P003: Becoming Greek

Saskia, 21 March 2018

My dad has a new passport. This is not remarkable in itself – we’ve always had enough money to go on holiday abroad, and Dad occasionally travels for work. I can’t imagine not having a passport. What is strange about this one is that it’s Greek.

If you have seen my surname, you might be thinking, ‘Obviously it’s a Greek passport – you’re Greek!’ And yes, ‘Papadakis’ is the Greek equivalent of ‘Smith’, and as my dad’s first name is John, he has possibly the most stereotypically Greek name there is. But he hasn’t had a Greek passport since the 1980s, and he gave it up then with a sense of relief, never imagining that one day his children might demand that he get one in order to allow us to retain our membership of the European Union.

Whatever you think a typical Greek is, my dad is not that. He was born in Tanzania in 1961 on the eve of independence from British colonial rule. My grandfather was a farmer, also born in Tanzania, but he grew up in the ancestral village in Crete, whilst my grandmother is the daughter of white plantation owners in the Seychelles, a neglected British colony in the Indian Ocean. Embedded in the long-vanished Greek community in Tanzania, my grandparents ran sisal estates, employing black labourers and servants and ensuring the smooth running of empire.

My dad left home at five years old. Along with his older brother, he was sent to an English Catholic boarding school in north-eastern Tanzania, now infamous for the abuse the priests inflicted upon boys in their care. A programme of nationalisation by the Tanzanian government drove the family to the Seychelles in 1971; after a brief and unsuccessful attempt at putting him into the Seychellois education system, my grandparents sent my father to England to join his older brother at another branch of the same Catholic school. In June 1976, a coup in the Seychelles toppled British colonial rule, after which my aunt too was sent to school in England. My grandmother, and then my grandfather, followed. My grandmother continues to live in the same house in Oxfordshire they bought in the 1980s. It is the longest she has lived in any country.

By accident of having been born in Tanzania at the right point in colonial rule, my grandfather was allowed to stay in the UK, no questions asked. After all, he had full British citizenship. Neither my grandmother, nor my uncle, nor my dad, all born in British colonies, nor my aunt, the child of two colonial subjects, had the right as individuals to settle permanently in the UK. When he arrived in England, my dad was issued with a certificate declaring his ‘alien’ status. As a Greek national, he had to register at the local police station at regular intervals. Hostile immigration laws passed by the UK government in the 1970s made his situation increasingly precarious, and yet he had nowhere else to go; he had never lived in Greece, and returning to the Seychelles or Tanzania was out of the question. The messy and incomplete process of decolonisation left my family stranded on an island incapable of welcoming them. My grandparents’ best friend in Oxfordshire recommended to the Home Office that my aunt not be granted British citizenship – after all, as a foreigner, what right has she got to be here?

Brexit is an intensely personal national trauma. As we’ve grown up, my sisters and I have been grappling with an identity that is insecurely attached to place. We carry my dad’s rootlessness with us: the question ‘Where are you from?’ is not just racist, it reminds us that we are from nowhere in particular. Membership of the European Union allowed us to maintain the fiction that being British encompassed our Greek, Italian, French, Seychellois, Irish, Scottish, English heritages. With that stripped away, the xenophobia and racism embedded in British identities has been exposed. Our search for belonging continues.

So now we’re going through the process. Sitting in offices in Greece and in London. Admitting we can’t speak Greek but yes we’d like some passports please. Getting official copies of marriage certificates and birth certificates and getting stamps for those copies, waiting around in rooms where there seems to be no queuing system, trying to negotiate online booking systems and passport photo requirements and municipal offices in Crete that are only open between 11am and 2pm every third Tuesday. I’m aware that we are incredibly privileged; it’s annoying, but not a huge deal for my family to spend time and money obtaining Greek citizenship, and for now no one is taking our British citizenship away. As a symbol, however, it is disturbing. The British state has told us before, and it’s telling us again: don’t get too comfortable. You don’t know where you might end up next.