Marios and Mirela came to Greece 24 years ago, and their children were born here. They cultivate garlic − a local product which has helped the region of Platykampos, Larissa, gain international attention. But they are still waiting for Greek citizenship.
During the summer months, the Thessalian plain is filled with the aroma of garlic.
During this period, workers can be found in backyards, where there are large open warehouses, making long braids of garlic. Small trucks arrive and roam the streets of the village, and the Romá traders bargain with the producers for the price of garlic, which they will then resell in the farmer’s markets in cities − for perhaps triple the price, as the producers say.
Last July, under the shade of a makeshift shed, where they house their own crop, I met Mario and his wife Mirela. Mario was braiding garlic, while Mirela was at home finishing chores. “I’ll tell her to come, to show you how to braid garlic.” Marios tells me. “She can do it better and faster than I can.”
The Albanian couple lives with their two sons in Platykampos, Larissa, one of the main garlic-producing regions in Greece, which recently attracted the interest of the Japanese pharmaceutical company Wakunaga, connecting the Thessalian village to an international market.
Marios and Mirela have been living in Greece for a little over twenty years. Marios came first, crossing the border on foot between Greece and Albania.
A few years later, Mirela followed, pregnant with their first son, arriving in the town where they still live today, in a taxi. The interview was originally planned only with Mario, with the aim of creating a “portrait” – a personal testimony – of a young male migrant from Albania, to highlight aspects of the reality of his life in Greece, to be published alongside the portraits of other young male refugees and migrants for Solomon’s Last in Line project.
But on that day, Mirela put her chores aside, and came to the interview. She told us their story through her own perspective. After all, the stories of the two are interconnected and one is an integral part of the other.
How Olsi became Marios
Marios: My real name is Olsi. When I was in Agiá, they started calling me Mario. Marios, Marios, Marios, and so I got used to it. I liked the name and kept it.
Mirela: Whenever they ask me my husband’s name, I never say Marios. I say Olsi. And I tell him to introduce himself with his real name. In the end, some call him Marios and some call him Olsi. All this came about because they can’t pronounce the name O-l-s-i. But why can’t they? It’s nothing. It’s four letters! There are Greeks who say it so clearly, so beautifully!
I didn’t want to change my name at all. Whoever wants to say it, will say it. They used to tell us, and they still tell us, what kind of names are those? And there are some lovely names! However, I know there are also some old-fashioned names that we don’t like either. But that has nothing to do with it.
Marios: I crossed the border from Albania to Greece for the first time in 1996, at the end of March. I was around 18 and had just finished my time as a soldier. With me were two other people my age, all men. We were from the same village and we knew each other.
When I arrived in Greece, I stayed in Grevena for three months. We chopped and transported wood to the mountain. We lived outside in a makeshift nylon tent. Very difficult job. I stayed there for three to four months, then I went back to Albania, I stayed for two weeks and then I came back here.
We were just kids. Are we sick of it here? Let’s go back to Albania again. I’d stay for a while and then it was back again through Gramos. A lot of people did that. I went back and forth three times on foot.
I passed through Gramos, Deskati, Grevena, Trikala, Kalambaka, and Larissa. All on foot. The most difficult part was Gramos. One week in the snow without water, without food and without shoes. We slept in an old house, dripping with melting snow, we were soaked and the only thing we felt was exhaustion. We’d wake up frozen.
Mirela: I listen to the stories from Marios and his friends -because I didn’t try it on foot- how many bodies they came across as they crossed Gramos! Corpses being eaten by wolves.
Marios: It’s true, it was more difficult for us Albanian men. We’ve gone through unspeakable things. To see people killed, slaughtered in the mountains, it’s very difficult. There were no smugglers to help you cross the border and you never knew exactly where the route was. We passed through some places where the border was not guarded, we just kept going to see where we’d end up. There are still so many mothers who are looking for their children! After so many years, they can’t find them.
And then there were those who appeared on Gramos wearing hoods, and as people passed, they’d stop them, threaten them with a knife and steal their money. Fear prevailed. Until we finally arrived, we always had our hands on our hearts. I had a friend from my village, he came fifteen times, he was caught fifteen times. And beatings? He spent two years in the hospital in Albania. He was beaten with shovels, with axes, with whatever they had. He had climbed up a tree and they cut the whole thing down so they could get him.
The third time I crossed the border I said that I’d never go back to Albania again. In 1998, I filed my papers at OAED (Greek employment organization).
Mirela: I crossed the border with a fake passport. I mean, not fake, it was a real passport, they just made the photo look a bit like me. We paid, it was very expensive, €2,000-€3,000. About two-three people could cross using the same identity card.
I reached the border. I was pregnant and there was a meter of snow on the ground. The smuggler was watching from above on the mountain to see what would happen. Of course, from the moment I arrived at the border, he didn’t know me. That was it for him, up to that point. And on the other side of the border, the taxi driver was anxiously waiting. He also wanted money.
