Stella Leventoyannis Harvey

“A pessimist sees the difficult in every opportunity, an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” Winston Churchill

I wander the streets of our Athens neighbourhood with no particular goal in mind. I want to be in the moment, take in this place that feels like my long lost home. I think about what it would be like to live here full time.

I daydream about coming back, spending more time here. My husband calls it scheming.

The other day while out for a walk with my dad I met a young man standing with a number of other South Asian men lingering in front of a building that looked like an embassy. Not an uncommon sight in Athens: lots of men in uniform, flags I didn’t recognize, and people waiting.

He smiled and I knew I wanted to talk to him.

I tried my staccato Greek. Did he speak English? I asked.

Of course, he said. He spoke English along with Greek and his own native language.

He volunteered that he was a refugee. He showed me his card, said he had to renew it every three months. When I asked him if he worked, he seemed reticent to answer. Suddenly he had all the questions.

Who are you? Why do you want to know?

I’ve been researching the plight of refugees, I replied. I need to understand.

His smile opened up again, a light flickered behind his eyes. He wanted to share his story. In me, he’d found a willing listener.

He’d walked through Iran, gotten on a smuggler’s ship in Turkey, arrived in Greece seven years ago. He’d worked as a mechanic. He didn’t say it, but understanding the labour market here as I do (thanks to my research), I knew he’d been working and being paid under the table. It’s hard enough for Greeks to get jobs like this. For foreigners, it’s nearly impossible unless you are prepared to take whatever someone is willing to pay you.

He’d been unemployed for the last three years, doing odd jobs and making money any way he could. He lived on the outskirts of Athens with others. Somehow they shared expenses and found a way to live. He was jovial and polite and his sincerity made others gather around to tell me their stories. All similar.

He wanted to make Greece his home. He had no plans to go anywhere else, despite the fact that legal immigration to this country is practically non-existent.

I thought about this man for days after I talked to him. He reminded me so much of one of the characters I created in my new novel: a well-spoken young man with a yearning for a better life, but with few means to achieve his dreams.

I wondered how this man was going to make it.

Would he have a better chance in Canada or in England? My father had always said the best thing he ever did for his children was to immigrate to Canada. He was able to raise the three of us and support his family in a way he might not have been able to do in Egypt. He remains confident we had more opportunities in Canada than we would ever have had in the land we were born in.

Canada might be a stretch for the man I met on the street, particularly now that the Canadian government has given priority to professional immigrants.

So what about England? Well, as Margaret Evans notes in her article about the European migrant crisis, very few European countries want more refugees. In fact, England has been the most vocal about refusing to accept a quota system for refugees.

Still, the stranger was so optimistic about his future. I felt reassured, naïvely perhaps. He would find a way. He had that roll-up-your-sleeve-and-get-on-with-it type of optimism that is infectious, hopeful, and brings you along despite the odds.

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