The Strange Case of Odysseas Tsenai

In the news today the Comission and Spain/Poland are still haggling over the price of the constitution. Meantime from another pole of Europe, a curious story of one young Albanian, and the struggle to assert his elementary rights in his new homeland: Greece. My feeling is that in our current preoccupations, our conception of Europe lies too far to the North and too far to the West. I also think, that when we come to look at the contribution and participation of immigrants in Europe, we all too often forget the adversity they face.

Background: in 1990 the Greek Alabania border opened. Over the mountains and across the sea the Albanians started arriving in Greece. Their numbers were large but never counted: their number still constitutes material for scare stories on popular Greek TV. The actual number is unknown but it might be as high as a million all over Greece (if you include the ethnic Greek Albanians ). The first arrivals came from a country whose isolation was proverbial. They were destitute, blinded by the city lights and the consumer goods, and clueless as to what they could do to earn a living.

At the end of the 1990s (following the painful collapse of the Albanian pyramid schemes which took with them the hard earned savings of a generation of Albanian immigrants – the topic of immigrants and saving will be the subject of a subsequent post), more Albanians arrived and more settled permanently as, finally, Greece decided to legalize all the undocumented workers and give them Green cards. Now – suddenly – the schools were full of Albanian children and with them the first successful cases of Albanian students passing the university entrance exams. For the first time Albanian newspapers were published in Athens, Albanian politicians held election rallies in Greek cities, the National Greek Opera had Albanian dancers in its cast, the World Champion in female javelin from Greece was Albanian, together with a large part of the Greek weightlifting dream-team that has dominated two successive Olympics. Theatre companies and rap groups composed of Albanian immigrants and Albanian journalists writing in Greek papers have now become a regular part of national life. Greeks slowly and with difficultly began to get used to the reality (and some to the necessity) of living with the Albanian immigrants. But then three years ago there was an incident which, while lamentable in itself, serves very well as an example of the kind of issues of migration, inclusion, assimilation, national and European identity etc, which might usefully be borne in mind by our leaders when they get down to framing the document they have in hand. What follows was sent to me by Talos, who many of you will already know from the comments section, and who others may be interested enough to read in his own blog Histologion (I am also grateful to him for providing me with the background information which forms the basis of this post).

Odysseas Tsenai (Oddisej Qena)was a high-school student in Nea Mechaniona, a town near Thessaloniki. He was the son of Albanian immigrants and a great student despite his recent arrival and initial inability to speak the Greek language. He was actually too good for his own good.

By custom in Greek schools, the best student of a particular school is awarded
the honour of holding the Greek flag on the national holiday parades
(the parades themselves are a militaristic anachronism, the product of a
fascist dictatorship in the 1930’s and should be stopped anyway).
Odysseas was the best student according to his grades and his teachers
board decided that he was the one who should carry the flag. Odysseas
accepted, saying it would be an honor and a very proud moment for him. At
that time there were a number of other Albanian students in other high
schools and lykeia (the three last years of high school) around Greece
that were similarly awarded (Not much was made of these other cases as
there seemed to be less disagreement on having immigrants as flag

The local parents council in Nea Mechaniona though, freaked out. Instead of seeing this (at least) as a move towards assimilation, they considered it a national disgrace: an Albanian was carrying our symbol and there was no way that this should be allowed and it was against the law anyway. They were right about the last part, but in a lightning move (and to its credit) the ministry of education modified the law, thus allowing Odysseas to bear the flag after all. The parents threatened a boycott of all festivities. Faced with such mind boggling arrogance, xenophobia, plain stupidity and despite the teachers council decision to back him regardless of any reactions, Odysseas gracefully said that he would not accept the flag because he didn’t want to cause a disturbance in the ceremony or the parade.

This became a national issue quickly, the media running with it with all sorts of interviews and live coverage. To their credit all the main parties and the President of the Greek republic stood by Odysseas. So did the teachers unions. But there were 50% of people in opinion polls that were against Odysseas raising the flag, a sign that socially immigrants were far from universally accepted even when they excelled. So Odysseas, soon after this, and obviously needing to feel part of the society he grew up in, decided to be baptized as an Orthodox Christian (something astoundingly frequent among Albanians living in Greece). One of his godfathers was a big time TV journalist who championed his cause. All seemed to be going fine for Odysseas, but, annoyingly he still remained a great student.

Thus this year as he was finishing the lykeion, he still remained the best student in the school. Again the teachers had no qualms about awarding him the flag and surprisingly it was deja-vu. I’ll let the news stories describe the events:

Flag row revives as Odhise still tops class. No citizenship for the Qena family. Support to Tsenai. Best pupil denied right to carry Greek flag for being Albanian. Controversy over Greek flag bearer continues.

Finally here is the good news: The top politicians of all parties and most of the MPs for both the Socialists and the Conservatives (and all the leftist MPs) were 100% behind Qena. The teachers both in Nea Mechaniona and through their unions as well, most serious commentators, artists, media personalities most (if not all) were supportive of Odysseas selection. Tens of other immigrant students around Greece marched with the flag with little or no problem (one or two exceptions when far right groups tried to create a scene at the parade).

Now for the bad news: this time most of his fellow students were against him. The town seemed to isolate those of the students and parents. Again public opinion is split on it (most common opinion: if he is a good student they should give him another kind of award and not the flag). It seems that the far right is using this to recruit new members. For the first time I think that a far right party might be able to elect MPs. See this on why I’m worried.

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About Edward Hugh

Edward 'the bonobo is a Catalan economist of British extraction. After being born, brought-up and educated in the United Kingdom, Edward subsequently settled in Barcelona where he has now lived for over 15 years. As a consequence Edward considers himself to be "Catalan by adoption". He has also to some extent been "adopted by Catalonia", since throughout the current economic crisis he has been a constant voice on TV, radio and in the press arguing in favor of the need for some kind of internal devaluation if Spain wants to stay inside the Euro. By inclination he is a macro economist, but his obsession with trying to understand the economic impact of demographic changes has often taken him far from home, off and away from the more tranquil and placid pastures of the dismal science, into the bracken and thicket of demography, anthropology, biology, sociology and systems theory. All of which has lead him to ask himself whether Thomas Wolfe was not in fact right when he asserted that the fact of the matter is "you can never go home again".

1 thought on “The Strange Case of Odysseas Tsenai

  1. Greece has a history of denial about its ethnolinguistic nature and of using oppressive measures to make the state fit a vision of a monolingual, monoethnic, Orthodox Greek state. I was shocked in the late 80’s to find cultured, British educated Greeks talking about how generous the Greek state is to permit foreigners like the Turks and Macedonians to live on Greek soil, in areas that were hardly Greek at all until the Balkan wars.

    As recently as last year, the Greek Foreign Minister said: “We understand that there are certain people who see the existence of other minorities in Greece. But the reality is that there are, in certain parts of the country, bilingual Greeks, who may also have adopted an oral tradition, but do not consider themselves to be minorities.”

    The worst of it is gone, and I’m inclined to simply view it as a good sign that at least the mainstream parties are on the right side. Greece has long been a sore spot in European policy towards minorities.

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