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How does second-generation Albanian youth negotiate and conceptualize their identity and claim their place in contemporary Greek society?
When, in the last decade of the 20th Century, the border between Greece and Albania opened for the first time, significant migratory flows were observed between the two countries, as a large percentage of Albanian adults immigrated to Greece in order to better their living standards. According to statistical data, Albanians in Greece, make up to 65% of the general migrant population (Kasimis 2004), while roughly 500.000 Albanians have permanent residence in Greece (Speed & Alikaj 2020). As more and more economic migrants joined the Greek workforce, at first as seasonal workers, but slowly evolving into permanent settlers, international inflows induced cultural change in the host societies, either via diffusion of cultural elements or the very diffusion of cultures1. During a period of 30 years, Albanian immigrants in Greece assimilated into their new societies and made families of their own, however, they are thought to be still in limbo, “one foot in Greece, one foot in Albania” (Speed & Alikaj 2020). Their children, as young adults, are presented with the very serious problem of forming their identity by choosing between two sides. They have to either forego their Albanian heritage, in order to evade racist and xenophobic behaviors that still hold true for a majority of the Greek population, or try to carve out a place in their society where they are able to feel at home.
Second generation Albanian young adults have had to – either through their parents, or themselves – assimilate two different “ethnic” backgrounds inside the core of their identity. Here we have an antithesis: which cultural background will prevail, what they consider themselves to be. And where, finally, do they find a place to call home, a place to come back to, a place where they belong. The aforementioned are all questions I chose to examine in my research paper while also making an effort to collect some of the experiences of second-generation Albanian young adults. In the course of four weeks, I conducted four interviews with second-generation young adult women, which ranged in time from 45 to 90 minutes each. All my interviewees had ongoing, or completed undergraduate studies. J. A. (22) is now located in Komotini, working to support herself and her studies. K. A. (22) is between places while she chooses her new place of work. A. Q. (22), located in Athens, has just returned from an Erasmus+ mobility in Frankfurt. Finally, A. T. (23) is in Vienna, working to support herself and her education, having chosen to enter a Masters program in autumn.
Three of my interviewees were born in Albania, lived there for a while, and had to make a precarious journey through the borders with their mothers, in order to rejoin their fathers in Greece, while, A. Q. was born in Greece after her parents had found permanent settlement and work. When answering questions about their early journey to Greece, they all recounted their parents’ experiences as extremely difficult and dangerous, blurring the line between legality and illegality even after many years of living and working in Greece. The migration motive was, in all cases, economic in nature, almost obligatory for the young Albanian fathers who chose to separate from their families and their home in order to survive and send money back. All four of my interviewees’ families chose to settle permanently in the Greek countryside, finding work as unskilled workers, a maximum of four hours away from Athens, capital of Greece. When describing their early years, both A. T. and A. Q. had to be sent back to Albania, while their parents juggled between working full-time and raising them. After a while, they all remember that they became progressively more stable in their finances. They all enrolled in Greek kindergarten and followed through each stage in the Greek educational system, which allowed them to petition for Greek citizenship, and earn it, after nine years of schooling2 and a lot of bureaucracy. Their parents, with the exception of A. T.’s father (who chose to take the citizenship exams), remain in the in-between, having to renew their Albanian passports at regular intervals of time.
When asked about her parents’ state of citizenship K. A. replied:
No, and I don’t think they will ever get one (referring to the Greek citizenship), they will continue to go through the hardships of renewing their passports and such… (U)nacceptable for me, they pay their taxes, they are legal in everything, but they are still not considered Greek enough. They have been in Greece for 35 years, they have spent more years of their lives in Greece than in Albania. They do not have the right to vote, and I would like them to have this possibility3; it is as if they have no rights. When I acquired my Greek identity card, many of my obligations were reduced. At 17 years old I had to make an application with a lot of paperwork, a lot of bureaucracy, a lot of money. It really was a lot of money, but since then I’ve been saved, I don’t even go through the passport process anymore. You just give your ID and that is it.
