Author: Thomas Hieber
Category: Diasporas, Media and Communications, World Faiths
The sun was shining brightly as I stepped out of Athens ‘Evangelismos’ metro station on my way to the Pakistan consulate which is located in the very center of the Greek capital, just across from the German consulate. As I was walking up the road, my eyes caught sight of a group of five young men who looked like people from Pakistan, perhaps in their twenties, sitting on the pavement. A little further up the road, I could see scores of other young men waiting in front of a tall grey office building. This must be the place I was looking for. I had read articles and stories about the large crowds in front of the Pakistani consulate on the internet. Finally I had the chance to see for myself and I wanted to hear their stories of how they came to Greece.
As I approached the group of five men I was greeted with friendly nods. Normally no tourist in Athens would bother to talk to them so any change in their daily routine was welcomed. Every morning from seven thirty to about twelve thirty they would come to this place. They and all the others up the road would wait and see if they would be called in that day for an interview or at least to be able to present their papers to the guard who was manning the iron gate. All of them needed a new passport and a National Identity Card for Overseas Pakistanis but only around 20-25 people each day would be called in I was told. Some days up to one thousand would come to this place as this is the only place in Greece where nationals from Pakistan can get their problems sorted out. So the hopes were not very high that morning as I talked to them.
The stories they tell me are all similar. Agents from Pakistan would visit the villages to recruit those willing to go overseas. To raise money for the journey families had to sell land or borrow money from other relatives. The mode of transport would frequently change from walking, riding donkeys, or using a car or train till they arrive at the border of Iran.
“We were then handed over to the Iranian agent, who made us walk and ride through the mountainous terrain and passed us on to the Turkish agent. Again we walked in the night through the mountains and rested in the morning. Eventually, after travelling for two months, we were delivered to the Greek agent, who took money and left us to fend for ourselves. Once you are in Greece, your own people will take care of you that is what we were told by the agent.”
It is a hopeless situation for many of these young, uneducated men from the rural areas of Pakistan. Greedy agents in Pakistan and other places are to blame for the situation in Greece who exploit and lure them to Europe with false hopes. Those willing to immigrate were told that Europe is good for work but now they experience scores of problems All of them had thrown away their papers and most had spent between 6 -7.000 Euros, some up to 10.000 Euro for the journey. If they are lucky they can share a room with five to eight people for the cost of 250 Euro per month – without bathroom or toilet. Many others who are less fortunate have to spend the night somewhere outside in one of the many parks or in other roofed places to get at least some shelter.
Meanwhile a few more had gathered around us. I told them that I was sorry for the hardships they had to endure but there was little I could do right now apart from praying. They were open to my suggestion and so I prayed for them, their families back home and their situation in Greece. All of them listened as I asked God to intervene in their situation and to show them the next steps. Before I left I gave one of them a copy of the story of Jesus Christ in their mother tongue. I am sure that DVD will be watched by more than just the few I had met that morning by the road side in Athens.
Later that day I had a meeting with ‘President Victor’ as he was called, the chairman of the Sikh Gurdwara in Athens. His story about the 12-15 000 Punjabis in Greece is similar to what I had heard earlier. As one of the first irregular immigrants to Greece in 1973 he has a fairly accurate picture of the current situation. Now that he has proper papers he is not afraid to explain the state of the Punjabi community to me of which apparently 70-80 % are irregulars. “Most of them are uneducated and poor and that is one of the reasons why the agents in India can tell them anything”, he explains. “Many ask for asylum in Athens but the authorities are unpredictable in how they handle these cases. Sometimes it would take a few weeks or months and at other times it could take years”. When I asked him why this is not reported back to the people in the Punjab he said: " A few tell at home ‘oh it worked!’ and a few tell ‘stay at home!’ so they don’t know what to do and come! The uneducated don’t know how to judge such situation and continue their journey to the ‘promised lands’ of Europe.” He further explained, “I can’t promise them papers but I give them some work at the Gurdwara and free food which is more that many get on the streets of Athens.”
It is difficult to get accurate numbers of all the South Asian Diaspora groups that are in Greece these days but they certainly number more than 130 000 altogether of which the Pakistanis are the largest with about 100 000 followed by the Indian and the Bangladeshi communities.
The latter are seen on the streets of Athens and Piraeus selling flowers, fruits, small electronic items or cheap toys from China. The South Asian Diaspora is just one group of many that congregate in Athens. The total numbers of refugees and irregulars in Athens are likely to come up to at least 500 000 or more! In some parts of the city one hardly sees a Greek person and in some public squares there are more refugees and immigrants than tourists and locals. The Greek government is unable to cope with the influx of these people and there is hardly any help from the public authorities.
Is there any hope and a future for them in Europe? Can they partake in Europe’s economy and find work to support their families back home? To be honest I do not have a satisfying answer. The current trend in Greece is disturbing. A recent survey shows that 45 percent of all Greeks are against immigrants. This resentment is on the rise because of the serious economic crisis in the country. Recently I read in an article that extreme nationalistic groups are using the situation for their purposes. They create even more fear in certain inner-city neighborhoods through violence and racial attacks on the immigrants.
While the problems in these immigrant neighborhoods are many, violence does nothing to solve them. Many refugees face daily threats at the hands of these right-wing groups.
Though the situation for the South Asian Diaspora immigrants looks bleak, God is using these circumstances to draw people to himself. I was able to meet two small groups of believers from Pakistan and India and had fellowship with them. In spite of the challenges they meet for worship, prayer, mutual encouragement and fellowship. A few expatriate workers give them support and help in practical ways. Some have come to faith in Jesus Christ while struggling to survive in Athens.
A group of individuals and a church have plans to open a help center for the South Asian immigrants in the Piraeus area but there are some details that need to be worked out first. Would you pray with me that God will use the situation of these desperate people and draw many to himself, also that the Church in Greece would take up the challenge to love their neighbors from South Asia in practical ways? Please pray, that this help center will be established so that many can find hope, peace and a reason to live.
There is much that needs to be done and we need more people who will pray and are willing to go and share the message of hope, love and forgiveness with the South Asian immigrants and refugees in our European cities.