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The ‘Lost Antetokounmpos’ of Greece

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Giannis and his brother Thanasis in Sepolia, Athens. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ CC BY 2.0

There are thousands of undocumented kids in Greece like Giannis Antetokounmpo, who along with his brothers, was effectively stateless for the first eighteen years of his life, having no documents from either Nigeria or Greece since his parents had entered the country illegally.

Antetokounmpo, who was born and raised in Sepolia, Athens was granted Greek citizenship only after he was drafted into the NBA in 2013. Just last year, his mother Veronika and his brother Alexandros, also born in Greece, were officially given the same privilege.

The Greek government at the time realized the marketing potential that Giannis’ talent would bring to Greece, and therefore gave him the papers that would enable him to travel to the US and pursue his dream.

He, however, was among the exceptions. Tens of thousands of other men and women who have been born in Greece are not so lucky. Success on the international stage seems to be a rare way of obtaining Greek citizenship or official documents.

But being drafted by the NBA should not be a prerequisite for any young person in order to obtain what is obvious for many—the citizenship of the country where he or she was born.

Undocumented in their country of birth

For an individual without official documents, life can be really tough. The simplest daily task requires a Herculean effort to be completed. Finding a job, sending your children to school, accessing health care services, or even renting a house are things that most often are impossible. The psychological impact of having your birth country reject you and classify you as an undocumented immigrant is likewise problematic.

The example of Giannis Antetokounmpo and his brothers is striking. All they had was a paper from school with their name and a simple word next to the field of nationality: ”allodapos,” a Greek for ”foreigner.” They had neither a passport nor an ID card.

This single word was enough to make their lives difficult. Giannis and his family could not even board a plane since ID was required for their trip. But, of course, it is not just traveling that was bothersome.

“When his basketball team in Greece was traveling by plane for a game, he had to travel alone by bus,” says Giannis Tzikas, a café owner at Giannis’ neighborhood of Sepolia and a family friend of the Antetokounmpo family.

The Antetokounmpo brothers holding the NBA trophy at the Parthenon. Credit: Giannis Antetokounmpo/Facebook

In speaking recently with Greek Reporter, Tzikas, explains how Giannis, Alexandros, and the rest of the family’s young boys struggled with racism and rejection due to their skin color.

When he saw Alexandros, Giannis’ younger brother, having befriended youngsters who were not considered equals, he asked him to stop following them.

It was then that Alexandros said, ”But, Sir, I’m a child as well, [and] I want to play, but no one wants to play with me.”

Tzikas was shocked; it was that moment when he realized that things most people take for granted are what migrants like the kids of the Antetokounmpo family are what they most need—namely, to be accepted.

Unfortunately, this means being accepted in a society that, according to Tzikas, has members who hypocritically now congratulate them but “used to call them derogatory names and chase them with broomsticks.”

“We all know that most migrants are willing to take any job in order to survive in the country where they live,” he said, and “that’s what Giannis Antetokoumpo did when he left high school.”

”He came to me and said he could now work since he had finished school,” Tzikas told Greek Reporter. The café owner, however, told him that instead of getting a low-paying job, he should keep on playing basketball. This is perhaps what changed Giannis’ life forever.

The example of the Greek Freak is a clear indication of what children of undocumented migrants must endure. They are forced to find any type of low-paying job in order to assist their families, and they often can’t afford the ”luxury” of sports.

These people also, of course, have to deal with something even worse: the fear of deportation.

The Stories of Manolis and Sam

In an interview with Greek Reporter, Manolis (Manuel) Oogkounlegie and Sam (who did not want his last name on record), two young men in their early thirties who were raised and continue to live in Greece, spoke out about their personal experiences in the country regarding racism, life opportunities, and nationality at a time when everyone is awestruck by a young man who looks so much like them—Giannis Antetokounmpo.

When asked about their feelings regarding the fact that the nationality laws in Greece change often and make it either easier or more difficult for second-generation migrants to obtain Greek citizenship, Oogkounlegie was clear.

”It annoys me,” he said. “It annoys me very much, I’m not going to lie. It makes me angry. There are so many kids who were born here, myself included, who are denied their rights,” he says with frustration.

”We went to school, we studied, we graduated, our friends are here…I’ve been saying these things for so long, that I’m afraid I’ll sound quaint,” he adds.

He was born in Greece to parents who had arrived to the country decades ago. He was raised in this country, he went to school and learned the language, and he even graduated from a nursing school.

Manolis studied to become a qualified nurse. However, he’s not working as a nurse right now.

”I work in a bar-restaurant until I find something better or create something on my own,” he says in what seems to be the norm for every young Greek nowadays.

”Psychology intrigues me a lot,” he adds.

Unfortunately, the thirty-two-year old is still waiting for his citizenship application to be approved.

When he talks, his accent is purely Greek; there is no way one could say that this man is not Greek. He is just like Giannis in this way, whose Greek accent, when he speaks English, makes everyone smile with pride.

Manolis now lives in Kipseli, a densely-populated downtown Athenian neighborhood. Kipseli is his home as it is to thousands of other individuals who happened to be lucky enough to be born with official documents unlike himself.

Waiting for citizenship since 2017

A similar picture is painted by Sam, as well. ”I submitted my citizenship application in 2017 when the law changed [, and] I’m still waiting,” he says calmly.

Sam is thirty-four. He studied in Greece to become an accountant but now works as a paramedic, helping doctors and nurses save the lives of people in the country.

However, his voice becomes more emotional when he speaks of the difficulties he consistently faces.

”Greece does not recognize the documents issued by Nigeria,” he told Greek Reporter in obvious frustration. “At least, that’s what I’ve been told. Their explanation was that there is widespread corruption there; this is the most racist thing I’ve ever heard in my life.”

After explaining the unbearable bureaucratic procedures he had to go through to obtain just a single proof of his birth, Sam remembered how rude an employee of a diplomatic office was to him at one time.

”Nobody asked you to come to my country,” he was told. “If you don’t like the way I do my job, you can just leave,” were the words uttered to Sam by the bureaucrat while he was trying to validate a document from Nigeria.

Changing Laws

Citizenship laws have changed four times in the last decade in Greece. As a general rule, progressive governments make the procedure easier, but conservative administrations overturn these policies, making it more difficult for second-generation migrants to obtain Greek citizenship.

”Laws change all the time,” Manolis pointed out.

”I know people who haven’t even started their applications yet because they ask way too much from them.” Of course, the problem with documents is not the only obstacle here. Social exclusion used to be and unfortunately continues to be an issue.

Both Manolis and Sam reported that they never endured violent or racist aggression by anyone as part of living in Greece. ”It could be due to my body type. I’m a big guy,” they both said, pointing out a scary fact: The weaker you seem, the more chances you have of being attacked.

Greeks remember the storming of flea markets by Golden Dawn members in 2012 and 2013, where poor migrants became innocent victims of hate.

However, both Manolis and Sam agree that these incidents are not widespread; they hardly even occur now. Fortunately enough, the vast majority of Greek society is indeed tolerant. It’s a very small but loud minority that causes trouble.

”It was during the times when Golden Dawn was prominent here when everyone was scared,” Manolis recalls. ”Things were happening to other people; I didn’t even know them, but I was feeling like these attacks on them, were attacks against me,” he revealed.

Sam shared a similar story. He wasn’t personally attacked or racially abused but had to face many difficulties when he was trying to find a job. Even when he did find employment, nothing was easy. The lack of official documents or a visa make things tough in regard to services or healthcare, he explained.

Giannis Antetokounmpo case highlights hypocrisy

”This is why the situation with Giannis [Antetokounmpo] is considered so hypocritical by some individuals,” he adds. “It drives me crazy.”

”Giannis did it. Shouldn’t this now turn into food for thought for all these people?” Sam asks. “Have they wondered whether there are other Giannises in this world? Not just in sports, what about teachers, for example?”

”If they get the opportunities they need, they’ll achieve so many things; they’ll help in so many ways,” he states. ”Unfortunately, many of them are trapped and can’t raise their heads above this situation.” Sam speaks with regret for all those unknown heroes, whose dreams are hindered for reasons beyond their control and for reasons that are still difficult to understand.

Sam says that: “All these people are people with dreams, talents, and hopes. They graduate from Greek schools, [and] many of them continue and become students at Greek universities. They are ready to offer their services to the economy of this nation, and yet, the difficulties of not having official documents as the children of illegal immigrants pose obstacles with every single step they take: to their enrollment, their graduation, their job applications, their entitlements, everything. This is why many are frustrated.”

This is why Sam and Manolis themselves are saddened by this reality. However, they are not abandoning their efforts.

As Manolis said, ”This is where I was born and raised.” This is not just a country for him. This is his own country!

That’s why him and Sam never wanted to leave the country.

”I’d only leave if I found something much better professionally, that would allow me to progress my career,” Sam explained. ”However, I don’t intend on leaving, no,” he added.

Like Antetokounmpo, Thousands of Those Born in Greece Remain Undocumented

Thousands upon thousands of people, particularly second-generation migrants, may have been born to parents who came to Greece illegally but who know no other homeland but this.

They must cope with the same struggles as their parents despite their being born in the country and raised as Greeks.

Nikos Deji, head of Generation 2.0, a non-profit group consisting of people having different origins who work together to promote equal participation in a diverse society, says that estimating the numbers of second-generation kids awaiting citizenship is very hard, given the lack of reliable statistics.

