Open polis: New Yorker runs for Athenian office

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

To many Greeks, she is "the chocolate Aphrodite" – a television celebrity they call simply "Yvette."

But to African and other immigrants struggling to make a life in this historically homogeneous country, Yvette Jarvis is something else: an ally.

Born in New York, educated in Boston, this basketball star turned talk-show host, who moved to Athens 20 years ago, hopes to become the first black person elected to municipal office in Greece.

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If elected Sunday, Jarvis would take a council seat in a city trying to cope with a massive influx of immigrants and a rising tide of xenophobia.

In recent years, the number of immigrants in Greece has soared to more than a tenth of its 11 million population. Many Greeks blame migrants for rising crime and delinquency. As in other European countries, immigration has become a volatile political question, one few politicians are comfortable with. Jarvis has made it the centerpiece of her campaign.

She wants to trim bureaucratic hurdles in the migrant's path from illegal to legal status. She also criticizes a lack of acceptance of other cultures here and the isolation of immigrants into ghettos.

"Just recalling my own upbringing as a black American, I have a history of knowing exclusion and racism," Jarvis says. "This is a chance for me to be a role model to immigrant children here. So many of those children don't have an identity, and there are no role models here of immigrants succeeding."

Yet her life story is quite different from that of the impoverished, desperate people who wash up on Greece's shores from places such as Albania, Ethiopia, and the Philippines.

Jarvis grew up with four siblings in the tough neighborhood of Red Hook, Brooklyn, then won an academic and athletic scholarship to Boston University, graduating magna cum laude. After falling in love with a Greek basketball player, she moved to Athens, where she was signed on as a player for the leading Panathinaikos basketball team, earning the nickname "Black Diamond."

Ever nimble and increasingly popular, Jarvis later became a cosmetics model – an exotic beauty dubbed by Greeks as the "chocolate Aphrodite" – and a nightclub singer. Now a Greek citizen and fluent Greek speaker, she debuted as a talk-show host nine years ago.

Jarvis acknowledges that there is a difference between the way Greeks view her – as an exotic import – and the way they perceive other immigrants. She recalls a woman telling her on the campaign trail that something needed to be done "about those blacks," gesturing to Africans selling wares on the street.

"I'm so familiar to them [Greeks], I'm tous dikous," meaning "one of them," says Jarvis, who frequently switches to Greek in conversation. "I just have to keep reminding them, 'Just like you let me in, you have to let them in,' " Jarvis says. "I also have to remind them that [Greeks] were given a chance [when they immigrated to] other countries."

Jarvis's celebrity status was one reason mayoral candidate Christos Papoutsis signed her to his ticket, his spokesman Kritolaos Vasilikopoulos concedes. But he adds that the Socialist party also sees her as someone who can help loosen prejudices here.

Ms. Jarvis has been involved with volunteer and community programs to help foreigners, curb racism, and raise awareness about issues such as domestic violence and the needs of people with disabilities – topics rarely addressed in Greece.

"Athenian society must accept that we are going through a period of change. In the future Athenians will have to get used to the fact that we all have to live here, that we have to start to be a kind of melting pot," said Mr. Vasilikopoulos. "Yvette can help us do that."

The "melting pot" idea has been slow in coming to Greece. After a long delay, last year the government finally began a drive to legalize immigrants living here for years without residence permits. But that effort has now been put on the back burner, mired by conflicting laws, understaffed offices, and processing delays.

Meanwhile, border controls have been stepped up, as have calls for arrests of illegal migrants. The government tripled police officers assigned to randomly stop and check people for residence permits. Heavily armed police patrol most major corners in poorer areas of the city, which Jarvis and other politicians fear are starting to become "migrant ghettos."

Jarvis says she has heard disturbing stories of how little racial and cultural diversity is accepted here. She recalled talking to African nurses who applied for jobs at an Athens hospital but were told, "You're too black, you'll scare the patients." Muslim women have been told their children couldn't register for school unless they changed their religion.

"There's a big need for communication between the municipality, the state, and these people – I can give that," she says.

Jarvis wants to promote understanding through language classes, cultural centers, and multicultural programs in schools. Those ideas give hope to new arrivals like Moavia Ahmed, an immigrant from Sudan and a leader of the Athens' migrant community.

"She knows about the problems we have, the problems with the new laws," Mr. Ahmed says. "As immigrants in Greece, we don't have the right to vote. But her presence inside the municipality of Athens will be like a channel for us. She will make our voice heard."

But Jarvis's detractors say that her candidacy is mostly about celebrity. "The immigration card is not what's giving her the winning profile – what's giving her the winning profile is that she's a foreigner, that she's on television," says political analyst Spiros Rizopoulos, who runs a private consulting firm. Even so, he says, "It's still a step forward for the country to have a non-Greek running for office. Greece has to get used to the idea."

Jarvis is not the only immigrant seeking office on Oct. 13. Other candidates include a Pole and two Palestinians, also seeking seats on the city council.

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