Hidden Away with the Suitcases       

By Nataliya R.

I was born in 1987 in Symi, Ukraine, to my mother, who was a social historian and my father, who was a taxman. A few years later the Soviet Union collapsed. All the academics lost their jobs because they were supposedly undermining the new regime. So, in 1993, my mother took me and my brother and moved far away from an abusive family environment and an abusive regime that were pushing her into poverty. As we travelled through different cities and countries, there were a number of checks on the train. Whenever they got near our compartment, my mother would hide away with the suitcases. We called it a game and I liked it. That’s how we arrived in Greece. The years passed, I learnt Greek, I went to school, I made friends, I fell in love and I hated. I was completely integrated into Greek society, anyone would say so. It got to the point where people would ask me “Where are you from?” and I would respond “From Kalamata” and  everyone would be satisfied. The summer of 2003 my mother was called up, because after years of hard work and great expenses, she was going to be granted Greek citizenship. I remember her saying on the phone “Thank you very much but I don’t need it anymore, I’m dying”. Two days later my mother died and I was left behind, in the middle of my angry teenage years with piles of papers to puzzle over, on top of everything else; the meaning of visas, green cards, social insurance, residence permits. Eventually I found the answer; hiding with the suitcases hadn’t been a game, I had just never officially entered the country, I was an “irregular migrant”. The real game was just about to begin.

I gave up on school and I got a job. I found a hotshot lawyer and I needed to use whatever I had in hand to get a residence permit. I started with the law on family reunification and deceased guardians, and presented it to my lawyer, who agreed that this would be enough. My application was examined for two years, but I never had any response. I looked for another way. I agreed with my absent Greek stepfather that he would adopt me, at my own expense, of course. I found another lawyer. Each time a hearing was arranged, something would be missing and we’d postpone it. Time passed, I spent money on the lawyer, on the translation agency, on the court (or so my lawyer told me). When the court case was cancelled for the last time, I rang the court houses and gave our names but obviously nothing had ever been arranged. My stepfather’s reply? “It happens”. My lawyer’s reply? “What are you going to do to me about it?”, obviously I couldn’t do anything to him. While going through all of this, I turned eighteen. I found another lawyer. Someone I knew through friends. He got me the blue receipt which proved I’d applied for a residence permit, and that was valid for one year, I was so happy. When it expired I went to the immigration office, overflowing with confidence, to renew it.

– Madam, this is fake, either throw it away and leave or I’ll call the police – I was in shock.
– What am I supposed to do?
– Go back to your own country.
– But I don’t have anywhere to go – I apologized like a scolded puppy.
– Then get married and have a child, it’s easy.

That’s how one attempt crashed and burned. From then on I found a number of lawyers. Some asked me whether I was famous, others whether I was an athlete, some promised me loopholes in the law, all without charging a penny, naturally. And the years passed.

How did I live during all those years? Hidden away with the suitcases. I worked from the age of fifteen and I didn’t have any insurance. No employers wanted to waste their money on my insurance, and what’s more, they didn’t want to have any trouble with the law. When anyone came to do a check, I would run to write my name in the list of personnel, but there wasn’t a word about my own needs. I continued to live illegally. Hardened policemen would chase me away from the islands where I worked, or else they would let me off because I’m “beautiful and seem like a good girl”. I learnt to avoid the traps as much as I could. I didn’t hang out with foreigners. I didn’t go to protests. I stayed away as far as possible from all kinds of controls, even on buses. Far from leases, bank accounts, bills in my name, and most importantly, far from travelling abroad. Far from the normal life that all of my friends were living.

“What’s happening is disgraceful, you have to do something”, said my friend, a lawyer herself, one day in the Ministry of Internal Affairs, where she had dragged me. I showed them the stack of papers that I had managed to accumulate all those years. By chance they found my application from when I was 16 years old. They told me that it hadn’t gone ahead because no one had signed it. An employee told us to wait in the corridor. Half an hour later, my friend had already left and the employee found me in the corridor crying. She took my passport from me and stuck something inside it. “Welcome to Greece”, she said. I had just got a legal residence permit, ”Due to Exceptional Circumstances”. Round two of the game had begun.

I started to renew it every year because of my studies, since I was already a college student. I needed to work too, but according to the law I had to choose one of the two. The first time they allowed both, the second time they didn’t allow it, the next time they weren’t sure, since the staff changed unbelievably quickly. Application fees, insurance, waiting in endless queues, always being called to rudely in a haughty and annoyed tone. Waiting lists that began at three in the morning, from guys that you were afraid to approach. From guys who wanted 20 euros from you to be able to write your name in the first 100, which by complete coincidence were all written with the same handwriting. Lawyers who would skip the queue and charged 50 euros for you to go with them. And as I’d wait in the endless queues for just one question, I would ask myself, “Why do I do all of this, why did we come here, why all of this effort?”. Then I’d go back to my friends and I knew why. For a place in this society, with the people I love.

If I hadn’t have met Olga by chance, this story would have stayed hidden away, as would I, and I thank her for that. I’m not writing this with anger or with racial hatred, but with the hope that the place where I grew up will move forward. Everything that I’ve mentioned happened because of Greek citizens, but Ukrainian citizens act in the same way towards their own immigrants; every nation has its swindlers. We don’t take your jobs, or take the country’s money out across the borders. Some public offices have been saved exclusively due to support from foreigners. We haven’t come to kill, but to become doctors, chefs, artists, lawyers, cashiers, builders, drivers, photographers, bakers, plumbers, clerks and psychologists, just like you. We came here or were brought here in order to live. To live under the same sky, where everyone resides, white, black, green or blue.