Roma Culture and Discrimination in Greece

The past week has been one of the most academically and emotionally challenging weeks of my life.  Monday through Thursday were packed with a full daily agenda that included debriefs, interviews, visits, discussions and mediation.  We spoke with lawyers, government officials, police chiefs, prosecutors, business owners, teachers and professors from the non-Roma community.  We also spoke with Roma from the Roma Association in Nafplio and a Roma camp near Athens.

As our study of discrimination got started with a seminar at the Harvard Center for Hellenic Studies the previous Friday, I became concerned that we may not hear from the Roma side at all.  The speakers were from the local non-Roma community and painted a picture of the Roma that made them sound like they wanted nothing to do anyone outside of their community.  Indeed, it was unclear from our program director how much time we would be spending with the Roma or if we would hear from them at all.

The voices we heard described the Roma as coming from a culture very different than what the non-Roma Greeks and other Western societies were used to.  Stealing was described as part of their culture, as was not wearing shoes and living in tents.  Some speakers went so far as to claim that the Roma had tons of money and received additional funding from the government.  It was hard to believe what they were telling us, and the story got odder and odder with each speaker.  There was even talk of child abuse: not letting children go to school, not giving them proper clothing and health care, etc.  These discussions left me perturbed with the entire program, I didn’t want to come here and change their culture.  Furthermore, I didn’t want to meddle in their affairs uninvited.  If they didn’t want to see me, who am I to barge in?

Toward the end of the week, we began hearing the other side of the story and learning that a lot of what we heard previously was either entirely or at least partially untrue.  I was reminded of the current ‘Fake News’ epidemic in America.  We went to schools that Roma children attended, spoke with their teachers and also met with a group from the Roma Association.  What I saw was not a culture of isolation and distain for popular Greek values, but the life of the very poor and marginalized.  These were not people basking in wealth and uninterested in jobs or education.  The parents wanted their children to go to school, but struggled to put shoes on their feet and food in their bellies.  Government aid was non-existent.  There were no school busses serving Roma camps and most families lacked cars or money to put gas in them.  If they had the opportunity to live in a house instead of a tent, they took it – but most didn’t have that choice.

Of course, there are criminals and drug addicts in the Roma community, but that is not their culture – it’s just as much a problem in non-Roma Greek society as it is among the Roma.  The only significant cultural difference I noticed was the practice of wedding at a young age and having children.  Seen from the Western eye, this is strange and problematic.  Children are frequently wed at age 15 and immediately begin forming a family.  At the same time, they stop attending school if they were lucky enough to be going to one in the first place.  Some parents told us they have their children wait until they are 20 to be married so that they are able to receive a better education.  Of course, being poor and having children exacerbates financial strain, but I struggle to accept the solution being that they stop having children.

As for the other things claimed by the non-Roma Greeks to be part of Roma culture, I see these as no more than a way to mask intensive institutional racism.  The non-Roma Greeks use this narrative of a culture that rejects Western values to justify discrimination.  Being poor and unable to clothe and feed their children is not ‘cultural’ at all, it’s living in poverty.  Having a government that creates laws so that Roma do not have the same opportunities for education and employment as non-Roma is institutional racism.  The situation in Greece makes me both sad and angry.  I heard from non-Roma Greeks about how exotic they thought Roma culture was and how they envied the “free people.”  In reality, what they envied was a fantasy in their heads.  The Roma themselves have the same basic needs as every other human and the non-Roma Greeks need to get their heads out of the clouds and realize how their self-induced fantasy is perpetuating a system of discrimination.

Our program concluded with a visit to a Roma camp that had me holding back tears the entire time.  How can you not walk among these people and see the inescapable poverty that comprises their daily lives?  Yes, Greece is suffering a tremendous economic depression, but that is not justification for institutional racism.  The people we saw had nothing more than clothes on their backs and makeshift shelters.  They try to get electricity, but the government calls it illegal and cuts the wiring.  They apply for legal electricity service, but the government says their houses don’t meet code so they can’t receive it.  We literally saw a school bus drive through their camp with non-Roma children, that didn’t stop for the Roma kids.  The community leader was welcoming but clear about his disdain for the way that the Greek government treats them, acting with the goal of exterminating them rather than helping them.  The children were the most uplifting, but also the reason why I was holding back tears.  They had so much energy and joy, they loved to see us, play with us and tell us (through translation) that they can’t understand what we’re saying.  Their eyes are filled with love and hope.