“A few years ago, we came to the conclusion that around two hundred thousand young people were entitled to Greek citizenship,” he told Greek Reporter. “I am sure that this number has grown since. Only a fraction of them have actually been successful. Many have already left the country.”

Deji says that there is no political will to offer these second-generation migrants equal rights. “The authorities prefer to keep them as ‘hostages’ instead of processing their applications,” he states.

He explains that they would rather offer occasional citizenships according to political propaganda, or clientele expediency. This is what happened with Antetokounmpo. “He was an exception to the rule. Second-generation young people cannot rejoice with the success of Giannis,” Deji states.

The law states that the acquisition of Greek citizenship for those entitled to it should be completed within a period of eighteen months. The activist explains, however, that “unfortunately, there are applications lagging from 2016. Young people remain without papers for years. They are born in Greece but remain migrants in their birth-country for years.”

He tells Greek Reporter that the government promised to create an agency that would speed up the process. “The agency was established in the fall of 2020, but it remains inactive,” he reported. “There is no personnel. Zero applications have been processed since then. It is a joke.”

Hypocrisy is a Greek Word

Deji believes that the triumphant messages many Greek public figures and politicians sent after Antetokounmpo led the Milwaukee Bucks to the first NBA title in half a century reek of hypocrisy.

It appears that politicians are attempting to steal some of the limelight of a global icon who they originally did not appreciate.

He recalls the example of former Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, who granted Greek nationality to Antetokounmpo. Samaras had opposed a 2010 law of the center-left government of George Papandreou that would have given rights—including citizenship—to second-generation migrants whose parents had arrived to the country illegally.

When he assumed office, he sent the law to Greece’s highest court, which annulled it.

A few months later, when Antetokounmpo was drafted into the NBA, he welcomed the basketball player’s family into his office and announced that they were being granted Greek citizenship after many years of being stateless.

Antetokounmpo Greek citizenship
Antetokounmpo and his parents were invited to former Prime Minister Samaras’ office and granted Greek citizenship in 2013. Credit: PM’s press office

Several politicians in Greece back then had no time for Antetokounmpo. Today, as the “Greek Freak” became the King of basketball, the same people who once spoke of him and his African roots with sarcasm are displaying affection and pride for his achievements.

Current PM Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who celebrated the Milwaukee Bucks’ championship, was among those who voted against legislation granting second-generation kids citizenship in 2016.

Antetokounmpo was stateless in Greece until his NBA draft candidacy

Antetokounmpo, like dozens of thousands of second-generation migrants from every corner of the world, was stateless and black in Greece during the 1990s and early 2000s when racism and xenophobia were on the rise.

As the son of African immigrants who had gone to Greece illegally, he was perpetually vulnerable to attacks by racist militants and to threats of deportation to Nigeria, a country he had never even visited.

He sold watches, handbags, and sunglasses on the streets of Athens to survive. Before he was drafted 15th overall by the Milwaukee Bucks in the 2013 NBA draft, he was just another black kid on the block.

“Eight years ago, eight and a half years ago, when I came to the league, I didn’t know where my next meal would come from,” the Greek Freak said in remarks to the press in 2021. “My mom was selling stuff in the street. Now I’m here sitting at the top of the top. I’m extremely blessed.”

He was speaking of a time when the fascist Golden Dawn party—now a criminal organization—became a powerful force in Greek politics. In his neighborhood of Sepolia, Golden Dawn came in first in the local elections of 2014.

Racism, xenophobia in Greece

The mood of the day was brilliantly captured by Pyrros Dimas, the most decorated Greek athlete in the Olympics and widely considered as one of the greatest weightlifters of all time.

Dimas was born to ethnic Greek parents in Albania. He described racism and xenophobia in a recent interview: “When I was getting onto a bus, I always grabbed the highest handle so my hands could be seen. I was afraid that if someone lost a wallet, I would be accused of stealing.”

The three-time Olympic gold medalist said that Greeks are racist towards the weak and the poor. “If I did not become an Olympic champion, I would not have been easily accepted…The same goes for Giannis (Antetokounmpo),” he said.

“If he was left selling CDs, he would simply be a black man selling CDs,” Dimas said. “He was drafted in the NBA and this forced [former Prime Minister] Antonis Samaras to invite him to the PM’s residency and offer Greek citizenship. This is hypocritical.”

“Greeks eventually loved us because we gave what every nation loves the most: pride,” Dimas said.

There are thousands of kids like Antetokounmpo not allowed to unleash their potential in Greece. They are born in the country but remain without citizenship and all the associated rights that come with it.

Although the country has made strides in combating racism, there is still a long way to go before the nation offers full and equal rights to those who are stateless rather than offering citizenship merely to the famous and successful, such as Antetokounmpo and Dimas.

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