Experiencing Childhood and Adolescence in Greece
There is definitely a change in the way Albanians in Greece are being perceived, though racism is still ingrained in people’s behaviors4. My interviewees all commented that it’s definitely not comparable to what their parents went through, in their first years in Greece – in some cases, they’re still going through it now. J.A. admitted: “I can’t find any difference in the way I’m being perceived now. I mean, I grew up in Greece, and I am fluent in Greek. I do not necessarily look Albanian, in other words, until they hear that I am Albanian, there is no comment or any different behavior. However, after they find that out there have been cases where, yes, it has changed the image towards me, especially from older people.” A. Q. also commented on not looking Albanian, and choosing to carefully curate her movements, language, and self in order to seem more Greek:
I always tried to fit in. Many times when we went to town with my mom and spoke Albanian, other people, they looked at us strangely. They called us ‘foreigners’ and since then I don’t know, I found I had a personal complex, I told my mom not to speak Albanian. I just didn’t like feeling like the center of attention, not in this way. I didn’t want to seem like I was from another country.
K. A. felt like she was always labeled as ‘the Albanian’ in her early years. People who chose not to see beyond their discriminatory beliefs used her heritage as a slur. “There was always ‘the slur’, Albanian, and there was also the teasing, either because my parents might not speak Greek well or whatever, even the food I ate bothered them. I don’t know, I feel like people just don’t want diversity … they feel security in certain things and the mindsets they have in their heads remain as they were, nothing is able to get through them.” However, “After high school, these decreased greatly”, she states: “I now feel comfortable, I am Albanian and I will tell you, I will not be affected by how you will react in return”. A. T. also had difficult experiences tied to elementary school:
I still remember this, I will never forget it: in elementary school when I was parading with the flag5 – I got there through my grades, I was a perfect student – the mother of a classmate had complained, “Why is an Albanian behind my flag and not my son, who’s at least Greek”. After that incident in elementary school, I stopped going to national parade holidays. When I was a bit older, a kid pushed me down the stairs and told me to go back to my country, they got my brother beaten up. It had gotten to the point where I didn’t want to go to school. I pretended to be sick at home and my dad suspected it, he wanted to talk to the school about this, and I stopped him, I begged him not to come because I didn’t know what could happen. I was afraid it would make the situation worse6.
After examining their experiences in Greece, there followed a number of questions about Albania. Both J. A. and K. A. are from small villages close to the border between the municipalities of Elbasan and Korce. K. A. was born in the nearest town with a hospital, named Librazhd. A. Q. father’s is from Berat, while her mother is from Fier. Finally, A.T., recalls her parent’s village, but has stronger memories of Berat, since both her grandparents and existing family, have relocated to the city. During her upbringing in Greece, their parents made sure to travel back to Albania, at least once a year, at least for five days7, however as everyone got older, the trips became less frequent. “I haven’t gone to see my grandparents for at least eight years. I have wanted to go see them for three years now, but, last year I started working, I couldn’t leave,” recalls A.Q.. J. A. vividly remembers her grandfather; she recalls her village, as a place where she would spend a lot of time vacationing when she was younger: “For me, Albania is my grandparents, my home in the village, nature. I don’t see the country itself, I just see my family. I have been left with the songs my grandfather used to play. He was an instrument maker, he made his own bagpipes, he played the clarinet and we sang traditional Albanian songs at home.”
K. A. visited Albania with her mother last year. She thinks of it as a kind of pilgrimage: “Mom took me to the hospital where I was born. She took me to every place she remembered from my childhood years; it was such a nice experience. I saw my mother reliving it all, she got emotional. It was a very grounding feeling.” Almost as an afterthought, she adds:
Ah, there’s also something I haven’t told you, I recently went to Ioannina (Northwestern Greece), and it reminded me a lot of Albania, and the Albanian mentality. We visited the lake and saw them singing, what I was hearing was definitely reminiscent of an Albanian song…I turned to Giannis (her co-traveler) and told him that this was so clearly Albanian…the uniforms were more or less similar…the way the houses were built, I felt like I was in Albania.
I told her that it was good to find pieces of home, old and new, wherever she went, she laughed and the conversation went on.