It was difficult to see all of this and know that there was very little I could do to change anything.  One question I tried to ask as often as I could from the Roma was “How can we help you?”  The answer was consistently “Share what you learn here back in America.”  And so this blog post is the first of my efforts to do just that.  I think we always need to be careful when we hear people speak about “cultural difference” and make sure they aren’t using it as a mask for racism.  I also think that expecting those living in destitute poverty to pull themselves up the economic ladder is unrealistic, especially when their own government is working hard to prevent them from moving up.  Both Roma children and adults must be given access to education, basic health services and work opportunities so they can put food on the table and have reasonable living conditions.  When looking at the budget of the Greek government, the cost of providing these basic services takes up a miniscule percentage.  There is no good excuse for allowing the Roma to continue suffering.

Our program co-directors, Dr. Taso Lagos and Dr. Nektaria Klapaki from the Jackson School of International Studies, are working to develop one or more legacy projects in addition to their ongoing research on discrimination in Greece.  When considering how I might contribute to a legacy project, I was particularly inspired by the discussion of how important poetry and music are to the Roma.  One member of the Roma community told us that his uncle taught himself to read and write in Greek and hopes to soon publish his first book of poems.  He also told us that the Roma Association is working with the Municipality of Nafplio to organize a summer music festival featuring Roma singers.  I am hopeful that I can find a way to help amplify the voice of the Roma through their art, both in Greece and in America.  I’m looking forward to working with Dr. Lagos and Dr. Klapaki on this project.

My experience with the ten-day study abroad program in Greece has been truly life-changing.  The opportunity to travel, see the beautiful places and historic sites as well as meet the people was unique and wonderful on its own, but what made the experience life-changing was the hands-on academic component studying discrimination.  This program has left me with thoughts and ideas I never could have gained in a classroom.  I hope that my story helps inspire others to incorporate study abroad into their education.

Our group with a Roma community outside of Athens.

Dogs of Greece

Since arriving in Greece, it has been surprising to see so many stray dogs wandering the streets.  When we went on a tour of the Acropolis and asked our guide about the dogs, she said there are several reasons why the dogs have been left behind.  In some cases, families can’t afford to care for them since the economic depression hit.  In other cases, they bought the dog and never learned how to care for it.  She said it is common for people to drive their dogs to a park, drop them off and then drive away.

When I heard all of this it was quite heartbreaking.  I have grown up with dogs and love them very much.  However, our guide gave us some good news: There is a large volunteer organization in Greece that cares for the dogs, ensuring they have food and water as well as looking out for their health.  Seeing how these dogs have become a part of the community and how the Greek people care for them has transformed what appeared at first to be an awful situation into a heartwarming one.  Of course, it would probably be better if all of these dogs had homes, but it is nice to see familiar dogs as we wander the town.  The dogs are friendly and love to be petted, they seem to be pretty content with their circumstances.

Here is one of the first dogs we met, laying on the steps up to the Acropolis:

One dog in particular has formed a special bond with our group.  We met her upon arriving in Nafplio and she followed us around as we wandered the city.  One of our group members has fallen in love with the dog and named her Káltses, which is Greek for Socks.  Here she is exploring the beach:

So while there is no doubt that people in Greece are experiencing very tough economic times, it is nice to see how they still come together as a community to care for each other, and for the dogs.

Four days in Greece and so many stories to share

We have packed so much into every day on this Spring Break study abroad, it has been wonderful!  Our second day started with a guided tour of the Acropolis and the New Acropolis Museum.  It was pretty surreal to be walking among ruins that were built seven thousand years ago.  Here we are in front of the Parthenon:

That evening, we explored Athens and did everything from browsing a cool little bookshop to dancing in a Latin-themed club:

On the second day in Athens we dove into the academic part of our program by dispersing in groups of three throughout various neighborhoods in Athens to conduct surveys.  We were focused on gathering the opinions of Greek people about the Roma people.  We had five questions we asked everyone that focused on understanding both their personal opinions of the Roma and how they feel the Roma are treated in general.  My group went to the University District and it was surprising to hear all of the different opinions that people had.  Some thought that a lot needed to be done by the Greek people and government to ensure that the Roma’s rights were protected and that they had the same opportunities as everyone else in Greece.  Other people wanted nothing to do with them and didn’t think anything should be done to help them.  We spoke mainly with students, but also with people who were on breaks from work or waiting for a bus.  It was a bit scary to approach strangers and ask them questions about such a sensitive issue, but ultimately it was a great learning experience.

