Once we had arrived in Greece, my parents met a former policeman, who drove us to a town called Filiates. We spent the night there in a former school that offered shelter to refugees. The next day, we took two buses to Agrinio, where we lived for almost two years. My parents did a bunch of odd jobs to survive—as is the case with most refugees, their higher education was deemed worthless in their new country. My mom was a food chemist, but after we left Albania she only ever used that knowledge to make jam. My dad recited War and Peace around the house, but to his boss he was just another Albanian laborer. He did the kind of jobs Greeks didn't want to do at the time, which later turned into "Albanians stealing our jobs."

We later moved to Athens so my brother and I could go to school. My mother started working at a house across from ours—cooking, ironing, and taking care of the family's children. My parents both left for work at 6:30 every morning, and my mom wasn't allowed to leave work for a minute, so she woke us up at 7:30 every morning by throwing small stones against our bedroom window. I remember she made hot cocoa for us every morning before she left, which had turned cold when we got to the kitchen, the cocoa floating on the surface. I was five at the time, my brother was eight. Every morning he made sure I got out of bed, helped me wash my face, and got me dressed for school.

I had a great time at infant school, but at primary school I was quickly made aware that the other children in my class were different from me. In Year 3, for example, I remember a teacher coming into our classroom, taking notes and asking who among us was from another country. I raised my hand, to which she said, "Oh, we found one." She asked me where I was from and how long I'd been here. I told her.

The next day, no one wanted to sit with me any more. The girl I usually sat next to stopped speaking to me entirely, because another classmate of ours had told everyone that his dad had warned him not to hang out with smelly Albanian thieves. When I came home that evening I asked my mother if I could have a bath every day from now on, instead of every other day. She cried when I explained to her why I had to up the frequency of my baths.

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TV reports at the time highlighted crimes committed by Albanians and claimed immigration led to increasing crime rates. In the media, Albanians were always the ones who robbed, ruined, destroyed. Some of my teachers explained to my classmates how wrong that perception was—others made it worse. One of my teachers in primary school made me sit all by myself because she wasn't sure whether I had been vaccinated or not. She tried to punish my classmates by forcing them to sit next to me. I can't tell you how many times in secondary school I apologized to teachers and classmates for crimes I didn't commit, on behalf of other Albanians who apparently had stolen or killed.

I was conditioned to feel shame without understanding what I'd done wrong. It continued after school. When there was a theft reported at my first job, I was immediately the primary suspect, even though I didn't have a shift that day. It's exhausting having to constantly prove that you're not to blame for everything, and difficult to find a comfortable place in a society that doesn't seem to want to treat you fairly or equally. The word "Albanian" was used as an insult in Greece.

Our residence permit cards used to be pink, and when you showed them to any official they would, without fail, question their legitimacy. Every six months my family had to wait in line at the central migrant office at 5 AM to renew them. The fee was €100 [$108] per member of the family, and receiving it involved some shoving and a fair amount of insults from the police. And it wasn't just police officers questioning them—on the first day of the national university placement exams, teachers made me lose an hour of exam time because they wanted to make sure I had the right papers to take the test. They didn't trust the pink card. We received normal identity papers and Greek nationality 20 years after arriving in Greece, after 20 years of paying taxes and having all our paperwork in order.

I felt I was being held accountable for other people's crimes throughout my childhood. As children, my brother and I knew we couldn't pull the same stunts as other kids in the neighborhood—run around, yell and scream, misbehave. We felt we didn't have the margin of error other kids had. So we studied instead, trying to be the best students we could be. Which was also our way of paying back our parents—they were able to go on their first vacation in their 50s, when they were finally done paying for our tuition.

The result is that I never felt like I was enough to be Greek, and I didn't truly feel Albanian either. I've visited Albania twice in my life. I have at times hated the world because I felt so unwelcome. I have at times hated my parents who brought me to Greece to give us a better life. I have at times hated my brother who declared to his friends that he felt Greek and hated Albanians, just to fit in.

Thankfully, I've come to realize over the years that identifying with a certain demarcated piece of land and the people living there is overestimated. I consider people who treat me like an equal and make me feel human like my fellow countrymen, wherever they're from. For all the teachers who humiliated me, there were those who didn't single me out from the other children. I've seen mindless hate and discrimination, but I've also seen solidarity and kindness. And it's important to remember that racists don't all share the same nationality—there are Albanians opposed to helping refugees in Greece; there are Albanian members of Golden Dawn. It would be hilarious if it wasn't so revolting and dangerous.

Today in Greece, hardly anyone shits on Albanians any more. The more recent influx of refugees have replaced them as the supposed threat to Greek society. Refugee children in Greece will likely struggle to understand why they're being marginalized. I wish them many, many understanding neighbors, sympathetic teachers, and school friends who don't care what other people say. They deserve it as much as everyone else.