| Hellenic Foundation for European & Foreign Policy
 

Public debate: Success stories of integration in Greek and Dutch Society, 14/02/2012

The Hellenic Foundation for European & Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP) and the Embassy of the Kingdom of The Netherlands in Athens organized on the 14th of February 2012 a discussion on success stories of integration in Greek and Dutch society, kindly hosted by the European Parliament Office in Athens. The discussion floor was opened by H.E. the Ambassador of the Kingdom of The Netherlands in Athens, Mr Kees van Rij. Mr Van Rij talked about the initial difficulties that foreign people have in comprehending the realities of host countries, language being one of them, and introduced the Iranian origin Dutch writer Kader Abdolah who has written lots of best sellers in the Dutch language and won many literary prizes in the Netherlands.  The moderator of the discussion, Prof. Antigone Lyberaki (Panteion University, Scientific Advisor, ELIAMEP), presented the Albanian origin journalist/writer in the Greek language, Dr Gazmend Kapllani, and talked about the particularly difficult task, to be discussed, of reaching excellence in the arena of writing in a different to the mother-tongue language compared to other areas that foreign origin persons perform (painters, dancers, athletes etc). She asked the two writers first about their initial steps in the Netherlands and Greece respectively, since they both migrated as adults and integration, in this case, goes through more complex layers as opposed to people migrating at a young age. Secondly, she asked their views on the question of integration during crises. In her own words, ‘how does it feel to work and live in immigration countries like these in good times and bad times’?

The floor was first given to Mr Abdolah. He first talked about his dreams as a young man in his country of origin, Iran, and explained that he did not want to leave his country and emigrate: ‘‘I’m a Persian dutch writer. I didn’t want to live my country. Actually I neither wanted to leave my home nor my language because I had two dreams in my own country. my first dream was ‘I wanted to be a writer, a big well-known Persian writer’. My second dream: I wanted to be a president of my country. There was another reason: my dad was not able to talk and read. therefore I had to stay with him as an interpreter. I interpreted the big world to him. I was not allowed to leave my father. But I did. I let my dreams down, and I escaped my country’’. Mr Abdolah talked about the extreme difficulties of living in transit in Istanbul (a situation encountered in Athens today too) and the way he was smuggled from Istanbul to the Netherlands. He went on talking about the immensely difficult experience of living in Amsterdam as a refugee with no understanding of the language but with the desire to become a writer: ‘‘I couldn’t talk with them. I was someone in my country; there I was a refugee. I tried to explain myself to my neighbors, but I couldn’t. I became aggressive. I was not able to write, to explain myself. But I remembered the old Persian saying. If you fall very deeply, then you come actually very close to god. And I started writing in dutch with thousands of mistakes.  Suddenly I was writing in dutch. I was free, I went up, down, past cultural and religious bricks. Whenever I tried to correct myself, I was making a new eye, giving myself a new identity and after twenty years I have written 17 books in dutch, and the dutch language… I have made it even more beautiful than it was’’.

Gazi Kapllani first related his talk to the recent events witnessing the assault on the urban face of Athens. Coming from a small city in Albania, Lushjna, he said he wanted to leave his country and that his identity was formed by trying to find out what lies beyond the Albanian borders. In fact, ‘‘my urban identity is created in Athens. And Attikon [which was recently burned by rioters] was the cinema where I saw the first movie in Athens’’.  He went on to say that integration is what is at stake with regard to both these events and tonight’s discussion; that sometimes integration is reflected in the freedom that one has to be ‘successfully not integrated’; and that the issue of integration concerns both Greeks and foreigners: ‘‘I feel many times that I’m successfully not integrated. I don’t own a car. Therefore I don’t park illegally. I don’t belong to any religion; I was not hoping to find a job in the public sector; I don’t believe that we are born Greeks or Albanians. But we become it’’. Going back to the issue of becoming a writer in a foreign language, Dr. Kapllani said that he didn’t imagine it from beforehand. ‘‘I left the detention centre and in 12 hrs I found myself ahead of a huge library where one of the main pictures was Marx. That was a big irony for my country. on the other hand, I said ‘Here you are. That’s what you wanted’. Then after many difficulties and years I went to university. I was writing poetry in Albanian until my 29 years. I stopped writing poetry and began writing some small articles in greek newspapers. Always not being paid. In the beginning. I was a rather exotic presence at the beginning. Afterwards I had a column in a big Greek newspaper and then I had 2 columns. And one day I received a phone call from a greek publisher and they said we want you to write an essay for us. I sat down, I began writing and after two days I realised I was writing a novel. And I said to them, I’m writing a novel. They said ‘we said write an essay, not a novel’. Eventually, they took the book and they published it and it was successful’’.