The survey responses are being collected by our program co-director, Dr. Taso Lagos.  This is the beginning of an on-going research project and I look forward to the results.  The Roma problem is such a complicated issue and it connects with a lot of the same discrimination issues we have in the United States.  I didn’t know anything about the Roma before beginning this program, except that they were a very poor minority group in Greece and around the world.  I still don’t know very much about them, but I am starting to build a basic understanding.

After completing our interviews, we departed Athens for Nafplio, where we are spending the majority of our 10-day spring break study abroad program.  After the two hour bus ride, we were all set aback by how beautiful and calm Nafplio is.  After checking-in to our rooms, we met our local coordinators, Katerina, Nefeli and Tassos, three Greek graduate students, for a group welcome dinner.  As usual, we stuffed ourselves family-style with excellent Greek cuisine.  The coordinators are helpful because of their knowledge of Greece and the Roma people as well as their ability to translate for us.  They are also very friendly and welcoming!

One highlight of Nafplio is the Castle of Palamidi, an ancient castle high up on a cliffside looking over the town and surrounding sea.  After learning about it, a group of us decided we wanted to wake up early in the morning and climb up the 59 stories of steps to watch the sunrise from the castle.  The view as we climbed up was more beautiful than can be put into words:

Unfortunately, when we made it all the way to the top we discovered the gate to the inner part of the castle was closed and didn’t open until 8am.  Here we are in front of the gate, thrilled to have made the journey anyway:

After our morning hike, everyone went on a walking tour of Nafplio where we split into groups led by the coordinators and spoke about the Roma with business owners and other people who were not busy.  It was very helpful to have the coordinators there to translate.  My group met with a group of elderly men in a cafe as well as someone from the restaurant where we had dinner the previous evening.  The second person told us that he has a Roma employee who has worked for him over 20 years.  The employee was willing to speak with us, and through translation we learned how grateful he was to have work and that many of his childhood friends had died young because of the circumstances that they were living in.  The biggest change he hopes to see is that more Roma are able to find employment, but we have learned this issue is more complicated than it appears.  The Roma are largely uneducated, sometimes only attending a few months of school as a child.  Without basic education, job options in the depressed Greek economy are almost impossible to find.

Later in the day, we met for a seminar at the Harvard Center for Hellenic Studies, where we are being hosted for our program in Nafplio.  Three local officials spoke and gave us their take on the Roma problem in Greece.  It was interesting to hear their perspective and many of us left with more questions than answers, which was probably a good thing.  What makes things truly challenging is that it is difficult and perhaps impossible to meet with the Roma themselves, aside from those that are begging on the streets (usually children).  Initially, I thought the “Roma problem” was about crime, but the government and local experts we spoke with said that they are more concerned with the abuses that are perpetuated within Roma society.  Children being prevented from receiving proper education and health care is one of the abuses we learned about that disturbs me the most.  In this way, the Greek people seem more concerned with ending the abuses than with cultural assimilation.  How to approach this is a very difficult question we will continue to explore.

After the seminar, we had a group lunch followed by some free time to explore the town on our own.  Here we all are standing by the water after the seminar:

I’m amazed by how much we have done in the first four days, it has been more fun and educational than I ever imagined!  Stay tuned for my next update which will include a heart-warming story about the dogs in Greece.


Hello from Athens!

I arrived in Athens yesterday (Tuesday) afternoon along with the other 16 students participating in the UW Spring Break program in Greece.  The faculty leading our program arranged for vans to pick us up from the airport, which made getting to the hotel a breeze.  Our rooms were ready when we arrived, I’m sharing a beautiful suite with two other guys on the trip.  Check out the view of the Acropolis from our balcony:

I was exhausted after going about 25 hours without sleep, so I took a nap after checking-in and then joined the group for our first dinner together in Greece!  We went to a local taverna our faculty leader selected and ate tons of excellent Greek food family-style.  Here we are (that’s me hiding in the back-right):

Now it’s Wednesday morning and after a nice breakfast at the hotel we’re preparing to go tour the Acropolis and the New Acropolis Museum.  So far, the people in Greece have been warm and welcoming – I can’t wait to explore the city, learn the history and meet more of the community!

Don’t forget your passport and Financial Aid

Two of the most important things I had to do in preparation for my upcoming spring break study abroad in Greece were to renew my passport and update my financial aid.  These are both things you can begin working on before you have even applied to a program, and I highly recommend addressing them as early as possible!