All my interviewees were able to speak Albanian with varying levels of success8, they felt comfortable in their day-to-day use, but writing and complex words or pronunciations would be dealt with some difficulty. Of all my interviewees, only A.T.’s parents managed to bring something from Albania to Greece when they migrated: “They brought so many photo albums. It was the only thing that, as a kid, I could ask for, that would remind me of my country, of my home. Pictures of me and my brother, my parents’ young faces, I still feel nostalgic”.
Negotiating for fluidity in Self expression
During the last round of questions, I decided to ask a very loaded question: “How do you define yourself as a person, and where do you think your sense of belonging lies?” K. A. was very forthcoming:
To the question of whether I feel more Greek or Albanian, I will tell you that I feel neither. To tell you the truth, I just feel like K., that I have these characteristics that define me but that they’re not necessarily binding me to a place. I don’t feel that being Albanian or Greek can define me. I was simply born in Albania, and I have some memories from there, and on the other hand, I have gone to Greek schools, I know the language and the history of Greece. I feel secure here, in Greece, where my family is, that I have my habits and my everyday life. But then again, that doesn’t make Greece feel mine. I like it, though, having things from both countries define me.
She reaffirmed that she felt very comfortable expressing herself in her social circle. A. Q. stated: “I certainly don’t feel purely Albanian or purely Greek by any means, but of the two, definitely more Greek, over the years I have realized that both cultures are a part of me and that I cannot renounce either culture. (…) It is completely absurd for me to choose, this is not a question of either or; on the subject of homeland, both countries are equally homelands for me.” J. A. defined her situation very differently; she stated how constricted this in-between made her, and wished for a space far away from her current life:
I’ll tell you the truth, now that I’ve gotten a little closer to my Albanian side, I feel so much better, I feel complete. And I feel that it has helped me a lot in finding a little bit of who I am as a unit. Unfortunately, I don’t feel Greek in Greece and I don’t feel Albanian in Albania. It’s pretty much like I’m floating, just existing, just being there. I can’t say that I feel anything specific. I love both countries; I appreciate them for different reasons. Nevertheless, I can’t say that I belong to either of them. My heritage defines me in both countries, there’s something in me that’s going to contradict each country’s identity: I am never just J., I am the girl from Albania instead. The Albanian woman. And in Albania, I am Greek, nothing changes. I’d just like to get away from it a little bit and go do something else, as J., just J9.
A. T., having already chosen to leave Greece behind, is of a similar mind:
I wanted to leave so badly. Even though I love Greece so much and I miss it every day, I just feel like I want to wander from country to country. I feel that since I have left the country where I was born, my country, it has now become very easy for me to move anywhere. I still don’t know how to explain what Greece means to me; I do miss things and it will always have a place in my heart. But, when I think about it, it’s the people that have stayed behind that I miss and not the country itself, not Greece as a country, but Greece because it has the people I love and want by my side.
In a question of if they could see themselves returning to Albania10, and permanently settling there, all responded with a resolute no.
In a time when ethnicity is a key characteristic of all identification, there is little to account for people that try to express themselves outside national borders. For my interviewees, terms such as “ethnicity”, “homeland”, “belonging” remain disruptive and divided. As Christou & Michail (2016) state “second generation immigrant youth still struggle with finding identification and belonging which can embrace attachment to both ‘host’ and ‘home’ country. This ‘disrupted’ emotionalized experience of be/longing is illustrated by the fragments of memory, place, time, and experience of mobility of the participants, that is, their narratives of temporal and spatial encounters”. Looking inwards, it all comes down to a “neither, or” choice that my interviewees refuse to make. Eventually, when asked directly about their sense of self, the reply is always the same: “I feel like myself”. Thus ethnicity itself, at least in primordial11terms, is perceived as a symbolic and external entity to which Albanian-origin teenagers have to relate in their everyday lives (Vathi, 2010) without it being a necessary factor for expressing themselves.
