Walk down the “paralea” (waterfront) in downtown Thessaloniki any day of the week between 9 and 5, and the cafes are filled with individuals and “pareas” (groups of friends) sitting in carefully decorated cafe-bars drinking coffee and relaxing as the crisp wind from the Aegean carries laughter and gossip between the tables. Even during business hours, when you would expect most people to be working, the stretch of establishments between the lefkos pyrgos (White Tower) and the limani (port) have customers. Walk towards the ano poli (old city) and many of the shops and businesses are open as well. However, you will see more people enjoying their €3 coffee than shopping for the latest fashions at Zara or H&M. With a youth unemployment rate of 50%, it is no wonder why more Greek people are sitting at the cafe-bar than sitting behind a desk.
Anyone who has listened to the news within the last 5 years is well aware that the Greek economy is in the midst, or as many Syriza supporters like to say now – on its way out of – an incredible debt crisis. Greeks of all ages, but particularly young people ages 18-30, are struggling to find work, and those who have managed to secure a new job or tenure a previously held position have had to accept low wages or significant salary cuts. As new political groups, like Gold Dawn, gain more following, spreading anti-immigrant sentiments and demanding job security for Greek citizens, employed expats in Greece must exercise caution when sharing their reasons for living in the country.
As a 24-year old African American woman with caramel colored skin, tight, natural spiral curls and arguably racially ambiguous facial features, Greeks do not take me for an African immigrant. In fact, most Greeks upon meeting me stare silently unable to pinpoint my ethnicity before finally asking, “Where are you from?” After being asked this question dozens of times, I decided to make a game of it by not immediately answering the question, but rather asking the inquisitor to guess. I am most commonly confused for being Brazilian, for the record. Regardless, no Greek ascribes me to the groups of North African people who have recently immigrated. Most Greeks assume that I am here, as many foreign tourists are, for vacation. After sharing that I am from the U.S., some even follow up with that all too vexing question “No, where are you really from?” I usually skip the American history lesson and subsequent explanation of my unknown ancestry beyond about 3 generations ago, for all of which my family lived within U.S. borders. I reply stolidly, “I am from New Jersey.” The conversation then turns to the delicate issue of my reason for living here past the holiday season. Diction is key. I can never begin by saying that I am working, but rather explaining that I am participating in a temporary fellowship program which offers recent college graduates professional development and work experience. I made the mistake of just saying that I was working a few times, and I didn’t understand the sudden cold disposition and lowered muttering in Greek that followed. During these times, Greeks are a bit hostile toward employed foreigners, regardless of race or ethnicity.
Yet, my racialization in the context of anti-immigrant sentiments is still affected by my privilege as an American citizen and by the fact that I am participating in a sanctioned fellowship program. I am provided with free housing within the gates of the American Farm School campus, free meals in the school cafeteria, a contract to work within a guaranteed window of time, and an immediate network of supportive colleagues and supervisors to help me adjust this new home. Black immigrants from other parts of the diaspora, on the other hand, have a different experience that I cannot ignore. When they come to this country, they must compete with locals for the few jobs that are available in a society that regards networking and ties more highly than meritocracy. Regardless of skill or ability it is difficult for Greeks to find work, let alone Blacks, without a friend on the inside or some connection willing to advocate on their behalf. I believe this is a large part of the reason why I can count the number of Black professionals I have seen here on my hands. Most of the Blacks I see in Thessaloniki are selling knockoff Beats by Dre headphones, designer belts, purses, sneakers, watches, and other kiosk goods. They do not have the security and comfort that I came to Greece with, so in order to feed themselves and their families they must make ends meet by whatever means necessary.
At the same time, I do understand that my privilege has its own limits. My professional opportunities do not extend outside of the American institution where I work, which values my English language facility and knowledge of the American higher educational system. My reason for living in Greece is first and foremost to educate young high school students about how to attend a U.S. college or university and to help prepare them for that transition by improving their English, exposing them to American culture, informing them about college entrance practices, and preparing them for standardized testing. Starting a life outside of that work and on my own would be an entirely different feat, one that I must tip my hat to those brave souls who are doing it every day.
Imani Ladson graduated from Kenyon College in 2013, where she double majored in Sociology and American Studies, with a concentration in African Diaspora Studies. She just finished her second year of service as the College Counseling Fellow at the American Farm School (AFS) in Thessaloniki, Greece. She will be begin her Masters in School Counseling at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education this summer.Share This: