The economic crisis that has haunted Europe for more than five years has also highlighted the topic of Greek migration to Germany. Mainstream media narratives tell a story about Greeks ruining their economy through corruption and laziness and now fleeing their homes to “invade” the wealthy North. But what if we looked beyond such stereotypes? Listening to the life stories of the Greeks who have come to Germany brings a series of complexities to surface. While many remain, some have moved backed to their homeland. All of them once took a “Taxi to Berlin”. Join the ride!
Stories of Greek migrants in the German capital
“The first day was a nightmare,” – recalls Katerina Michailidi, reflecting on her arrival in Berlin in 2008, “But it turned out to be one of the best experiences in my life.” Born in Athens in 1986, she studied theatre at the National Kapodistrian University of Athens before spending one semester studying at the Freie Universität as an Erasmus student. But this episode triggered a series of unexpected consequences. While she initially came to Berlin for a six month period, and ended up staying for more than six years.
Katerina was one of the Greek university students who chose Germany as a destination country for their semesters abroad. During the last six academic years more than 2,500 Erasmus students from Greece enrolled in a German university.
In terms of percentages, the number of Greek students going on Erasmus exchanges to Germany as a proportion of the total number of Greek Erasmus students has been stable (13%). However, in 2012-2013 the percentage grew to 23%.
When the crisis struck Greece in late 2008, Katerina was living in Berlin and followed the situation in her home country on the news. “I wanted to go back to Athens, but the crisis made me change my plans.” Friends and family also advised her to stay in Germany. As the crisis unfolded, the disturbing events in Greece made her feel like a powerless observer . “It felt like a bomb exploded”, Katerina remembers.
After graduating in Greece, Katerina returned to Berlin and started multiple activities. She began working for Sourcefabric, an open-source software organisation, freelancing for the Transmediale festival and managing various events. She co-founded Mixing Roots Productions, an organization that brought Greek musicians to the German capital. Later she also joined SUPERMARKT, a creative co-working and event space in Berlin,working as an events and communications manager.
Katerina’s rarely felt her immigrant background to be a problem in her daily life, except some infrequent episodes of casual discrimination. She experienced the atmosphere at her workplaces as one of mutual respect with her German colleagues. Katerina continues to live and work in Berlin. “I’m happy to belong to both countries,” she says.
Ares has spent one half of his life in Greece, the other in Germany. For years, he led a normal life here: friends, job, family. But the economic crisis changed his views on his adopted country. As a Greek citizen, he found himself suddenly confronted with a racist escalation in public discourse. Ares Kalandides was born in Athens in 1964. He came to Berlin in 1989. “Two days after the wall came down”.
Ares moved to Berlin at a time when the city was undergoing a complete transformation. His life took some unexpected turns. With a degree in French literature and fluency in several other languages, Ares began working in the field of urban planning. He started in:polis, an urban development company which now employs 14 people, most of whom are German. Ares has consulted on dozens of projects of urban development throughout Germany and Europe and has published several research articles and books. He was among those whom statistics define as “high-skilled migrants”.
When the 2008 crisis hit youth unemployment rates in Southern Europe skyrocketed. Year after year, the percentage of young Greeks without a job kept on rising. In 2013, for example, Eurostat – the European Institute of Statistics – counted 58.3% young Greeks as unemployed.
As a response to the crisis, many young Greeks decided to leave the country. Germany was one of their top destinations, but the flow of immigration triggered a hostile populist reaction among German elites and in public opinion at large.
The perception of a “Greek invasion” entered into the German collective imaginary. However, official data from Eurostatdebunks the myth: The size of the Greek community in Germany has been roughly stable over the last six years.
Twenty-five years ago Ares fled Athens and the depressing atmosphere reigning in Greece in the late eighties. He found an open-minded society in Berlin where he could start a new life and he became a German citizen in 2000. But Ares has become alarmed by the rise of xenophobic rethoric in Germany since the 2008 crisis. The air has became unbreathable. He has ceased perceiving himself as a German-Greek. “If I could, I would give back my German nationality, but it is impossible.”
