NEWS

The laments of ethnic Greeks from Albania

Though pleased with the warm reception they got on their arrival in Greece, most ethnic Greeks from Albania now feel that they lack certain rights, and it makes them feel like strangers in their own land. «Our parents were born in northern Epirus, on Greek soil, which means we’re officially Greek, but we’ve been unlucky because that area is no longer Greek,» says Christos Doutsis, president of the Federation of Northern Epirote Communities. His great love of Greece is apparent, even as he voices his complaints about non-payment of benefits for the disabled or for large families and the situation at the border crossing into Albania, «where they treat us like trash, while all we want to do is to leave our country to visit our hometowns, which you can get into easier than we can.» «Any gains have been the result of persistent effort,» he explains. «Perhaps the most important of them has been the special identity card for Greeks from Albania (EDTO), which has resolved many everyday problems, but not that of the confusion between Albanian-speaking and Greek-speaking Albanians, which is responsible for many of the bad moments we experience in Greece. When we show our EDTO, the police treat us like Albanians, since we are still Albanian citizens, and it is humiliating,» says Babis Karathanos. Greek society gradually became less welcoming to ethnic Greeks from Albania. «Things have changed a lot since the day we set foot in Greece,» comments Panayiotis Lezos. At the beginning, their reception was moving, but it didn’t take long for confusion to set in. «In a general climate of distrust, they started treating us as Albanians. They thought that we from ‘up there’ were crude,» says Tilemachos Kotsias, who complains that «few people were able to see that we have completely different codes of behavior and we don’t have the same makeup – we are separate peoples with different characteristics.» «Time had a healing effect. Eventually, we stopped having problems at work with employers, and many of us have become employers ourselves, after strenuous efforts,» says Ippocrates Mitsis. Professional exclusion When the EDTO was introduced in June 1998, the authorities promised that it included all the rights of Greek citizens except the right to vote and to do military service. But problems soon cropped up, and the realization that serious issues were unresolved overshadowed the rejoicing at the acquisition of Greek nationality. «Our children still can’t get into certain professions such as law; they can’t even get permits for taxis because of their Albanian citizenship,» explains Doutsis. Insecurity about their professional future is obvious among university graduates. «My son is 24, he has a degree in civil engineering, and he knows he won’t get a permit to practice his profession,» says Kotsias, who nevertheless describes himself as «one of the lucky ones, who was greeted with warmth and ethnic sensitivity.» The situation in the public sector is confused: The law permits the appointment of Greeks from Albania as long as they meet the requirements. However, it is left to the discretion of the person in charge whether to employ them. People who do not have Greek citizenship cannot get a permit for a fishing boat or become stock farmers, says Doutsis, who adds, «We can’t even become butchers because we’re not allowed into the three-month course at the meat-processing school.» Yet another area that has closed its doors to ethnic Greeks from Albania is that of sport, since participation in sporting federations requires Greek citizenship, which the EDTO does not provide. «Our exclusion from sport greatly insults us,» comments Kotsias: «Don’t forget that a considerable number of Greek Olympic medal winners are Greeks from Albania.» Red tape Securing and renewing the EDTO and crossing the border are still real nightmares. Collecting the requisite certificates and documents is an arduous procedure, which nobody refuses to undergo, however. The EDTO is valid for three years, and then all the certificates must be produced again. «They interrogate us again as to whether we are Greek, which we have already proved three years earlier,» says Doutsis, who notes that similar problems arise with the issue of driving licenses. But the greatest problem seems to be that of crossing the border, especially during the summer when the situation becomes desperate. «We want to go back to our country, to our villages, and while in general sensitivity is not lacking, there are individual cases of border guards – not just a few, unfortunately – who treat us like trash,» complains Karathanos. «Last summer, says Mitsis, «the waiting time to cross the border stretched to three days, caused by computer breakdown. The outcome was that one woman, exhausted by the heat and standing on her feet, lost her life while waiting to cross the border to visit her people.» That incident gave the Albanian government cause to accuse the Greek government of trampling on human rights, «which was the basic reason we had left the country,» he adds. «One reason which probably put us off pushing for citizenship was the fact that we want to return to our villages. The threat of being deprived of Albanian citizenship made us adopt a more conciliatory stance,» explains Karathanos. «Greeks from Albania want to make a life in Greece, but with the support of their country.» «Nobody wants to close the door behind them and we all have a strong desire for our children to know their place of origin and love their forefathers’ birthplace. What use are political statements when in practice I can’t set foot in the land where I was born?» asks Mitsis.