Stark images of Africans in Greece

Some African immigrants have been here for decades but most Greeks know little about them, labeling them rather blandly as «good people who don’t cause trouble.» «Greek society has not yet made any real effort to get to know black people,» said Lamin Kamba, who represents the community of immigrants from Guinea. Similar comments came from other Africans we met at the opening of the photo exhibition «African Communities in Athens» at the headquarters of the World Culture Organization (Cosmos Politismos) at 20 Andreas Metaxas Street. On Friday the exhibition moves to the 11th Anti-Racist Festival on May 1 Square, running until July 2. African immigrants share the problems facing everyone living in Greece today, such as finding work. As non-Greeks, they also have problems getting residence permits and often face the racist wrath of Greek civil servants who increase the already-thick bureaucracy faced by Greeks trying to get things done. «Sometimes we have to go back to Egypt for a paper we need to get a residence permit here,» said Azer Yusef, head of the Egyptian Workers’ Union. Greece’s Egyptian community numbers about 17,000 or 18,000, including many families who have been here for three generations. The children are not awarded Greek citizenship but they are also not encouraged to keep in touch with their roots by offering programs on their native culture or language, for instance. «Very few children in the African communities learn Arabic at the school which is at the Libyan Embassy,» said Yusef, who teaches the language at the Gravas School, where the headmistress has made available a classroom for the purpose. Twenty-five children of mixed marriages (Greeks with other nationalities) learn the basics here so they can communicate with their Arabic-speaking relatives. Few non-Orthodox Christian immigrants have their own places of worship. Muslims and Christians of various denominations hold services in private apartments, often getting together with immigrants from other countries who share their religion. For example about 70 Guineans pray together in an apartment with Bangladeshis. Guinean immigrants are mostly street vendors. Usually without legal status, they are often seen hastily packing up their goods and rushing into the crowd at the first sign of a police officer. Several have spent time in prison; nearly all of them are young men, apart from two young women. They live three or four to an apartment to save money. Most are unmarried. For many immigrants, going home for visits is not an option, so finding a wife from the same culture is difficult. «A ticket to Cameroon costs 1,000 euros, so how are we supposed to go home to find a bride?» asked a spokesman for the Cameroonian community in Greece, Idsadse Bertrande. The 500-strong Kenyan community, on the other hand, is dominated by women. According to their representative, George Kunienia, 80 percent of them are women, most working as live-in domestic help. «Many of them marry other Africans. For example last Sunday one married a Sudanese,» he said. Ghanians, meanwhile, are having trouble finding work and many still have only a semi-legal status in Greece. That has forced many of them to leave. «There are about 700 of us left,» said Samsidine Idrisu. «When we submit applications for a residence permit, we are given a receipt which does not cover us for basic issues. Some of our people, for example, have not been able to travel home for a parent’s funeral. Also, many of us pay for our own social security stamps, otherwise we would never find work.» Some Ghanians have little shops in Amerikis Square and around Alexandras Avenue. They are hairdressers who specialize in dreadlocks or businesspeople who run small grocery stores and computer outlets. The Nigerian community, 3,000 strong, is one of the largest. About 1,700 live in Athens. «Many of them are in dire straits,» said David Osagente, the community’s general secretary. «Three months ago, many Africans, including 350 of our compatriots, had their vendor’s licenses revoked. These are young people, 35-45 years of age, each with two or three children. Now they are sitting at home without work.»

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