From Freetown to Athens: I.B.’s Story

 

Strangers Next Door Interview Series

Interview by Eugenie Manisalidi (edits by Phelan Chatterjee and Joshua Miguel Makalintal)

 

I.B. is an educated 26-year old ex-refugee from Sierra Leone, who has been living around the multicultural area of Amerikis square* in Athens, Greece for the past 5 years. I met him outside a small African shop in the same area, which is also a meeting point for francophone Africans.

 

 

Let’s start with the most inconvenient question nowadays: Are you employed?

Not at the moment. I was fired about 5 months ago from a job I’d had for almost a year. I was working in a Greek restaurant in the center as a dishwasher, but one day they simply told me they needed someone who is fluent in Greek, so he can communicate in a better way with the personnel and potentially with the customers, as well.

 

How much was your wage?

More or less €450. Black money, without insurance.

 

And what have you been doing since you got fired?

I’ve been getting small jobs every now and then. You know, friends of friends call me to paint a room or to help them in moving and that’s how I make some pocket money. Thanks to them and my savings from my previous job I still manage to pay my bills. But nothing more than this.

 

It’s sad to hear that. What is your educational background?

I’m a business management graduate of the Sierra Leone University. Moreover, regarding religion, I’ve got both Muslim and Christian education; I’m a Sunni Muslim just like my father, but I’ve also studied the Bible as my mother is a Christian.

 

How difficult is it for you to get a job in Greece relevant to what you’ve studied?

Simply impossible. Who would hire a black manager in their company that doesn’t speak Greek?

 

When hiring staff, color should not be taken into account. Language might pose a problem, though. Have you tried to learn Greek?

I’d like to, but where’s the time for that? Who’s going to pay my bills when I’m studying? Another issue that makes things more difficult for me is the fact that I no longer have papers. See, It’s not that I’m lazy; I like to learn new languages. When I was living in Istanbul I studied Turkish!

 

Tell us about your family.

I have a mother, who lives and works in Guinea with one of my two sisters. The other one is in Sierra Leone living with some relatives, because she is under-aged and still goes to school. My father died during the civil war in 1999. I’m the first born and the only male child, which is a lot of responsibility on my young shoulders.

 

Are there any particular expectations in your culture from a first-born male like you?

To be able to financially support my mother, who’s getting old and soon won’t be able to work anymore, and my two younger sisters, who are also less educated than me simply because my mother couldn’t afford to pay university tuition fees for them. So, as the most privileged child and as the only man in the house I know I have to help them.

 

How was your childhood? Did you ever have to work as a child?

Not bad. My mother had her own little kiosk selling food on the street. Plus we had some support from our relatives. So, even when my father passed away we did not starve and I didn’t have to work. I was supposed to focus on my studies only.

 

When did you leave Sierra Leone and why?

I left Sierra Leone with my mother and sister in 2005 to go to Guinea and then left Guinea in 2009 to go to Istanbul. After Istanbul I came to Athens. I’ve always been moving in and out of countries in search of better living conditions and employment.

 

But couldn’t you get a job in Sierra Leone or Guinea?

No. This is why I decided to move out as soon as I met a guy in a central market in Guinea that promised to take me to Istanbul at a low cost.

 

Was life in Istanbul better for you than in Sierra Leone and Guinea?

Yes, it was. Although I never got a serious job there either. And Athens in this way is better than Istanbul. At least in Athens I’ve managed to find some long term jobs, although ones with poor pay. But at least I can find something to do here.

 

Describe your daily routine.

Unless I have something to do and unless someone calls me for a small job, I normally wake up at 2pm. Then I go out to see my friends or I pay visits to their houses. We usually cook and eat together because we like to share our food and love with one another. In my culture, when somebody has food, they have to share it with their friends and not keep it to themselves. I mostly hang around where I live and I could say that I’m pretty popular in my hood. Many blacks know me.

That’s pretty much how I spend my days when I don’t work. And on Fridays, I often go to an unofficial mosque (since there are no official mosques in Athens despite the 500,000 strong Muslim community). It is a makeshift mosque in a basement, where mostly African Muslims gather to chant and pray.

 

Let’s talk about racism. What kind of impact does it have on your everyday life?

The funny thing about racism is that although I was taught about it at school in Sierra Leone, I had never experienced it. It’s when I set foot in Greece that I was confronted with racism for the first time in my life. Being brought up in the multi-religious society of Sierra Leone, where people do not discriminate each other based on their religious beliefs, I didn’t have the slightest idea how bad things could be.

The first time I really felt I was in danger due to my skin color was in Athens. Istanbul was a lot friendlier to me; not only race-wise, but also religion-wise.

