Fighting Now, Dreaming Ahead

March 2, 2023
By Aude Sathoud

Anna Stamou, spokesperson for the Muslim Association of Greece, many times want to quit, but rises up the next day continuing: “I try to grab a chance to meet and have good people around me. I find little light rays and catch them for a while. And that’s why AWoN is important, that’s why it is needed”. Aude Sathoud met with Anna Stamou in Athens and talked about growing up in an open-minded family during a time of dictatorship, her conversion to Islam and her fight for justice for every human being.

Photo: Aude Sathoud

What an interview over the phone will never give you, is that adventurous feeling you get as you pack your bag, jump from the metro to the bus, go across the city, pass by new buildings, unknown streets, up to that calm square somewhere in the suburbs of Athens, where you get, finally, in a warm and sunny afternoon of January. What you will never see, from behind your unidimensional computer screen is the little cafés, the quiet school and its playground, the orange tree standing before the small and pretty house, whose door is open as you come, as if you had been awaited all this time, as if to say Come in. My home is your home.

A fleeting moment
What an article will never completely render is the beauty of a fleeting moment as you are welcomed with your favorite Greek biscuits and a cup of green tea, as you sit down in the warmth of one’s home and listen to their story. Some peaceful space Anna Stamou and I cherished as we got to discuss much more troubled and dark realities.

Photo: Aude Sathoud
Photo: Aude Sathoud

Anna Stamou may actually have inherited that capacity to nurture hope and kindness in the face of hardships and adversity from her childhood. As the child of an “average Greek middle-class family of non-practicing Orthodox” growing up under the Colonels’ dictatorship (1967-1974), Anna remembers both the censorship of music and arts and the struggle of her family, her grandfather, notably, against social injustice. At home, they said Muslims and not Mahometans, the derogatory term a number of Greeks were using at the time. At home, the family owns a copy of the Quran.

Discovers Islam
Growing up in this open-minded, social-oriented environment, Anna asks herself a lot of questions, and introduces herself to a number of life philosophies, religious and spiritual schools and traditions. On her journey, she discovers Islam.
“I have to study, she remembers telling herself, that is what I am looking for. To her Egyptian husband-to-be, whom she has met in the meantime”, she one day shares her wish to convert.

“Take your time, study some more, I’ll give you books”, is his reply. So Anna does, and starts taking Arabic lessons, looking for some more resources about Islam in Greek – only to realize almost none exists.

We have to restore things for the next generation.

In spite of the historical presence of Muslim populations dating back from both the Ottoman Empire in the North of the country and the increasing number of Muslim immigrants settling in the country since the 20th century, only a few books existed for Greek-speaking people to learn about Islam. So Anna, encouraged by her Arabic teacher, decided to undertake the translation of accessible works about her new faith.

“Nothing extreme nor too sophisticated, nothing academic – only the basics, so that anyone willing to learn can get an introduction to Islam.”

A distinct class
And that’s how it all started. For the absence of Islam knowledge and representation is not limited to Greek libraries – it concerns the entire society, within which Muslims often face ignorance, stereotypes and discrimination.

“There are so many things which make of Muslims a distinct class within the Greek society”, Anna explains, pointing at the obstacles to enter the Greek administration, become a teacher, a lawyer, for people of Muslim origins or faith.

“If you want to clean the streets, for sure you can. Those discriminations are in total contradiction with the social diversity of Muslim populations spread throughout the country, which, from workers to ship owners or doctors, is no different from that of the Greek population in its whole – so why such a situation?”

It is not for herself that Anna decided to turn her feeling of injustice into action.
“We have to restore things for the next generation.”

As the strong civil and human rights advocate she has become since joining the Muslim Association of Greece, Anna Stamou has been going from one conference to another, hailing national and international policy-makers, civil societies and religious bodies on topics as diverse as islamophobia, racism, civil rights of minorities and migrants each time she gets the occasion. It was this, herenergy and determination that caught the attention of late Dirk Ficca in his quest for passionate practitioners working to build a more humane Europe all over the continent.

“I met [AWoN] and it was genuine – that’s when I knew. That’s when I wanted to be part.”

“When I received Dirk’s first email, I got excited but wanted to remain cautious as well, Anna recalls. I have been doing this for over twenty years now, so I have some good experience with political promises and fantasies – but Dirk and the first members of AWoN were so determined, they kept reaching out. We can recognize when something is real and when it is not, you know? So I said, Why not? and I first joined them for a working group in 2020 in Malmö.”

Genuine people
That’s when Anna knew for sure she had made the right choice.
“I saw them, all those people from different religions, sitting together, it was so nice and simple. I could see it in their eyes – their seriousness. That’s really important for me, that they saw what they wanted to undertake with a humane look. They did not have some random agenda and funds to cover it. I met those people, and they were genuine – that’s when I knew. That’s when I wanted to be part.”

So we have to create those spaces, those small cracks in the wall. For in those pockets of kindness we may not solve all the problems but find the space to dream ahead.

