Suitcases, windows and illusions of comfort
History is rife with movement. Yet, the personal histories, the legacies of those having experienced movement, are fragile. Too often they are not heard. One reason for that is that the individual assimilated, leaving behind their old life completely in order to adopt a new one. Another reason could be that they returned to their country of origin and chose to forget the often-painful memories, or else physical mementos of migration are lost. Another simple yet striking reality in my own family has been that when grandparents die, their histories die with them. No one thinks of recording memories and stories of older family members until you realise how little has actually been preserved. Then, what happens when a memory preserved is taken out of a window?
In July 2019, a golden cross was stolen from a small village in the Peloponnese. A window broken and a handful of jewellery taken from a woman who could afford to lose much, but not that golden cross. The year before she turned twenty, she was sent to Australia, to meet a husband chosen for her. The golden cross was a good wish given to her by an uncle. A memory, now stolen, of her trip in the belly of a ship carrying her in silence. Some years later, on her way back from the land whose language she never learned, she did not have the luxury of a suitcase. The cross was the sole tangible legacy of yet another migrant out of civil-war-stricken Greece, flung across the Pacific to Australia. Another woman shipped off to an unfamiliar husband. A memory taken out of a broken window and into oblivion.
Experiences and memories of migration can be deleted, forgotten, cleaned out when parents and grandparents grow old, senile, or die. Golden crosses are stolen out of a window and journals chronicling journeys are recycled after the passing of a parent. Without these mementos, it becomes easy to forget that migrant experiences in Greece are diverse and rich. Particularly after the end of the Second World War and the ensuing civil war, hundreds of thousands fled. Notoriously, in the 1920s refugees sought solace in Athens after Greek-Turkish tensions escalated to a point of no return. Movement, in all of its different manifestations, is not foreign to the country and its people.
In the late 2010s, when a different refugee crisis hit Greece, it came as a surprise to see hostility towards the incoming groups from those who had been migrants themselves, who had experienced movement, exile and discrimination. What was even more surprising was the sheer denial of their own migrant journey. It appears that those who had the chance to come home from the country they had fled to have erased their own past as people in movement.
Is that perhaps the secret to being a ‘good’ migrant? Forgetting that you were once also in transit? Denying the commonality of the experiences we now so critique and despise?
Tangible memories of movement are a privilege not many people in movement have. The pictures that flooded our screens in the mid-2010s, of human bodies in dinghies in the middle of the Aegean, illustrate how unrealistic the notion is. Mementos are an illusion of comfort that those of us unfamiliar with forced movement subscribe to. Having held onto your passport in the midst of a journey like that is already lucky enough. Having a suitcase? Packing it with convenient items that can later become primary sources for the historian of tomorrow is almost an elusive dream.
In the case of many of the Greeks that came back after their experience of migration, no matter how short or long, not all of them brought back suitcases. They brought the funds they needed to build a home and left behind cousins, aunties and uncles, children and grandchildren, and personal possessions. It was far from a tidy end to a migration journey.
Their children and grandchildren often have nothing but a few stories to remind them of their family’s history with movement. I wonder if they had other tangible reminders of their family’s history, would that matter? If they had the contents of those packed suitcases, full of letters, ticket stubs, photographs, tablecloths used, and cups chipped at the lip, would they be proud of that legacy? Would they put the pictures up? Would they connect the dots between their own history of movement and those in movement now? Or would they hide the things that came in the suitcases up in a storage room, somewhere forgotten?
History is rife with movement. Erasing memories of movement only helps to criminalise those who are in transit now. They appear to be unique in their situation and, therefore, a danger, an outlier. We should strive to actively normalise experiences of movement. And, while objects get lost, arguably the best way to remember and respect migrants’ stories is through listening to and recording personal experiences of migration, refugeehood, movement at large… There is not nearly enough focus on, nor respect for, the shared histories of the individuals at the centre of it all.
Golden crosses get lost. They matter little. The people and their journeys matter more.
Georgia-Taygeti Katakou is an undergraduate student of history at the University of Edinburgh. Originally from Greece, she hopes to pursue further studies in the field of history.