On the Albanian side, the police officer who stamps your document, insisted that I sign a paper stating that I, so and so, have a fake ID. In short, he was just another person wanting money. If no one was to pass, no one would pass. End of story. But a whole other system operates under the table.
You will sign what I tell you to, he said. Why should I? I answered him. Silence. He put me aside for five minutes and then started again. What’s your name? Date of birth? I had to answer with the information of the woman on the ID. So, he’d leave me aside with the others, to confuse me and make me forget. While he was questioning someone else, he’d turn to me again. And he was aggressive so I would get scared and forget what I was saying. This happened four or five times. At one point he said, you have memorized it very well. And I answered, What? Why would I not know my name and when I was born? Again, I’d be put aside in the corner.
Finally, I told him I’ll agree to sign. But I will write that you are forcing me to state false information. He went crazy! No, no. He came at me, grabbed my paper and tore it. What did you do? he said. What I told you. I said I would write what I want, not what you tell me. And there was someone there who was from Mario’s village, from Ersekë in Gramos, and he said why are you bothering this pregnant woman, leave her be, enough is enough. There, on the Greek side, they’d just stamp your document. If they’d already stamped it on the Albanian border, then the Greeks over here – it was easy for them to let you pass. And if they saw a woman who was pregnant or with a small child, they’d let them pass first.
I got in the taxi and that’s where the torment ended for the time being. The taxi brought me to Platykampos. I remember that there was also snow here. We went to a friend’s house and Marios took me for a walk outside to get some air, and I looked around and said what kind of a place did you bring me to? He told me that things wouldn’t be like this, that things would get better. That this isn’t the town we’d live in, we’d go somewhere else. So, we left and at some point, as we were in the car, we turned off the road and entered a dirt road. We went to the facility where Marios lived and worked.
Marios: We lived in a small house, where the animals I worked with were kept. It was a room. Difficult, very difficult. At least we had a bathroom. It wasn’t like the house we have now. But you know, wherever you go you get used to it, you learn.
Mirela: We arrive and what should I see? The person living in the room before us, and the things he had used, were still there. How could I sleep there? I took everything off the bed, even the mattress, you could see the bed frame underneath. I opened the suitcase and used my own sheets that I had brought from Albania.
You’re a pregnant woman, how can you sleep like this? Marios said. I’ll sleep, I told him. My whole body was filled with marks from the metal bed frame. And when will we go to our house? I asked. This is our house, Marios told me. What? I didn’t believe it.
I also had a good neighbor from Northern Albania who would come and tell me, sit down and calm down, and I have been here for so many years, you will get used to it. But I kept crying. They’d be speaking Greek, and I’d be sitting there like a dummy. And this woman would tell me, you just came yesterday, do you expect to learn Greek and speak it perfectly today? It can’t be done.
Notes in the closet
Marios worked and I would stay home. I was trying to learn the language. Very difficult. I’d see others talking and I’d said, oh my, what will I do, how will I learn?
I went out to the village and there were times when they’d said good morning to me and I answered good afternoon, what could I do? I thought it was the same. I was ashamed. What did you say? Marios would ask.
What did I say?
What is it now?
So why did you say good afternoon?
I’d be at home watching TV and the commercials advertising various things. I kept hearing katsaróla, katsaróla (cooking pot) and I’d go outside and ask Mario, what is a katsaróla? He’d say hold on, let me finish this and I’ll tell you. Then he’d come home tired and immediately fall asleep.
We had a large closet, I remember, and I’d open the door and write words there, so I wouldn’t forget them. I filled closets, notebooks, whatever you can imagine. I learned to write before I learned to speak. In the beginning I’d communicate with hand signals, in any way I could.
Marios: It was difficult for me in the beginning too, but seven or eight months passed, a year, and I learned. Look, if you only hang out with Albanians you can’t learn. I was constantly with Greeks.
When our children hear us − they know Greek − they correct us. They also know Albanian very well, but they don’t know how to write it just as well. They were both born here. They have Greek citizenship. A Greek ID card.
Normally by law, as is done in Germany, in America, in Italy, we have to get citizenship too. We have been here for 24 years. I don’t know why they do this, but this is the case only here in Greece. It’s a big issue. And so many years, it’s only money. File papers, pay €1,500. Again, another €1,500. Now hold on a minute, that’s a lot of money!
Mom, what are Albanians?
Marios: We’ve always had good relations with the locals. The people I worked for treated me like a son. They took me in. In Modesto, the village where we lived in the beginning, the mother of the guys I worked for there, treated Mirela like a daughter. When she gave birth, she was with her at the hospital. She had three sons and she called Mirela daughter. Imagine not having your mother or father with you, and along comes someone who cares for you like a parent.
