SOCIETY

The roots of the Greek diaspora

At a critical period, with Greece serving as a transit point for waves of migrants pouring into the European Union, while lacking a comprehensive immigration policy and looking at a future as a country from which many of its own population will emigrate, the book ?Oi Dromoi ton Ellinon: I istoria ton Ellinikon koinotiton se pente ipeirous? (The Paths of the Greeks: The History of Greek Communities on Five Continents), published in 2010 by Polaris Publishing and edited by Costas Loukeris and Constantina Petraki, contains tales and scenes that have a familiar ring.

The book (480 pages; 33 euros at www.polarisekdoseis.gr) also provides a unique and comprehensive panorama of the communities of diaspora Greeks that have evolved over five continents from the 1800s and until the present day.

Other than the veritable galaxy of Greek communities around the world, the book also documents the changes that they underwent in terms of their national and linguistic identity through the process of immigration and integration.

A book that does not wallow in nostalgia and sensationalism, it brings to life the known and unknown stories of Greek immigrants and the groups they formed. The book is organized into regions and each is examined in terms of the host country?s economic, social and political conditions at the time of immigration, on the characteristics of the immigrants that gravitated toward them, on the groups immigrants formed when arriving at the host country and on the education and culture they received once they settled. Some of the regions, for example, are France at the time when writer Adamantios Korais (1748-1833) and other propagators of the Greek Enlightenment emigrated there in the 19th century; the Greeks that scattered to the Balkans, to Egypt and Alexandria; America as the land of opportunity, which welcomed to its shores successive waves of Greeks; Canada and Latin America, the latter of which became a launching pad for Greece?s greatest shipping magnate, Aristotle Onassis, who planted the seed of his empire in Argentina in the 1920s. The book travels readers to Mexico, which became home to the Socialist revolutionary and writer Platon Rodokanakis in the early 1900s, to the communities of Greeks in Panama and to the Japan of Lafcadio Hearn, the celebrated writer who became a national symbol for the Japanese (his adopted Japanese name was Koizumi Yakumo). It shows us ?those crazy Greeks? cracking the ice on lakes to make a grab for the holy cross on the Greek Orthodox celebration of the Epiphany in faraway Manchuria, the ragged and exhausted immigrants that landed after a long and arduous sea voyage on the coasts of Australia and the men who sought their fortunes in the gold and diamond mines of South Africa.

The book also explores the diversity of the social groups from which the immigrants came: fortune hunters and seafarers looking to tap into global maritime trade, merchants and shop owners who discovered new markets, intellectuals who sought new sources of inspiration, new synergies and freedom; cooks and unskilled laborers who launched careers as dishwashers and busboys; scientists who gravitated toward the centers where great discoveries were being made, and on, and on and on. In the background of their stories, readers are always made aware of the conditions in Greece (such as the Asia Minor Catastrophe, the two World Wars and the Civil War) that compelled these waves of immigration.

The book also focuses on the persecution suffered by many Greek immigrants either because of their social status or their religion, and the forces, such as the church or educational institutions, that became the glue holding diaspora communities together.

The strongest point this book makes, however, is that lives of Greeks immigrants through the centuries were in many ways the same as the lives of immigrants in Greece today. Like them, Greeks arrived at host countries without legal documentation and with little if anything in their pockets, forcing thousands to work illegally or even to become involved in criminal activities, making them the subjects of racism and hate as they fought the battle of integration.