My passport was due to expire in September 2017 and with my program occurring in March, I was right on the line of the six month mark that everyone talks about.  The Department of State warns travelers that they may not be admitted into another country if their passport expires within six months.  Furthermore, they recommend renewing your passport nine months before it expires.  Once I knew for sure that I would be participating in the study abroad program, it was already January and I was concerned that if I sent in my passport for renewal, I might not get my renewed passport in time.  Again, the Department of State website is a useful reference, their guide says that if your travel is more than 4-6 weeks away standard processing will return your passport in time.  There are also expedited options that are more expensive.

I sent in my passport for standard processing and had my new passport back in about two weeks, faster than I expected!  Of course, your experience may be different – but I recommend following the recommendations from the Department of State and renew your passport nine months before it expires, even if you’re unsure of when you will need it next.

Now, Financial Aid: When I applied to my study abroad program, I saw that a study abroad revision request needed to be filed with the program budget and assumed this would be a simple process.  I was wrong!  While filing the budget revision request is an important part of preparing to study abroad, I learned that I should have met with Financial Aid far earlier than I did.  To begin with, not all study abroad programs are approved for funding from Financial Aid.  Before applying, it might be a good idea to speak with the Financial Aid office, or at least send them an e-mail, and check to ensure the program you’re considering is approved.  Also, just because you adjust your budget doesn’t mean additional funds will magically appear and be delivered when you need them.  If you request a draft program budget from the Study Abroad office, you can take this to an appointment with Financial Aid and they can give you an idea of whether funds will be available and when you would receive them.

Typically, funds are delivered the first day of the quarter you are studying abroad.  However, if your program starts later, funds aren’t delivered until the program start date.  If your program starts early, you still will not receive funds until the first day of the quarter.  This is usually fine as the program fee is not due until after the program starts, but some programs require paying earlier.  Also, for the best deal on airfare its a good idea to make a booking about three months in advance, so plan ahead to know how you will finance things!  Also, if you are a recipient of the UW Bothell Study Abroad Scholarship, note that the award is not delivered to you until the beginning of the quarter after your study abroad program.

I hope you learn from my mistakes and start thinking about your passport and financial aid as early as possible.  Both the Study Abroad and Financial Aid offices are happy to meet with you before you’ve even decided if you want to study abroad and are excellent resources to work with throughout your search and application process.

I Can’t Believe This Is Happening

Blog by Philip Palios, Culture Literature and the Arts, JSIS: Greece in Relation to Europe and the Balkans: Travelers, Migrants, and Tourists

My grandfather arrived in Seattle while working as a chef on an oil tanker in 1953.  He was far from his home on the Greek island of Chios, but decided to jump ship and start a new life in America.  When my father tells me this story, he reminds me that “immigration was different back then.”  Throughout my life, I have learned about my Greek heritage and formed a strong appreciation and curiosity about the country and its culture.  I have wanted to visit Greece for many years, but have never had the opportunity. So, when I was browsing study abroad listings, the Jackson School of International Studies (JSIS) spring break program in Greece struck my interest.

Dr. Taso Lagos has been leading study abroad trips to Greece for the past twelve years.  The theme of the program has changed over time, but always focuses on particular social issues.  Last summer, the focus was on discrimination against the Roma people living in Greece.  In addition to being the most discriminated against people in the country, the Roma face similar discrimination throughout the world.  The summer program worked with the Greek government and the Roma people to better understand the conflict and possibilities for reconciliation.  This theme will continue to be explored through hands-on learning during the spring break program and was a key reason for my choice to apply.

Discrimination and violence against ‘the other’ has existed throughout history and my education thus far has helped me learn about the many forms in which it has occurred.  Lately, my interests have evolved to focus on the cultural history of conflict and specifically the artistic ways in which the oppressed respond to their circumstances and fight for justice.  It is through this lens that I intend to learn more about the Roma.

I am delighted to be participating in the JSIS spring break program in Greece and to receive the UW Bothell Study Abroad Scholarship.  As a UW Bothell Study Abroad Ambassador, I will be writing blog posts leading up to, during and following my trip to Greece.  My posts will discuss what I learn about the conflict in Greece, my experience amidst Greek culture, the natural and built environment, as well as the practicalities of my journey.  I will also be sharing lots of photos and videos.

In preparation for the program, I am taking a course on “Greece Today” taught by Dr. Nektaria Klapaki (who will also be co-leading the spring break trip with Dr. Lagos).  As my March 13th departure approaches, I will be sharing what I learn in this course as it relates to the study abroad program as well as my experience preparing for the trip.  Stay tuned!