Anna joined AWoN “with only complaints”, she laughs.
“I shared Greek issues, our never-ending problems of corruption, the terrible treatment of people on the move, how the situation, since the Syrian war, has become out of hand, inhumane and uncontrollable.”

What the Syrian war taught us as well, Anna adds, is that “we are not immune”.
“Damascus used to be like Athens, you know. And, all of a sudden – she is me, she is my child. It’s us. If it is not at our doors, now, we have to remember that it has been and will be again.”

An honest understanding
Anna came with complaints – and she was listened to.
“That’s what I appreciated from the beginning with AWoN, there was no wishful thinking nor empty words about some promised land. We know we are talking about high degrees of rejection and not definitive success. But only with such an honest understanding can we build a relation of trust and then share good feelings with each other. That is what AWoN is for me: good, positive feelings.”

Photo: Magdalena Wernefeldt

Good feelings which are more than needed in the support of people on the move in Greece. One of the first receiving countries of asylum-seekers and so-called “hotspot” on the continent for the past few years, Greece has seen the burgeoning of a number of NGOs and governmental programs providing first-aid and emergency support to newcomers – who, once no newcomers anymore, find themselves with no perspective for the future. For Anna, the necessity is to strategize for the future.

People on the move
“But how can you plan for the ten years to come when you ignore the open wounds of the present? That notion of “people on the move” takes all its meaning here, in Greece, where people do not want to stay, where no one can tell where they will end. When they arrive here, people obviously do not think of integrating – they just try to survive! And how can they integrate, when they want to stay, when they have to live in containers or in the streets?”

“We need to stop creating refugees.”

In Anna’s opinion, those mistreatments are nothing but a deliberate political choice from the Greek – and wider European government, which works at discouraging people from coming. Showing me some pictures of the Greek President proudly posing along border guards, Anna goes on.

“As early as yesterday, our Minister of the Police was once again repeating how important it is for Greece to secure European funds in order to build walls in Evros (in the north) to protect the country. But protect it from whom? From people who have no shoes? Who have nothing to eat?”

Create a strategy
In such a context, where far-right discourses and policies have reached the highest levels of power in a number of European democracies – some ministers of the current Greek government indeed make no mystery of their fascist sympathies, documenting, condemning the situation, is not enough anymore.

“We need an action plan. Do we focus on first-aid needs or create a strategy? We do both. We keep the emergency support services running but need to start long-term planning now – it has been way too long already.”

Photo: Magdalena Wernefeldt

Anna however does not ignore the depths and complexity of the issues we all have to struggle against, such as the historical roots and ongoing geopolitical dynamics of the conflicts forcing people out of their homeland.
“Our countries are there, so of course those people think it is reasonable to come find a safe place here. We have Greek soldiers in Mali! You are in my country, why can’t I be in yours? I don’t come to conquer but give me a chance to live. That’s as simple as that. We need to let people live. We need to stop creating refugees.”

AWoN, “a space to dream ahead”

To Afghan practitioners whom she met through AWoN, Anna recalls, she had nothing to say but sorry – and that she would keep on fighting by their side, against all odds. When I ask where she finds her energy, she takes a few seconds to think before sighing:
“I don’t know, actually. I started all this being so optimistic. But it’s been over twenty years now, and that is a long time with temporary smiles. I will be honest, I am very pessimistic about the situation. I often want to quit. And I don’t know anyone working in that field who has not gone down in burn out at least once. So yes, I think of quitting often. I say “I will do this and then I quit”. I actually wanted to quit, already, a few years ago.”

“And then I saw Dirk. I saw Dirk and the founding members of AWoN, all older than me, and I thought to myself “Look. Look at those people, they still have hope. They really believe in it.” So I went along and, if you ask me, that’s probably how I keep on going. I try to grab a chance to meet and have good people around me. I find little light rays and catch them for a while. And that’s why AWoN is important, that’s why it is needed.”

The small cracks in the wall
“We have this platform, aimed at supporting people on the move – that is what is happening now, that is the crisis of the present. There won’t be less wars in the years to come – they’ll be more. So we need to nurture and share that mindset we have here so that it can be replicated in more and more contexts and places around the world. In the beginning, no one knew about us. Now, I see more and more people recognizing and appreciating our work, our values, our vision. So we have to create those spaces, those small cracks in the wall. For in those pockets of kindness we may not solve all the problems but find the space to dream ahead.”

Aude Sathoud

In a constant movement between theory and praxis, Aude Sathoud has been studying political humanities and working in NGO’s supporting asylum-seekers and migrants in Athens and Paris for the past few years. Dedicated to the imagining and building of those other worlds we crave for, that is in creative resistance to the current neo-liberal capitalist hegemony, which they consider to be nothing but deadly to humans as both ideas and bodies, Aude Sathoud is a practitioner within the A World of Neighbours Network and the founder of Tremble, an experimental space-time to attempt to live.