What is forbidden to some women?
It is forbidden for them to return to their homeland, which they abandoned to find asylum as political refugees in Greece. They are women who have lived through horror, war and persecution. They have come to our country as refugees, seeking asylum and a normal life. They live here, work and look to tomorrow with faith and a smile. Some of them dream of going back when things change; others would like to stay forever, far away from the country of their birth.
By Tousa Zappa and Christina Chrysanthopoulou
Janette Nirianzaino (Rwanda)
Red Cross Employee
I first came to Greece in 1985 on a scholarship to study at the Patra Technical Studies Institute. I finished my studies in December 1990. The previous October, the war had already broken out, and although the situation in Rwanda was very bad, as I'd learned, I had to go back and work because I'd been on a state scholarship.
I stayed in my country less than a month. Life was so bad. Bombs exploded, and the radio continually broadcast news of murders. The disturbances had taken on enormous dimensions. They took whomever they arrested after 10 at night, when it was forbidden to go out, to jail.
At the end of the month I was supposed to go back, because my Greek visa was expiring. With difficulty I found a ticket. Well, I returned to Greece in August 1993, to participate in a European programme run by the General Confederation of Greek Labor (Greece's largest private sector trade union) and PASAGES (Farmers' Labour Union). Months went by before programme papers were approved.
The same day we received an answer from Brussels about the programme, the president of Rwanda's plane was shot down. Contact with the country was cut off. I contacted the embassy and they told me that all had been lost. They advised me to tell everyone I knew and said that all of us should request asylum.
Was your family in Rwanda?
When, in 1994, they shot down the president's plane and killed him, many of my relatives, who lived near the airport, were killed. They murdered my cousin and his wife, the four kids and his best man in their homes. Within two weeks I also lost my parents. How, I don't know. You couldn't find out how someone had been killed. Some people were killed in the settling of private disputes; others were lost in the night or died in the jungle, where they'd sought refuge. We don't even know where some of my 11 siblings are.
Did you see Greece differently the second time you came here?
When I was a student I knew I'd be going home. I wasn't interested in learning the language; it was enough for me to pass my classes. When I realised that I was no longer Janette the student, but Janette the refugee, I changed my way of thinking. I started learning Greek from the beginning. Then I started looking for a job related to my studies.
What was your relationship with the Greek people like?
When I was here as a student I had no problems at all. I had friends who invited me over to their houses, I spent the night there, I got to know their families. When I became a refugee, they didn't want to hang out with me anymore. Even the people I was closest to kept their distance from me.
What's your daily contact with people like?
In recent years I've been seeing that Greeks have a problem with foreigners, something I hadn't been aware of before. For example, in "for rent" notices they write that they don't want foreigners. When you tell them you're from Africa, they overreact. I didn't use to have such problems. That's why I used to say "I can travel anywhere in Europe during the day, but at night I want to sleep in Greece."
Did you ever think of leaving Greece and going somewhere else?
Sometimes, yes. Compared to other European Union countries, things are hard for refugees in Greece.
Do you have hopes of returning to your homeland?
If they told us today that "everything is fine and you can go home", I'd be the first to go. Rwanda may be the best country in Africa. It's been destroyed, but it can be rebuilt. The bad thing is that the destruction continues. One tribe wants to wipe out the other and there is great hatred, which is handed down from one generation to the next. And unfortunately, no one is paying any attention to what's going on there anymore.
Aise Giouzel (Turkey)
I'm an Arab from Alexandretta, in Antioch. The French "gave" my homeland to Syria. A few years later (in 1938) the Turks took us. They don't recognise our ethnicity and our rights. I came to Greece in 1988, requesting political asylum. In Turkey I was in danger because of my ideology. So we came to Greece with my husband and my two sons. We requested political asylum and were granted it in 1989. And we respected this country which accepted us and we love it. Greece was different then: the people were warmer, better.
So the Greeks have changed?
I would say they've changed a lot since 1990. And I understand it as a human being. I try, but sometimes I see great racism and that racism hurts me.
Why did you choose Greece and not some other country?
Because the Greeks, as a people, resemble our people. They're warm, tender, good. And we believed, when we came, that we would live better. For me that meant that I could stay in a place, work and make a home, live with my family.
What difficulties did you have in the beginning?
Naturally, the Greek language. When my kids went to school, I took a friend with me to enrol them because I didn't know Greek. At that moment, I felt diminished, I felt insulted. As if I didn't have a language, as if I were mute. And I told myself, "You have to learn Greek. You have to express your travails yourself; no one else can do it for you."
Do you feel like Greece is your second home?
Certainly. I love it very much. And the Greek people, however much they insult me, I understand that they are good. I've been here for so many years, I've been in many homes. I know that, when you tell someone your problems, when you say "I have this problem," they'll help you as best they can.
If things change in your homeland, will you go back?
Home is home for everyone. I miss even the dirt and stones of Antioch tremendously. If Turkey recognises us as Arabs and I am given the right to express my ideological views, why not?
What's the nicest thing that's ever happened to you in Greece?
That I was granted asylum. I knew I would from then on be safe in this country.
Josephine Kentakoumana (Burundi)
I came to Greece in 1995 from Burundi, in Africa. I left because of the war that started between the two tribes in 1993. The Tutsi went to people's workplaces and arrested them. They threw hand grenades into places where many people were gathered, like the farmers' market or in the streets. There was no safety.
The main reason I left? They set fire to our house, and we couldn't even get my sick grandmother out. She was burnt alive.