However, a contested sense of belonging does not automatically translate to a weak sense of identity. The fact that ethnicity is only referenced by contextual characteristics and factors while other identity traits, such as gender, age, political and social position, take precedent is an important indicator for how second generation young adults choose to orient themselves. My informants are constantly renegotiating their identities, both within themselves and amongst their peers. Identities are formed through constant dialogue and rediscovery, acting in a more calculating self-preservation mode of survival than an emotionalized pursuit of ethnic membership (Christou & Michail 2016). Culture and memory play a significant role in this process. Rediscovering Albania, through their parent’s memories and their own experiences leads to a place of acceptance for inherited tradition. At the same time, growing up in Greece means constantly adapting against rigid ‘Hellenisation’ and constructing a safe space for expressing themselves, a space where they are accepted for what they choose to be, what they chose to do, and how they choose to be perceived. Fighting against ‘Hellenisation’ means fighting against xenophobic stereotypes and marginalization. Where before there might have been conformity and oppression, now, there is resistance and the celebration of differences.
There is much to deduce from this process, and the most important fact might be the renegotiation of the in-between. Whereas, for first generation immigrants, the in-between is connected with “staying in limbo” (Speed & Alikaj 2020), for second generation young adults, the very same space seems to hold the fluidity and acceptance needed in order for their identities to be realized. In this way, the in-between has transformed from a place of exclusion and displacement to a place of change and belonging. This change demands visibility, it brings forward the need to be acknowledged as a person with traits beyond a ‘home’ and a ‘host’ country. In-between two worlds, two cultures, and two countries, and yet containing both worlds, both cultures, both countries.
Christou, A., Michail, D. (2016). “Diasporic youth identities of uncertainty and hope: Second-Generation Albanian experiences of transnational mobility in an era of economic crisis in Greece”. Journal of Youth Studies, 19: 957- 972.
Dimitriadis, I. (2020). “Working there is amazing, but life here is better”: Imaginaries of onward migration destinations among Albanian migrant construction workers in Italy and Greece. In F.- K. Seiger, C. Timmerman, N. B. Salazar, & J. Wets (Eds.), Migration at Work: Aspirations, Imaginaries & Structures of Mobility (Vol. 5, pp. 135–152). Leuven University Press. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctv16km21f.9
Gogonas, N. (2009). “Language Shift in Second Generation Albanian Immigrants”. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development. 30(2): 95-110.
Kasimis, Ch. & Kassimi, Ch.. (2004). Greece: A History of Migration. Country Profiles, Migration Information Source. https://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/greece-history-migration/
Margolis, M. 1995. “Transnationalism and popular culture: The case of Brazilian immigrants in the United States”. Journal of Popular Culture 29(1): 29–41.
Michail, D. 2013. “Social development and transnational households: resilience and motivation for Albanian immigrants in Greece in the era of economic crisis”. Southeast European and Black Sea Studies 13(2): 265-279
Romaniszyn, K. (2004). “The Cultural Implications of International Migrations”. Polish Sociological Review, 146, 141–159. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41274891
Speed, M., Alikaj, Ar. (2020). Rights Denied: Albanians in Greece Face Long-Term Limbo. Balkan Insight. https://balkaninsight.com/2020/07/01/rights-denied-albanians-in-greece-face-long-term-limbo/
Tzanelli, R. (2006). “’Not My Flag’ Citizenship and nationhood in the margins of Europe”. Ethnic and Racial Studies 29(1): 27-49.
Vathi, Z. (2015). Migrating and Settling in a Mobile World: Albanian Migrants and Their Children in Europe. Sussex Centre for Migration Research-Working Paper, No.62.
Vathi, Z. (2010). “A Matter of Power?” (Ethnic) Identification and Integration of Albanian Origin Immigrants in Thessaloniki. Sussex Centre for Migration Research-Working Paper.
- Romaniszyn (2004): the very term “diffusion” refers to the spatial transmission of cultural elements brought about by the migrants into new territories. Oftentimes, diffusion of cultures results in the formation of ethnic districts with their unique characteristics etc. located in any areas of the host countries that have been touched by migratory flows, which has clear, visible and direct impact on the cities’ landscapes.
- Greek Law for Citizenship approval.
