There are tears in their eyes and the last hugs are achingly long. No one wants to let another smart young person leave Greece for Germany.
Edlira had been giving up her Sundays to teach Greek to immigrants in a dusty Athens suburb until the country’s crisis finally caught up with her. Now she is becoming a migrant herself – the third volunteer teacher from the migrant Sunday School to emigrate in as many months. The irony is lost on no one.
But for Edlira there is a double hurt. She is leaving the country she calls home, where she went to school and university, without a Greek passport.
On paper she is as much a foreigner as when she arrived in Greece as a child from Albania 17 years ago.
“I want to stay. I speak Greek better than Albanian,” said the 28-year-old nurse. “But there is a moment in job interviews when they look at my name – Edlira Xhezairaj – and they say, ‘So you are not Greek?’ And then conversation drops. It’s not a nice feeling.”
“I don’t think it’s possible ever to be really accepted,” she said, the wound raw.
In Europe, only Luxembourg and Austria officially make it more difficult for immigrants to acquire nationality. In reality, however, it’s not unusual for foreigners in Greece to be left in limbo for 20 years or more, rights groups claim.
So Kafkaesque has the system become that officials commonly issue residence permits that are already expired, said Elena Papageorgiou, who runs the Sunday school in Kolonos.
Four years after her husband, an Iraqi Kurd, applied for Greek nationality, he has just been given a place in the queue to begin the Byzantine process. “And we are married and know the system,” she said. “Can you imagine how it is for people who don’t?”
For two decades Greece has been one of the main entry points into the EU for migrants, many fleeing wars in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. The vast majority go on illegally to northern Europe but many get stuck in Greece after being stopped by police or when money to pay people smugglers runs out.
Greece has neither the resources nor the will to tackle the problem, activists claim, with Brussels requiring asylum seekers to be processed where they first arrive – a burden for a country whose own finance minister admits it is “bankrupt.”
The minority of migrants who want to make a life in Greece face not only official indifference but hostility and often violence from supporters of the neo-fascist Golden Dawn, now the country’s third-largest political party.
“Speak Greek or Die” is the chilling title of a song recorded by one its most high-profile MPs and punk musician, Artemis Matthaiopoulos.
Solace Godwin speaks Greek as well as any Greek but it did not stop the junior doctor being abused for the color of her skin while treating a 57-year-old bank clerk in a hospital in northern Greece. “What you need is Hitler and soap,” the man told her.
The Nigeria-born medic, whose family came to Greece when she was 14, went to the police.
Athens finally passed a hate-crime law in 2014 after years of EU pressure, and last month the man got a six-month suspended jail sentence.
Godwin is convinced, however, her case would not have been taken so seriously had not the radical left SYRIZA government come to power in January on a platform that included remedying the worst injustices migrants face.
It has promised to grant nationality to children of migrants born in Greece.
Her Athens-born younger brother must get a job or go straight to university when he turns 18 to avoid the risk of deportation to Nigeria, “a country he has never set foot in,” she said.
Despite being married to a Greek, Godwin despairs of ever getting a passport. She applied when the last socialist government liberalized the rules in 2010, only to see the reform withdrawn under their conservative successors who felt it ran counter to a long-held notion of the “nation” as composed exclusively of Greek Orthodox Christians.
Nonetheless, both Godwin and Papageorgiou scent change.
The doctor was touched by the reaction to her case in the small town of Kozani where she works. “People stop me in the street to say, ‘Well done!’ It’s strange in a very good way.”
Papageorgiou, too, was taken aback by the support Syrian refugees recently received when they went on hunger strike in front of the Greek Parliament for papers to leave the country. “Lots of ordinary Greeks saw themselves in the Syrians – my father included, who like most Greeks normally tries to ignore migrants. ‘These people are so like us,’ he said.”
The protesters and their families were swamped with gifts of food, clothes and blankets, she said.
But then Greeks were once refugees too, she added, and a residual memory lingers “even if most seem to have forgotten who they are.”
Nearly a third have parents or grandparents who were forcibly uprooted from their ancestral homes in Turkey in the 1920s, while others have arrived more recently from Greek-speaking communities in the former Soviet Union.
Even as a Bloomberg survey this month found Greece to be the most miserable place to live economically in Europe, a small number of migrants are determined to stay.
Greece should do the decent thing and regularize them, Papageorgiou insisted. “This is not a difficult problem to fix.”
Sayed, 25, a bookish Afghan, has experienced as much generosity as prejudice since arriving in Greece as a boy of 16. “In the north, where many families are from refugees, they know what it is to be driven from your home,” he said.
“It’s different in Athens. They hate us here. People move seats when you get on a bus or open the window. And I know I don’t smell…
“When I finish my degree Id like to go back to Thessaloniki. But to be accepted as a Greek? No, I don’t think that will ever happen.”