Irida Baglanea is an actor, dancer and singer. Raised on the small island of Corfu, she also spent long periods in Africa and Latin America. In Athens, she studied acting at Karolos Koun Theatre School and Elliniko Theatre.
Athens 2008: It was here in the Greek capital that the first riots broke out. Initially sparked by the killing of a teenager by the police, the wave of protest soon spread throughout the country. Young Greeks took their frustation about the economic situation of their country to the streets. There were violent clashes with police. Irida joined the demonstrations nearly every day. ”There was pepperspray in the air everywhere, and always a burnt smell.”, she recalls. “War. Every day war.”
Irida moved to Germany in 2010. Many people didn't undertand her choice of destination. Her motivation to come to Berlin was a professional one: She wanted to get involved in Brechtian theatre. “That was my dream,“ she says, “but I didn’t find it. At least not like I imagined it.“
There’s not always just one reason why people move to another country. When the economic crisis hit Europe, all of sudden every migrant from the South was perceived as someone who is looking for money, for a job. But the picture is more complex as the previous chart illustrates.
Her Greek background turned out to be an opportunity as well as an obstacle in her work as an actor in Germany. “The way we do theatre is different in each culture”, Irida explains. “We have a totally different mentality. Of course this effects our work.” She struggles with always being labled a “foreigner”. “I will always have an accent” she states.
Irida is one of the many young people who have left Greece in the last five years. Her case shows that this is never an easy choice or situation. On the one hand, she feels that she should be in Greece to help, to protest, to fight against the crisis. On the other hand, she has built a professional life in Germany. And she feels there are a lot of things to be done about the crisis and about wrong perception here too.
"Heimat (Home) is where your friends are." says Prodromos Tsinikoris, a theater director, dramaturge and performer. Born in the German city of Wuppertal in 1981 as a son to Greek immigrants - his parents came in the early 1970s as guest workers.
Hoping that their son might one day return to their home country, his parents decided to send him to a Greek school. As one of the main destinations for guest workers in West-Germany, North Rhine-Westphalia, currently has 12 Greek schools. These offer primary and secondary education to approximately 1,800 pupils.
After finishing school in 1999 Prodromos enrolled in university in Thessaloniki, Greece , much as his parents had wished. "It was my own choice," Prodromos states, "It felt natural". Since then he has lived in Germany as well as in Greece. Prodromos feels more attached to his Greek friends from university than his childhood friends: "When I’m with them, I feel I’m in the right spot." Right now he's still on the move: He keeps changing apartments in Athens.
Prodromos explored the issue of what is often referred to as "hybrid identity" in his recent theatre production. Its title, "Telemachos– Should I Stay or Should I go?," is derived from Greek mythology. Telemachus is the son of Odysseus who embrarks on a journey in search of news about his missing father. The play deals with Prodromos's experience of being caught up between Germany and Greece. When developing ideas for theatre, Prodromos wants to "discover something interesting happening in society."
"I feel more German when I’m in Greece, and more Greek when I’m in Germany.", Prodromos explains. In conversations about the "others" in either country, he often finds himself in the role of "mediator", confronting common prejudices. Especially since the beginning of the crisis, he he has felt the need to defend Greece from criticism.
As a result of the crisis, Prodromos hesitates to mention his Greek background when asked where he'sfrom. "It's Not because I’m ashamed," he says, "I simply want to avoid stupid jokes." He feels tired of constantly being reminded of a crisis for which he is not responsible.
He criticizes the decline of interest in the situation in Greece in the German media. He pinpoints the likely reason: "We had German and European elections. And we have to keep up appearances. It looks like Greece is doing fine, but it’s not."
This project was realised within the workshop "We Are All Migrants" at the 2014 Berliner Gazette conference SLOW POLITICS. Check out the other projects and outcomes at the documentation page.