Being born in Greece may not make you Greek
A native Greek speaker and the star of a popular Greek music video to boot, Athina Bontigao – daughter of Filipino immigrants – is fighting for citizenship, along with thousands like her.
When Athina Bontigao walks down the streets of this city of her birth, most Greeks don’t see a compatriot, they see a foreigner, a xenos. Sometimes, especially lately, police stop her and ask to see her papers. On the bus, she hears old ladies complain about “all these dirty foreigners” coming to their country. They’re looking at her.Skip to next paragraph
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Ms. Bontigao has lived all her 18 years in Athens, but she has an Asian face and Filipino parents. And although she carries the name of a Greek goddess – the patron deity of this ancient city – as far as the state is concerned, she’s still a migrant, just temporarily passing through.
But that’s not how Bontigao sees herself.
“Inside me, it’s like everything is Greek,” she says. “Greek is my first language. I know the culture here, the history. I know everything.” She shrugs, adding with frustration: “I don’t even know the history of the Philippines.”
In her neighborhood school, Bontigao was the only non-Greek. She recently starred in a Greek music video by her favorite singer, but didn’t learn to speak Tagalog, her parents’ mother tongue, until she was a teenager. She prefers souvlakia – Greek grilled meat – to her mother’s Filipino cooking.
“Like, Filipino food, it’s just rice, rice, rice,” she says with a giggle. She’s only been to the Philippines a few times and never spent more than a month there – the smells, the crowds, the lack of privacy, she says, all feel foreign to her.
But the only passport Bontigao carries, and the only country she has permanent right to live in, is the Philippines.
Greece, like most European countries, does not give automatic citizenship to children born in the country. And becoming a naturalized citizen is a long, difficult process: Greece makes it harder than almost any other country in the European Union – only Austria is tougher. It’s also the only one of the original EU 15 that makes no special provisions for children born to immigrants in the country. Members of the Greek diaspora, in contrast, can get a passport easily.
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It’s a workday evening and Athens’ central square, Syntagma, is bustling: Bankers rush to the metro as tourists snap pictures of the evzones – red-capped, skirt-clad soldiers with pom-poms on their feet who guard parliament.
Bontigao and several Filipino friends are clustered near a fountain, clutching creased petitions asking for Greece to grant citizenship to children like them. Nervously, they approach passersby, making their case for a signature: They were born here and should have the right to Greek citizenship.
Often, it’s disheartening work. Many people rush by, declining to stop with a wave of their hand. An old lady listens to their spiel – in Greek – shakes her head, and refuses to sign. Younger people are more likely to be supportive: A young man with a guitar adds his name to the list, as does a businesswoman in a smart suit and heels.
“Some of them are kind of racist. They give a lot of reasons for not signing the campaign,” Bontigao says. “It feels bad, but other people give us strength by saying, ‘yeah, you should have this citizenship, you were born here.’ ”
Not far away, another scene is playing out. Policemen have approached three Arab men sitting on a bench and are examining their papers. They search the men’s pockets; asking them what they’re doing, why they’re here.
The Filipino girls watch warily as one man is led away. In recent months, Athens has been cracking down on illegal immigration – authorities call it “Operation Sweep” – and the girls say they worry constantly about the police finding something wrong with their papers. Bontigao has been questioned twice.