In Greece, congratulations to the NBA champion and oblivion for the rest of the migrants

Barely last July 21 in Greece, the Prime Minister hastened to congratulate on Twitter the brand new Greek-Nigerian NBA champion, Giannis Antetokounmpo.

But this is an exceptional case, a light among the many shadows that darken the lives of the country’s many migrants.

“Incredible Giannis Antetokounmpo! Greeks are partying everywhere!”, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, a big basketball fan, celebrated that morning, a few minutes after the final horn.

The Milwaukee Bucks brawny center’s journey to don the NBA championship ring has been an odyssey marked by poverty, like most migrant children who grew up in Greece.

The son of Nigerian immigrants who arrived in Athens illegally in 1991, he was born and raised in the popular districts of the capital. To earn a living, he sold trinkets with his family.

Twice named the best player in the American League, he was able to emerge from obscurity, but many were not so lucky.

“Under normal circumstances, Giannis would not have obtained Greek citizenship,” said Vassilis Papastergiou of the Greek Council for Refugees.

“He received honorary citizenship when he was drafted” by the Milwaukee Bucks, he explains.

Greece has barely granted naturalizations for decades. The number of migrants received has declined since 2015, when more than 800,000 asylum seekers landed on its shores.

In power since 2019, the Conservative government has tightened asylum regulations. According to the Interior Ministry, the number of minors who obtained citizenship fell from 21,000 to 9,000 between 2018 and 2020.

“A child from Nigeria today would probably have their application turned down,” Papastergiou said.

This is the case of Nikos-Deji Odubitan, born 40 years ago in Greece into a Nigerian family who arrived in the 1970s.

He grew up in Athens, but “is still considered a migrant”, explains the founder of “Generation 2.0”, an organization which helps asylum seekers.

Indeed, he has been waiting for his nationalization for almost four years, but he says he is “relatively lucky” to have obtained consecutive annual residence permits which have allowed him to obtain his degree in biomedical engineering.

– ‘Hypocrisy’ –

In September, the prime minister was accused by the main opposition party Syriza (radical left) of “hypocrisy” for inviting Antetokounmpo’s mother and younger brother to grant them Greek citizenship.

Two days earlier, a Conservative Party MP had sparked controversy by retweeting an article about the “scandalously high” number of foreign names among children at an Athens nursery.

“Out of 20 students, only two have Greek names,” the article said.

“Antetokounmpo could have been among those names,” Syriza replied.

In 2015, a majority of Conservative MPs and the current Prime Minister, then in opposition, voted against a law aimed at naturalizing children born in Greece to foreign parents.

Mitsotakis was harshly criticized in August for handing over the health case to a former far-right lawyer, who called for creating “hellish” conditions to deter migrants.

The government has three former far-right members, including the interior minister who oversees naturalization processes.

– ‘Keep up appearances’ –

Jonathan, who agreed to speak to AFP under a fictitious name, has been waiting for his nationality for two years.

The player (FILES) In this August file photo, Milwaukee Bucks player Giannis Antetokounmpo (right) poses with his mother and brother with the NBA Champion and Most Valuable Player trophies on August 1, 2021 in Athens Str Eurokinissi/AFP/Files

The 23-year-old Beninese was attacked and stabbed by three men in Athens in July. He decides to leave the capital and finds work on an island.

“I don’t think they really care about us, it’s just to save face,” he says of the treatment of the Antetokounmpo family.

The basketball player does not hide his Nigerian origin, but he rarely mentions it in the Greek media.

An educator called him “cute” when the star spoke in 2020 about the struggles of growing up in “a white country.”

“We have always felt Greek,” said the center, which only obtained citizenship in 2013, a month ago.

The champion has donated food for his battered neighborhood of Sepolia, runs an academy to support vulnerable young people and has donated funds to victims of recent fires in Greece.

But for Odubitan, Antetokounmpo is not doing enough to draw attention to the plight of second-generation migrants in Greece.

“What saddens me is that he is unaware of his influence,” he says.

“If Giannis thinks talking less about the color of his skin will improve his image in Greece, he’s wrong,” he says. “Nothing I say will make it less Greek,” he insists.

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