- In relation to Greece holding parliamentary elections in 2023
- In order to add more context to this statement, there are “three main overlapping themes that are displayed in the way that the Greek media has presented the Albanian migrants: as inherently criminal, as poor and backward by nature and destined to remain thus, and as the ‘invader’ and ‘traditional enemy’ by reason of their ethnicity and religion. (…) The standard image of Albanians in Greece has for long been of ‘cunning, primitive, untrustworthy’, ‘dangerous’ people and ‘criminals’. The topic of Albanian criminality has been obsessively pored over by the Greek media, with the result that public opinion has been fundamentally changed. ”(Gogonas, 2009). That is why, during the course of all four interviews, all my informants insisted on trying not to look Albanian in their early years, or on trying to persuade their Greek peers that, even if Albanian, at least they were ‘the good kind’, not thieves or criminals.
- On major National Holidays, students of all grades, along with other educational and military units parade publically behind the Greek flag. Traditionally, the Greek national symbol is handed to the best pupil of the school in recognition of that pupil’s excellence. Since the beginnings of the 21st Century, several incidents of nationalism and xenophobia have been recorded in connection of handing the flag to a ‘foreigner’. Tzanelli (2006) describes the emblematic case of Odysseas Cenai, and other top students, that garnered the outrage of the Greek local community, mostly parents of their costudents, just because they got the right to hold the Greek flag, during a National Holiday, because of their high grades. ‘I will not let an Albanian touch MY FLAG or sing MY NATIONAL anthem!!!’ (Raptis 2003, from Tzanelli 2006).
- A. T. also remembers another event, when she was in high school, her principal confronted her about not being present on national parade holidays. After she explained what had happened to her, he apologized for pressuring her: “He told me, ‘don’t let other people influence how you feel about anything’. Anyway, I went to the next parade without telling him if I was going or not, and after the parade had ended he came over to me, hugged me and said ‘Thank you so much for coming, I appreciate it and I understand that it was hard for you’. To this day, I still remember him.”
- Christou & Michail (2016): “Albanian immigration to Greece has been transnational in character mainly because of the proximity of the host to the home country. Immigrants maintain their ties to their home country in various ways, for instance: paying regular visits, establishing transnational businesses, building houses, sending remittances (Michail 2013), making “home and host society a single arena of social action” (Margolis 1995)”
- For data indicating language shift among second-generation Albanians, see also: Gogonas, 2009. pp. 103-107. My interviewees all spoke a mix of Greek and Albanian in their households and admitted that they were proud to use their mother tongue and that they would have no problem expressing themselves in Albanian. Although, K. A. added, to those who use Albanian daily, meaning their relatives back home, they would definitely sound ‘foreign’ as they didn’t have the thick accent needed for correct pronunciation
- In this case, J. A. explains in detail what she’s searching for, when thinking about migrating to a different country. “Of course the quality of life counts. (…) I’d choose to move to a country where the majority of the population is part of a diaspora, a place open to diversity (I’d just like to get away from it a little bit and go do something else, as J., just J.)”. There are several points to be made here, however the one I will choose to mention, is that the choice of onward-migration, is built upon imaginaries of a better life, not just financially, but also accounting for mental health and psychological wellness. Looking at, both positive and negative, social representations of the new destination, it can be argued that the boundaries between voluntary and involuntary migration should be considered rather blurred. The desires for either onward-migration or staying-put are intertwined, and motivations for engaging in or foregoing re-migration may be contradicting. This shows the complexity of the decision making process for relocation, and that imaginaries may serve as needed devices to justify one’s choice whether or not to relocate. (Dimitriadis, 2020)
- Christou & Michail (2016): the second-generation migrants seem unwilling to follow their parents to their ancestral land. For this generation the economic crisis and the difficulties in acquiring Greek citizenship become strong push factors for remigration either to another European country or overseas
- Vathi (2010): Primordialism is based on the assumption that ethnic membership is acquired through birth and thus is represented as a ‘given’ characteristic of the social world. Thus, individuals inherit ethnicity and are unable to choose between various identities according to self-interest. Nowadays, this boundary has been blurred and increasingly inherited and adopted culture are two terms that are seen not as mutually exclusive.