Michaela Paskarou (24) is a student of Political Science and International Relations who would like to pursue a career in Human Rights. Currently, her aim is to continue with post-graduate studies in International Relations and Diplomacy. Her parents moved to Greece from Moldova in the early 1990s.
Moving to and growing up in Greece has been a challenging, but also an enriching, experience. It has helped shape my core beliefs, and ultimately what I have become – a world citizen.
Eight years old and thrown into a class of sharks, that was the impression I had of my classmates the first day I attended second grade in the village of Spili, on Crete. They seemed to me so wild, so loud, and so…different. I missed my family and relatives back home, and could not wait for class to be over so I could run back home. However, it did not take long for me to realize that my classmates and I had as much in common as different.
My arrival at the school was not only a big change for me, but also for my classmates who, in this small Cretan village, had not yet experienced a classmate from abroad. As I needed time to open up to them, they needed time to understand that the new girl amongst them was not someone they could communicate with in ways they were accustomed to – not only due to language constraints. They were curious about me, and made an effort to meet me half way. They grew to like this “weird” girl in their midst, and I them. We ended up creating a new, mixed communication and coexistence culture together. Some of my dearest friends today are some of these early classmates.
This formative early experience convinced me that no child is born a xenophobe. That respect is an innate human quality. And that cultural differences as well as common human qualities can be the foundation for building something new and exciting together.
Precisely because of this early experience and these convictions formed during it, I have consistently found it disconcerting, odd – ill-fitting – when I have been referred to as an immigrant – as something “other”. Even more, the reference has been tinged with negative, not positive, connotations – and with fear of my perceived difference. In experiencing this repeated “othering”, I have been experiencing xenophobia – the “unreasonable fear or hatred of the unfamiliar”, according to Webster’s Dictionary.
Just like my classmates who became something “more,” I too have become a Greek with “more.” Like them, I want to be accepted in this country as a person and a citizen, as I feel and act like one. However, legal and social systems in place in Greece today unfortunately reinforce such cultural perceptions of “otherness”, instead of helping dissipate them.
Let us take legislation, for example. What are my rights as an immigrant? At the age of 18, I began to have a Green Card – a document which allows me to remain legally in the country – independent of that of my parents. Because I am a student at a Greek university, I can renew my Green Card every year because of my studies. About two years ago, a law was passed which permitted every child considered by the Greek state to belong to the second generation of immigrants to obtain citizenship. All you had to do was simply to show that you were born in Greece or had attended a Greek school for at least six years. All those children, like me, had a chance to finally become what they felt inside. However, the law was later removed from the books.
Today, all “second generation immigrants” must apply for citizenship through the same endless and expensive process reserved for persons considered even more “other” by the Greek state. From the perspective of “Greeks+” the likes of me – or “1.5ers” as I will henceforth call this generation which is torn between their parental generation and the one they actually live in – this does not look like progress.
As if these challenges weren’t already big enough, they are further exacerbated by other obstacles – such as access to the labour market, educational success, low parental incomes, residential segregation, and difficulties accessing public services. Despite these challenges, most of us young second generation immigrants – or “1.5ers” – make great strides.
Especially those of us whose parents have not been granted legal status in Greece are excessively confronted with those challenges. “1.5ers” whose parents do not have legal status carry the additional stigma of belonging to the waves of persons from abroad perceived to be drowning out Greek culture and exploiting its social security system. Many of our parents have not been able to make long-term plans, have experienced even greater limitations on upward mobility as the jobs in which they could work are restricted and vulnerable to exploitation. Moreover, some of them have been hesitant to come into contact with institutions such as public schools, for fear of legal consequences, even if their children had the legal right to attend.
In short, the lack of legal status acts as a very strong barrier to social mobility – if we are allowed to stay in Greece after all. Policy-makers in countries with a small but growing second generation would be well-advised to ensure that the state is prepared to accommodate this population’s needs as it enters the education system and subsequently the labour force. It is obvious that in countries where children of immigrants have historically been relatively successful, policy-makers positively challenged immigration stereotypes and instead provided them the means to tap their full potential.
Irrespective of legal status, many of my fellows “1.5ers” have lived their entire lives hearing from persons outside the household that they are not Greek, but being encouraged within the household to become “super Greeks”. The great majority of our parents have taught us that we must be “the good kids” – be excellent students, behave perfectly, and keeping our opinions to ourselves. The children of today’s diverse immigrant groups are generally eager to embrace Greek culture and to acquire a Greek identity by becoming indistinguishable from their Greek peers. Perhaps for these reasons, many of us “1.5ers” make great strides in comparison to the lives our parents have led. These strides, however, are insufficient to allow many of us to catch up with the children of “the natives”.
I want to give back to, and be an equally important part of, the communities around me. But how can I contribute when we as a group are side-lined?
This situation is not only difficult for us “1.5ers”, but also, ultimately, a loss for Greece. It appears to me that we, who have been living and working in Greece most of our lives, share a special “integrated insider-outsider perspective” and experiences which could be valuable for Greece’s development. We can help expand acceptance of diversity. We can help counteract the brain drain, especially of youth, that Greece is experiencing as part of the crisis. Getting recognized as a citizen can prevent also second generation youth from leaving the place they so want to contribute to.
Scientific evidence from Germany suggests that immigrants who have settled permanently are more likely to push their children to gain more education. In particular, parents who intend to return home – voluntarily or because of their visa status – will see less value in their children’s acquisition of human capital that is useful in the host country but not in their home country. Restrictions on the path to permanent residence or citizenship, therefore, should be expected to hinder economic integration. Immigrants with legal status who are given a clear path towards citizenship are in a better position to integrate and contribute economically. Permanent visas also enable the upward mobility of immigrants’ children.
If we are given a fair chance, we will be provided a means and motivation to give back with gratitude what this country has given us; to be a new voice in the Greek society; to stay and fight and help contribute to a new start. Among us are tomorrow’s teachers of our children, tomorrow’s business people in your neighbourhood – even, hopefully, tomorrow’s politicians in parliament. We may have been born elsewhere, but we belong to Greece.
Around 200.000 “1.5ers”, including myself, are fighting to not only have equal rights, but to “belong” by being accepted into Greek society, to be equally valued and supported, and fostered to contribute to the society we have grown up in. Call me what you want – “Generation 0”, “1.0”, “1.5”. All I want is to belong equally in this society.
You can find our complete publication “Moving Greece Forward” here.