Then Prof. Lyberaki asked the two speakers about how they feel about the European identity: ‘‘you juggle with a dual identity; you work in a language that is not your own. How does the European identity as a third player comes into this equilibrium? Is it there?’’.

Mr Abdollah said that writing in a new language for him meant envisaging a new Netherlands, and a new Europe. ‘‘I wasn’t alone. It was a good sign that Europe is changing and Europe needs a new voice, Europe needs new artists to show the beauty of itself (Europe) to the Europeans.  Europe is changing’’. For him the immigration waves of the last 20 years gave birth to a new culture and, eventually, a new literature in the Netherlands. Contesting the theory of the clash of civilisations of Huddington, Dr Kapllani argued that his identity is not a collage of identities, but a single one: ‘‘I say it’s one, made with different parts of my life; with Albanian and Greek culture and language. We are not fragmented persons trying to reconcile our different parts. My different parts make me richer. They ask haven’t you discovered something new from the passage in one to the other identity? I say yes….the unbearable similarity of the other. This Balkan syndrome is a globalised syndrome. I will overthrow the theory of Huddington. And I will argue that the clash is caused out of similarity and we invent ways of separating ourselves’’. He went on to question what national identity means in the new immigration Europe. He argued that immigration has meant two things in Greece and Europe: cheap labour and legal inferiority on the one hand, opportunity to see the world with a different eye on the other. However, allowing the migrants to be a source of richness requires changing the perspective of the natives, he noted. ‘‘ The case of a guy with parents from Africa whose name is odysseys who feels Greek, born in Greece, can you teach to him that someone is born Greek and not become Greek? You have to change your whole perception in order not to make him paranoid’’. Mr Abdolah added that both the Dutch and the migrants have changed during the last 20 years. ‘‘Now every newspaper has 10 -20 different columnists because they look in another way to the problems’’.

Prof. Lyberaki invited the audience to pose questions to the writers. Mr Abdolah was asked about the threat to the Dutch model of integration by the growing numbers of immigrants. He replied that there are of course problems but the good news is that the Dutch society (on its whole) is struggling to solve them. ‘‘The first reaction was shock. And the other reaction was that these people are worth something. And I think that the dutch society tries to win from the ‘gold’ of these people’’. Dr Kapllani used the words of the Greek philosopher Kastoriades, ‘human beings are more in a natural state when they are xenophobic’, and expressed his deep concern about democracy in Greece and in the Balkans. The words of a border guard in the US, narrated by Dr Kapllani, probably depict best what migration means for Greece and for Europe on its whole ‘‘I am afraid that these people are coming here. But it’s good that they coming; it’s a good sign. It would not be a good sign if they were not coming’’.

Mr Abdolah agreeing with Dr Kapllani added ‘‘Greeks say, I’m beautiful I don’t need you, I close the doors. If you wish to remain beautiful you need to open the doors’’.

As a final note, we quote the intervention of an undocumented refugee from Afghanistan at the end of the discussion. ‘‘I’m from Afghanistan. I have the same problems that Kader had. The same problem that kader had in Turkey I have now in Greece. I’ve studied music and my wife is now in Germany and I try every day to go there but it is not possible to do that. This is a wonderful meeting here for me and to see that immigrants can be successful in another country. And it is good news what I hear now. I have dreams and I wanted to become the best pianist in Afghanistan and in the world. I’m very optimistic and I hope I can reach my wife to start a new life as a musician and as an afghan abroad’’.

 
 
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