Where can I start to explain? I remember another incident, which took place near the post office where I worked. A man was running toward us. They caught him though, and smashed his head with a large rock. That's when I said, "I must leave." Things were worse in town. They killed people like animals every day. We saw the corpses in the coffins.
So I took my eight-month-old baby and went to Zaire with my husband, who was in the military. Many people did that. There, we regained our composure somewhat, but things continued to be difficult, because we continued to commute back and forth between Zaire and Burundi, where we worked. The Tutsi didn't know what time we left work and went to Zaire. So they waited for us at the border. They killed people on the bus. I said, "Enough." We looked for a way to leave. We got a visa without knowing where we were going.
When you got here by yourself, what did you do?
When I arrived, I was with a woman from Burundi, who gave me the address of a Catholic church. So I went there with my baby. I was in a bad state. They sent me to some hotel in Omonia. I stayed there for six months. Then I went to the CARITAS organisation to find a job. Since I knew French, they sent me to work for a French family in Voula as a baby - sitter.
How did you manage with your child in the beginning?
I left it at an African school from morning to night. It was really tough, but I couldn't do otherwise. I needed money. When my husband got here, he watched the kid and I went to work. I changed buses four times; I left in the morning and returned at night. We applied for asylum. At first they rejected it and told us to leave. We didn't know what to do. We started over again. A total of five years went by before we were granted asylum.
Did things get better then?
Some things got better. Through the special programmes, they gave us economic assistance, and, a little while later, we got a grant to open this shop, which, however, isn't doing well. In addition to your being foreigners, does the fact that you are a different colour cause you problems?
Not everyone acts the same way with us, but when you say you're from Africa, they don't give you work. They don't trust you. The same thing happens when you want to rent a house. If we were a different colour, things would be easier.
Is there anything here that brings you joy?
I can sleep without thinking that they're going to kill us. Greece has peace, security. I also like the weather a lot, the sea.... But life is full of anxiety here. I'm on the move constantly and do everything to find the money to feed my child. Every day I think, "What will I eat tomorrow? Where will I find the money for the rent?" There's nothing certain in our life.
What is your dream for tomorrow?
I dream of finding a job, because the shop isn't doing well and I'm worried. To be sure that every week I'll earn a specific sum of money.
If things changed in your homeland, would you want to go back?
I don't think so. I have such unpleasant memories of horrific things that I don't even want to remember. I saw them burn people alive, pour petrol on their ears and kill them ... things that make me wonder how it's possible that some people have a heart like that.
Tamei Aitogan (Turkey)
Mini - market Owner
I'm a Kurd from Ankara. I came in 1991. They were hunting me and I couldn't stay there. Toward the end, before I left, they were coming every night. They took me; they tortured me all night and released me in the morning. That went on for two months. I'd even gotten used to them knocking on the door every night at one. I've also been imprisoned. When I was 16, in 1978, I did three months and in 1980 they imprisoned me again, for two years.
Do they torture people in prison?
A lot. We see it on TV, we hear about it, but if a person doesn't live it, they can't even begin to imagine it.
If only it were just beatings. No one would confess anything. The worst thing for the women was the rapes. I remember a friend of mine they raped for 40 days, and she didn't talk. Well, they brought her father and they told him, "Rape your daughter." The father, a well-known lawyer, didn't do such a thing, of course, and his daughter committed suicide, falling from a window. I remember it because they took us there to see that the same thing could happen to us. My father died when he was 42. When they caught us, my sister and me, he told the police, "Let them go, take me." When I got out of prison two years later, he'd died of a stroke.
How did you come here?
My husband was in Greece. I hid people who wanted to leave in my house, but a student I was harbouring was really with the police and she told them everything. That's when the daily torture sessions started.
One day my husband came without informing me. I suddenly saw him in front of me in the road. He hailed a cab, put me in it and took me to a house. From there we started out for Greece. We went to (the Greek island of) Kastelorizo in an inflatable boat, four people. It was January 1991. Winter, bad weather and my husband was the only one who knew how to swim. The boat leaked. The tide was against us.
We finally made it to Greece at five in the morning. We gave ourselves up to the police and requested asylum. The first asylum application was rejected, but I submitted another application when I got pregnant and they gave it to me.
My daughter is now 11 years old and in the first year of junior high school. I have the biggest problem with her; even though she was born here, is growing up here, they've catalogued her as having Turkish citizenship. I want her to get Greek citizenship.
I don't have any problems with the people. They say there's racism, but personally I haven't found any. If someone looks askance at me, I know what to say to them and make them feel ashamed. The Greeks are not a difficult people. I really love Greece a lot. I'm a foreigner and I thought that it would be hard to get this shop. I owe the Greek what I have. Many come in here just because I'm a foreigner and they know I'm in need. I don't think that would happen anywhere else.
If things changed, would you go back?
No, because I've gotten used to it here. If I leave Greece, I'll miss Greece to an extent that I never missed Turkey. I don't want to go back, not only for myself, but mainly for my daughter. I've put my life here together. I can't just give it all a kick and take off for somewhere where I don't know what awaits me.
In Greece I try energetically to take whatever I have a right to. I don't give up. I don't cry easily anymore. I'm fed up with crying and don't want to cry anymore. Two years now, since I opened the store, I've stopped crying.
What's your dream?
I don't want much. I dream of my daughter getting into a good university. Growing up and becoming famous. And of having a house. I don't dream of wealth, money. I never dreamt of that. I want to be happy with the people around me. I want not to hurt anyone. And I want no one to hurt me.
1 This article first appeared in Marie Claire Greece in December 2002.