Friday, October 06, 2006

Stranger in a Strange Land

What can it mean to migrate? How does it feel trading one home for another, arriving in a new place, hopeful, excited, scared? In the past few years, it seems that I have spent much of my time away from the place where I grew up, and although I have often been an outsider, I have never been made to feel outside. I now find myself in Athens, Greece, a place that is pumped full of tourists everyday, but where immigrants live with enormous stigma. Although I not planning to stay forever, the 10 months I will be here has thrust me into a messy system built to handle the masses of individuals who come from outside.

This morning, I made my first visit to the immigration office to begin the application for a residence permit. At 7:30, as I made my way towards the address I had been given, the streets seemed quiet. I knew I was in trouble when I figured out that the address I had was actually an apartment building. Dimitra had reported that at the office I would see many immigrants, and that we would have to go into a basement to apply for the permit. Someone would speak English, she assured me, but I would most likely need papers that I did not have. There was, however, no way of knowing what I needed until I went there to find out, and that is how I found myself on a nearly deserted street standing in front of a row of run down apartments.

Looking up and down the street, I spotted a group of people milling around on the next block. Could these be the other immigrants? I made my way towards them, and saw that everyone was carrying passports, and documents, looking tired in the narrow street. Cars that tried to pass beeped their horns loudly for people to move. Suddenly an official came out and began yelling directions. People separated into two groups, and I tried to ask what was happening, but couldn't find anyone who could speak English. I joined the line that was being ushered inside, and was relieved when we were marched into a basement. We filed into rows of hard plastic chairs, which faced a long row of tables where tired and unhappy lookinofficialsls were preparing their stamps for the day. One by one, a guard pointed to one of us, said something, and flicked his head. That person went to the front, pulled out a blue slip of paper, and spoke with one of the officials, and the paper was either stamped or not. Soon, however, this system which had seem quite orderly erupted into chaos. People did not wait to be called, but began standing in lines in front of the officials. One woman fell to the floor cryinhystericallyly and making the sign of the cross. An official yelled at an old man who hung his head. I didn'’t know what to do. People were now budging in line, and despite the fact that I had wanted to wait to be called, it seemed that I needed to take action or else forfeit my day to the plastic chair and a drama that could not understand. I began asking if anyone spoke English, and if I was in the right place. Finally someone, a man who was escorting a diplomat to the front of the line, told me that he didn'’t know if I was in the right place, but that I should go upstairs to one of the woman with desks by the door. They could direct me. So back upstairs I went.

Backlit by the glass door, one of the women was on the telephone, but kept raising her eyebrows signaling for me to talk. I said my one perfect phrase, "“I don't understand Greek,"” and I was directed to the other womimmediatelyadiatly began yelling, "English? English??'” It took me a moment to realize that she was yelling at me, asking me what I wanted, why I was there. I explained to her, and she spread my papers over the desk. "I won't read these. I need them in Greek.” She took my passport and violently began flipping through until she came to my European Visa. “What? Why are you here? How long? Student? Why are you alone? Your visa is almost finished. It may be too late. Come back today with translations. Bring someone who can speak Greek. You must come back today." And I was pushed back outside along with an African who was yelling at one of the officials from downstairs. The official was yelling back, and they were both pointing down the block. The woman I had spoken with was already yelling on the phone, and outside, all of the immigrants, who had been pushing to get in 40 minutes before, were gone. An old man sat on a stoop smoking quietly. I called Dimitra, who said that she could go on Monday, but that it would be difficult, as she also had to go out to Elfessina, I had to begin Greek lessons, and we all had a meeting sometime during the day. So the saga of being legal here continues, throughout the weekend and onto Monday.


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