Tuesday, October 11, 2011

“In this place, all those who love / eat tainted bread”

My name is Zoë Sakelliadou. I was born in 1982 in Athens, at Aretaieio Hospital. At the time, my parents lived in Karpathos*, and on the island there weren’t any gynecologists at all. I am the only child in the family who was born in Greece.  My parents fell in love and got married in Karpathos and immigrated to the United States. They managed well there, opened their own business, and became US citizens as did my three siblings who were born there. At some point though, they decided to move back to Greece. Nothing could extinguish their longing to return to Karpathos. I don’t remember much from my childhood. It’s as if my mother’s death, ten years ago, has blocked my childhood memories. I remember that ever since I was a child, I dreamt of journeys. My travel fantasies seemed strange to my parents. They had returned, I wanted to leave. I also recall that, for us – children growing up in remote, isolated areas – Athens was the equivalent of chaos and overwhelming fear. But this was appealing to me. I loved my trips to Athens. I liked the hustle and bustle of the city, in comparison to the quiet solitude of the island.

My teenage years were strongly affected by the death of my mother.  I was in my third year of high school. It was my first real contact with the Greek health system. I knew the words “bribe” and “corruption.” But then I experienced them. My hair stands on end when I think that if you don’t pay a bribe, you won’t get the treatment you are entitled to. A country’s culture is revealed, I think, by its cemeteries and its hospitals… I studied in Athens, at Panteion University, graduating from the Department of International Studies. I finished a post-graduate degree in European Law and then applied to Law School.  I often felt awkward at university because I was not a “partisan sheep” following one political Party or another. When I started working for the Greek Council for Refugees, I clearly realized that the situation in Greece is not going well at all.  Human rights are being violated and applicants for asylum are being treated like animals. I was crushed by the refugees’ personal stories. I came in direct contact with the ugliness of that world, but also with the beauty which is imparted by the courage of these people.


At some point, I felt like I was drowning in Greece. I felt aggravated, frustrated.  It was then that I decided to try and leave. I began to apply to as many international refugee organizations as I could. And one day, I got good news. I was hired by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, in Croatia. It wasn’t easy announcing to my family that I had decided to leave. My father told me that living abroad, that immigrating was the worst thing, to those who have experienced it. When I told him “I’m leaving,” he feared the loneliness and seclusion that I would endure. “Life with a suitcase in hand is not easy,” he said. I was only going for six months. But it’s already been five years now… I was 25 years old when I went  to Zagreb - a city full of greenery, flowers and fragrant scents - civilized, without the smog and chaos of Athens. My new work environment was excellent. In Athens, it would take me an hour and a half to get to work each day. In Zagreb I would walk to work. In Athens, I belonged to the “700-euro-generation,” whereas in Zagreb, I earned an income that was considered unimaginable for my generation. In Greece, I felt that I was at an impasse with the refugee issue. In Croatia, I felt like I had something to offer, that I was making a difference.

My job in Croatia was to help in the creation of an asylum system. Croatia has gone from a country that once produced refugees, to a country that now accepts refugees. Some of them had entered from Greece. Nothing can stop people… In Croatia, I came in contact with the consequences of the war in former Yugoslavia. I think an entire generation has been destroyed. To fully understand what the war was about, I had to travel to Bosnia. Since 2009, I have been working in the mountains of Bosnia. When I first entered the country, I got the impression that I had entered a vast cemetery. No matter how much money is given by the international community for the country’s reconstruction, the souls of the people have been irreversibly stigmatized. The war left behind mistrust and cynicism. The blood of the victims is still fresh. All of the sides involved in the war have blood on their hands. I have spoken to people who fought in the war. They tell me that they never understood why they were fighting. On the other hand, I have met people with big hearts. It is impressive that humanity manages to survive even in the worst atrocities. I realized that the biggest contribution I could make was to listen. To the people and their stories. When you become a part of a story which is so full of blood and sorrow, you realize that happiness is found in very small things. Perhaps it sounds cliché, but for the first time, I felt this here.  When I heard people saying “he’s lucky because he died normally,” I realized they meant he died of natural causes, of a sickness and not because of the war…

I love Bosnia because culturally, it is familiar to me, it is Balkan. And also because I believe it resembles me. It is quite complicated. I return to Greece to visit my family. I admit that a lot of things get on my nerves. The strikes, the attitude of the employees, the passengers on the metro who lunge onto the train before people have a chance to disembark. The public services. Bosnia may be a country that recently experienced war, however its public services function better than the public services in Greece. And this is tragic. There is a song that I often listen to here, which I have identified with Greece: “By planes and ships” by Sotiria Bellou**. “In this place, all those who love / eat tainted bread/ their love and passion goes underground”. My eyes tear up every time I hear it. What do I miss about Athens? The multiculturalism.  Because Athens is a multicultural city, even if it exists underground.

What has the journey taught me? That I am grateful for being born in a country without wars. That everything is a road that leads us. The journey changed me. It made me more humble. And the journey has not ended yet. My constant companions are my books and my cat. They wander the Balkans with me. I don’t think of returning. Sometimes I feel like a coward for not having the courage to try and make it in the country where I was born. I am seriously thinking about my future. It’s not easy to have a job indefinitely which takes you to a new country every couple of years. Recently I went to the American Consulate in Sarajevo to begin the process of becoming an American citizen, as the daughter of an American citizen. I was impressed by how polite the employees were. Why do I want to become an American citizen? Because I think I’ll have better opportunities to make it on my journey…

(Translated & edited by Gigi Papoulias)

*Karpathos - the second largest of the Greek Dodecanese islands, in the southeastern Aegean Sea.
**S. Bellou (1921-1997) was one of Greece’s most famous rebetika singers. Rebetika music is often compared to the blues, and its soulful melodies tell of hardships, poverty, refugee life, and war. To listen the song click HERE

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