Migration is all about struggle. The struggles dealt with in this story are not the practical difficulties we face in life, but rather the problem of attempting to integrate into a different society. This problem leads to some people being unable to settle anywhere, even in their own country. Antonis Christakos, a Greek man of 75, shares his story as an immigrant with me. I meet him, offering him something he particularly enjoys; ‘tsipouro’, a traditional Greek pomace brandy. He seems peaceful and calm, ready to answer every question but also curious to learn what exactly this interview is about. He begins sharing his story without further delay.
Antonis comes from the southern part of the Peloponnese, from a family of immigrants. He knew from a young age what it was like to leave home for a better future; his grandfather went to the United States as an immigrant, “even before the term ‘immigration’ was coined,” he says.
Antonis’ intention to leave Greece was not solely due to this ‘family history’. However, the sociopolitical situation in Greece after the Second World War and the Civil War that took place immediately afterwards caused a suffocating atmosphere that he could not stand, being as he was a member of a liberal, radical, and deeply democratic family. At the beginning of the 1960s, as Antonis was preparing to leave the country, there was a state system in place; the ethnikofrones certificate. This was supposed to prove that the holder was “devoted to their country, the state and the law”. It was overseen by the ‘security police’ as a way of collecting information about its citizens. Greeks who wished to emigrate were required to apply for it. Those who did not hold this certificate faced extreme difficulties in finding a job, were considered dangerous by the state and were suspected of illegal activity. The United States and Australia, “popular immigrant destinations” at the time, demanded an official document, like the state certificate, from Greeks who wished to enter the country; Germany, on the other hand, was crying out for more workers. It was the time of the German Economic Miracle, when the country was in need of manpower. Antonis went to Germany at the age of 21, when “Greece was almost wishing to be rid of the youth who, being radical, were dangerous for its conservative society”.
He takes his glasses off and he says how he experienced a shock; how he wrongly thought that “money would flood the streets”, how he felt like he was “unable to hear or speak” in a country with an unknown language, how he experienced loneliness; as the other Greek immigrants there offered him only trouble and no help. Antonis went to Germany with the belief that being Greek was something special there, but instead instantly realized that “whatever I had learned was false”.
This misperception of his new life was extended to socialization, too. He was unable to communicate and socialize with those around him, alone in a foreign country, where he only had his job as an unskilled worker. “I felt so desperate there, with no people to speak to, that the only solution I could think of was committing suicide”, he says. “I was standing alone in the middle of the night, in front of the Rhine, looking at it, ready to jump into the water”.
People in Greece say that every bad thing brings something good with it. Antonis met a couple of Germans that very same night. These people were the ones who helped him to change his way of living, to socialize, to open up to a different viewpoint.
Antonis joined the SPD, the Social Democratic Party of Germany, while Greece was being ruled by the military junta. He participated in trade unions and enrolled on a sociology course, as he felt he could not go on being an unskilled worker, for this life was not tailored for him. When he graduated, he found employment as a social worker in an organization directed by the Evangelical church; his duties were to educate immigrants about culture shock.
His biggest complaint is that “Greece never helped the Greek immigrants in Germany”. It was like Greece was hoping to get rid of these people; whereas “the immigrants in the USA were offered help, as they were too far away to return easily”. Greek schools in Germany of that time are a good example of this kind of practice. The pupils, who were children of Greek immigrants, were not taught the German language, and thus were unable to integrate into society. Around the same time, some Greek immigrants who had been in Germany decided to return to Greece. Antonis, who was the one responsible for training them before their return, describes the feelings of these people. He says that “Greece was for them a fantasy world; it was like paradise. The truth is it was a fake world”. They had to face a huge amount of bureaucratic processes set by the Greek state in order to resettle in their homeland. In the end, many of them had to return to Germany again, as all the necessary procedures were too harsh, too difficult and too expensive for them. The Greek state tried to make it seem like they were returning to Germany of their own free will, rather than because of the unfair procedures.
Antonis feels he is a lost Greek; “a man who taught others about culture shock and migration, but who has never been able to tackle the pain these things caused”. When he came back, after 30 years abroad, he tried to reconcile his way of life in Germany with the different Greek reality he encountered. He thinks that today, superficiality rules; he says he cannot communicate on a deep level with Greeks. I ask him if he wants to leave again. He says he would not be able to stand the German winter, the gray sky from September to April. He wants the Greek sun and the sky, but deep inside, he also wants his Greece – a place to welcome him, to make him feel at home, even if he is willing to abandon it if the political situation and the living conditions force him to do so.
Migration left marks on him. He is a man of unique posture, attitude and appearance. His talk stems from all the cultures and the people he encountered; one feels obliged to respect him when meeting him, and his eyes shout the thing that everyone around us desires; just love, freedom and understanding, no matter what nationality. But what he brings with him as he speaks is a sense of travel, culture, and cosmopolitanism − and sometimes, when something wrong or ugly is present, despair, for all the things that hurt us, for all the hard times we face.