Sometimes, when I walk in the streets of Athens, especially late in the evening, I notice that people change pavement as soon as they see me or start to walk faster as if I was a dangerous gangster intending to harm them. This makes me sad and therefore I try my best to prevent it from happening. Every time I see someone walking in the same street as me, I leave the street first and I do it for two reasons: the first reason is to avoid getting in trouble with some Greeks scared of black dudes like me and the embarrassment of being accused to be a criminal, and the second one is to avoid the negative feelings caused by not being accepted by others for who I am.

Besides, the disrespect some Greek people show towards us is humiliating: Quite a few times I have seen Greeks laughing at blacks and making insulting comments when they see them looking for food or recyclable materials in bins.

 

Have you encountered any Golden Dawn members so far?

Luckily enough, no. But I’ve been having trouble with some Greek police officers, whose attitudes are very similar to the attitudes of Golden Dawn members. Their practices are totally inhumane and brutal: They might stop you in the middle of the street to ask you for your papers and then they put you on a bus together with other migrants to take you to the Aliens and Migration Service, where they have you wait for endless hours until they check the validity of your documents.

Until then, you have to remain seated in the same place and wait in silence as it’s strictly forbidden to talk without permission. It goes without saying that in this place they hardly let any journalists in.

It hasn’t been only once or twice. There have been countless of times the Greek police have arrested me to drive me to that office. I remember once, I was taken there three times in only a few hours, in less than a day! The police officers mostly go after us the blacks, the Africans and the Pakistanis. Our skin-color reveals our immigrant origins; we can’t hide! In general, there are a few Greek policemen who understand migrants and are friendly and kind towards us. But most of them don’t want to listen to us and just want to do their job.

 

What kind of documents do you currently have?

I used to have a pink card, but not anymore. When I applied for asylum last year I got rejected, because the civil war in Sierra Leone is over and I was told there’s nothing to justify my stay here as a refugee. All I have now is a certification from the court that permits me to stay in Greece.

 

Leaving the Greek police aside, do you get along with the Greeks? Do you have any Greek friends?

My friends are mostly from Sierra Leone, Guinea and Nigeria. I also have one Albanian friend. But with Greeks it’s not so easy, because many of them think they are superior to immigrants, especially to blacks. I used to have a couple of Greek male friends, who either stopped talking to me once and for all or became distant all of a sudden as soon as I told them I was dating Greek girls. They probably got mad at me for supposedly “stealing their sisters” from them.

 

I see you get along with Greek girls better than guys! Have you ever had any problems in your relationships due to cultural barriers?

Well, I remember the communication with my first Greek girlfriend was pretty hard: she barely spoke English, so we both had to use body language and to improvise a lot in order to communicate. But when the relationship was over her English skills had significantly improved!

Apart from the language barrier, there haven’t been any other cultural barriers so far. In my experience, the only barrier is the fact that each of us is living in a different phase of life with different experiences.

 

What is your tribe and how many languages do you speak?

I’m a Fula (nomadic tribe mainly found in West and Central Africa, Egypt and Sudan) and I speak Fula, English, French, Temne (a Sierra Leonean language), a bit of Turkish and I also know some basic words and phrases in Greek.

 

Any plans for the future?

My plan is to find a job that pays more than €800 a month. It’s the only way for me to support myself and my family. That job could be in any country and continent. If I manage to find a job in Greece I will stay here.

And oh, by the time I turn 28 I’ll start looking for a wife, because I want to be married by 30!

 

What are your dreams?

I just want to be happy and successful in life. And this is also what my mom wishes for her only son. I’m not asking for much because I’m aware that wealth does not bring happiness. I just want to be able to make a family of my own. I would also love to adopt a child.

And finally, because I’m a very charitable person and I like to help people in any possible way, my dream is to one day be able to also offer financial help to the ones in need.

There are many things I want to do in my life, yet I know that what you want and what you need is not the same.

 

Wow, impressive! Would you share your favourite Fulani proverb with us?

“No matter how dark the night is, there will always be a brighter day after that!”

 

What would you change in Greek society if you could?

First of all, the way Greek people see the blacks and immigrants in general, and the way they treat us. I wish they were more respectful and accepting.

Secondly, I would make the laws simplier and more immigrant-friendly, so that our everyday life would be less stressful.

 

Facing so much discrimination as a black man do you ever wish you were white?

No, I’m proud of my color. But this doesn’t mean that had I been white, I wouldn’t be proud of my whiteness!

Look at this (points at his right arm and upper body, where the white patches caused by the “Vitiligo” skin condition, the same disorder Michael Jackson was suffering from, are evident); this makes me unique!

The only thing that sometimes makes me wonder is why God or Allah chose to make me black and put me in a white man’s land. Probably to gain some experience, I guess. Otherwise how could I ever know what racism is?

 

 

*Find out more about what’s going on in Amerikis square of Athens here: https://www.academia.edu/6795595/African_Border_Crossings_in_a_City_Of_Others_Constellations_Of_Irregular_Im_Mobility_And_In_Equality_In_The_Everyday_Urban_Environment_Of_Athens

 

 

 

 

 

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