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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.

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Immigrants here, even legal ones, live in a constant state of insecurity. Most must renew their residence permits every two years, but Greece’s immigration bureaucracy is so overloaded that permits aren’t usually approved until just before they expire. So Bontigao, her parents, and most other migrants are trapped in an unending cycle of applications. They’re legal while they’re waiting for their permits to be processed, but can only leave the country during specific amnesty periods, usually at Christmas, Easter, and for two weeks in August. That instability is particularly hard on kids, like Bontigao, who have integrated culturally.

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“They fall within the same exact rules that rule the lives of their parents and the lives of immigrants who arrived in the country yesterday,” says Miltiadis Pavlou, from the Institute for Rights, Equality and Diversity in Athens. “When they become adults, they have to find a job, find an employer to remain legally in the country, or face going to a country they have never known.”

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Edwina and Danny Bontigao met in the Greek port city of Piraeas – today, effectively a suburb of Athens – more than 20 years ago. He was a sailor; she was a domestic worker. In those days, immigration was so new to Greece that the country lacked an official policy.

For most of the 20th century, Greeks themselves emigrated in large numbers for economic reasons. At the time Bontigaos arrived, at the vanguard of the current immigration wave, the country’s most recent immigration law dated to 1929. Baby Athina went with her parents as they marched and protested for legal status for immigrants.
They finally won that battle in 1997.

Today, Greece is a wealthy, EU country and immigration is a fact of life. There are half a million legal migrants and probably as many undocumented ones. Many of those are from neighboring Albania, but there are an increasing number of Africans and Asians. In certain Athens neighborhoods, like the seedy streets around the city’s central market, Greek faces are far out-numbered by those of other ancestry.

In a country whose modern identity is based on the myth that Greece is a homogenous nation, bonded by its shared Orthodox Christian religion, many find this wave of new arrivals unsettling.

Last year, in the country’s most recent election, a far-right, anti-immigration party won seats in parliament for the first time.

“I think, it’s older people who mostly don’t really accept the fact that there are foreigners coming to the country, because they’re not used to it,” says Athina. “The younger people, they go to school with foreigners. They see that we’re not like the bad things that people say, that we’re thieves and bad to Greeks.”

For her, time is running out. A few months ago, she turned 18 and her current permit expires in February. She worries she will have to leave school – she’s studying for a business degree – and get a job, that she’ll be pigeonholed into low-paying domestic work. In Greece, filipineza is slang for “maid.”

The government says it will amend the law to give immigrant children born in Greece five-year-long residence permits when they turn 18. It’s not citizenship, but it’s a step.

Athina just wants to be a teenager; to worry about school and boys and clothes. But she has to fight for the right to belong. “I’m just normal, a normal Greek kid.”