Certainly, there were those who were racist and treated us with suspicion. There was the stigma. They are Albanians. Do you know how horrible that was? You happily take your child by the hand to take him to school, you say good morning to the other parents and no one answers you. This is a shame! Good morning is from God.
Mirela: The child would come home after school and, you know, you understand if something is wrong. I would ask him what’s wrong. The other kids told me that I was a dirty Albanian, he said. When they were young, the children had this idea that an Albanian is something scary. Mom, what are Albanians? they’d ask. We are Albanians. Me, Dad, your uncle, our friend. That’s who Albanians are, I’d say.
No, I am not an Albanian, he’d reply. There is nothing wrong with being Albanian, I would tell him again.
That is, you’d have to explain it to the child in such a way so he’d understand it. To hear him come crying and tell you, mom, they called me Albanian, and said get out of here. Do you know how that feels? And for us, too. When we would accompany the children on school trips, the Greek mothers were always together and we were separate from them. There were a few who would sit with us. It was different with the teachers though. I never had a problem with them. Never, ever!
Marios: Then there’s the other issue… We know that there were Albanians who had done bad things in the past, and this created the impression that everyone is equally bad. And then there were those who ended up doing bad things because some Greeks had taken advantage of them.
Sometimes a Greek boss would hire an Albanian, who would work for two years, and then the boss didn’t pay him, and when he asked to be paid, the boss would report him to the police. Come and get him. He’s illegal and has no papers. In other words, catch him and deport him, to save the boss money. That’s exploitation! Many did what they did because they left behind their families in Albania who were going hungry, and that was the money they were depending on, so they could live. And there were many who never came back because they were killed or died in the mountains!
Garlic, garlic, garlic
Marios: We used to work for other producers of garlic. Mirela worked for eight years for a producer here in the village. I worked for three years. I had a friend, Vladimir, and he kept telling me to plant garlic. One stremma (1,000 m2) in the beginning, and then one became five, from five, twenty-five, thirty and so it became our business. Back then I worked at the factory, I left the factory and now I have my own garlic. But in the winter I might go back to the factory.
Mirela: I picked cotton and sometimes I would clean houses when I could find the work. But this didn’t happen often, because I had a small child. I couldn’t leave him alone. Marios would return home and then I would go to work. And the fields I worked in were nearby.
Marios: We were used to working in the fields in Albania. Here the conditions were nothing like they were in Albania, where everything was done by hand, or with horses and donkeys… Our childhood years were not spent in cafes. We had to work. That’s why the jobs here didn’t seem difficult to us. There are machines here. Really, think about doing everything with your hands. Here, things were years ahead of Albania. Even today in some villages in Albania they plow the fields with horses.
They say the Albanians are taking our jobs, they are producing garlic, they’re taking our daily wages− they still have this way of thinking. I work alone, with my wife, with my children, I’m not stealing anyone’s job. Can you cultivate garlic? Then do it. I’m not doing anything wrong. We built this roof here because you can’t work in the sun. They sued us. We don’t know who did it. This is not our place. We know that. We didn’t buy it. We made this roof so we could do our job and when we are done we will take it down again. And I kept this place clean. Each year. No one from the municipality bothered us.
Working for the garlic producers, which is also hard work, and not getting paid – that’s a sin. It may not have happened to us but we know so many stories of people who never got paid. Most of the people who work for us are also Albanians. Romá, Romanians and some Greek women have also worked for us. And Indians.
The “here” and the “there”
Marios: We were Muslims. There was no mosque or anything here. Now we go to church. But we never went to the mosque in Albania either, I’ve never been, not even once, I don’t even know what it looks like inside. But I like to go to church here on holidays and such. We are not baptized. But we want to, hopefully this summer. First the children and then us.
Mirela: Marios wants to be baptized, but I don’t like it. In the beginning, I thought that if I was baptized, I would stay here for my whole life. But now I want to be here and I don’t want to return to Albania. I just want to go to visit my family there, but that’s all. Our families come here too, they visit us but this year due to the coronavirus they could not come.
Marios: We used to go three or four times a year. Because we are close. We are from here, near Koritsá, Korçë. We enter through Krystallopigi. It’s another 30-40 minutes from there. They’ve made it very nice. Not even in Greece is there a city this nice. And there are a lot of Greeks there, you don’t need to speak Albanian at all. And in the shops, the people speak Greek.
Some of the people we came with from Albania, after some years, they left and returned. One even opened his own shop and sells various organic products.
One summer when we go, you’ll come with us and you’ll see how beautiful it is.
Mirela: When my father brought us to Korçë in 2000, I said where he taking us? This is Korçë? But look at it now. It was always a green area with trees, but now there are new roads, shops, hotels, the center. A small town, but beautiful. Very!