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Albanians in Greece: Migration, Memory and Art

by Joan Pearce



 

On Saturday 17th February, a panel of experts met in London to discuss the experiences of Albanian migrants in Greece and how these are represented in archival work, artistic creation and scholarly research. Hosted by the Hellenic Centre in collaboration with the University of Westminster, it was an engaging and thought-provoking event. Petros Karatsareas, a Senior Lecturer at the University of Westminster, introduced it as the first Albanian-themed event to take place in the Hellenic Centre.

 

Rexhina Ndoci from Ohio State University gave the first presentation, which was based on academic work analyzing onward migration of Albanians who had first settled in Greece and later moved to the UK.  In the course of the afternoon, it transpired that the audience of about a hundred people included a number with such a background.  However, discussion focused mainly on recent Albanian migration to Greece, notably the waves that followed the collapse of the communist regime in 1991 and the conflict in Kosovo. Rexhina Ndoci described these migrants as seeing themselves not as half-Greek and half-Albanian, but as both Greek and Albanian, and at the same time as separate from both Greeks and Albanians.

 

The second speaker was Ilirida Musaraj, the Coordinator of the Archive of Albanian Migration, who set up the project to develop the archive which had begun 18 months ago. The first generation of Albanian migrants to Greece were employed mainly as labourers or in the service industry; most were now permanent residents. The second generation were upwardly mobile, despite what she called the “systemic racism of the Greek state”. (While the terms “racist” and “racism” cropped up several times during the afternoon, nobody mentioned the perhaps more appropriate, and surely more Greek, label “xenophobia”.) 

 

The archive was a hybrid, and still evolving. It was directed towards migrants themselves, rather than towards academics. Efforts had been made to persuade people that their everyday possessions, such as photographs, letters and telephone cards were of value for the archive, and hence for developing the story of Albanian migration and other migrations too.  Also in the archive were legal documents and items from anti-racist networks, as well as Albanian-language newspapers published in Greece which mostly covered issues such as work permits and citizenship. 

 

An important element was oral history: interviews with migrants reflected opinions and thoughts of people who otherwise lacked visibility. They provided valuable records of lived experience and everyday life and, moreover, helped migrants themselves to understand their lives. Ilirida Musaraj  said she wanted to make the archive more accessible: already an exhibition had taken place, albeit limited to 10 days for financial reasons, and a website was planned.

 

The next session began with a short film, Pendulus, released in 2022. The film depicts the dilemmas facing Arbi, a 24-year-old Albanian who emigrated to Greece with his family as a child.  In an early scene he seeks to hide his identity by introducing himself under a Greek name. Later, he is in an Albanian bar watching the football match between Albania and Serbia and gets involved in a fight over the flying of the flag of Greater Albania. The wedding of a cousin is imminent and relatives are arriving from Albania, but he resists pressure from his parents to make himself presentable. In one scene he is in a car being driven by a Greek friend when they are stopped by the police who treat him differently from his friend.

 

The director, Dimitris Gotsis, recounted that 80% of the film was based on real-life events. He himself had an Albanian friend and his Greek friends had disapproved. Several members of the audience had experience of using a Greek first name to hide their identity. As in the discussion following the previous sessions, the issue of racism arose. Dimitris Gotsis thought that attitudes towards Albanians had improved over the past decade. It was noted that several Albanian candidates had stood in the 2023 parliamentary election and though none had been elected, the fact that mainstream political parties had nominated them signified progress.

 

Since the start of the afternoon, two young women had been sitting on small traditional Albanian rugs at the back of the room with a large pile of walnuts which they were cracking open with a hammer on a chopping board. Early in the first session an audience member sitting near the front asked if the noise could stop but was told that it was a performance (it only stopped while the film was shown). During a break I fetched a cup of tea and was offered some walnuts which tasted excellent. I was told that they came from trees near Tirana. 

 

In the final session Fjorida Cenaj, one of the pair who had been wielding the hammer, described the performance, which was called Arra (Walnuts), as a metaphor for migration, since the walnuts had been planted in one country and absorbed in another. Fjorida herself was born in Lushnjë and moved to Greece with her family at a young age. The tools and the sounds of her performance connected it specifically to Albanian migration. One person commented that the performance was indeed reminiscent of an Albanian home, where activities often took place against background noise from the kitchen. Another remarked that while the noise had been a distraction, it had also compelled people to concentrate on what the speakers were saying.

 

The afternoon offered a range of insights into the lives of Albanian immigrants in Greece. It was made all the more engrossing by the interaction between speakers and audience, and among the audience. Many comparable experiences were shared - perhaps itself an example of group oral history.

 

 

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