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Hakuna Matata in Thessaloniki

by on February 19, 2020 5:00 AM


THESSALONIKI, Greece — “Don’t worry, be happy,” they say to the young men.

Or, “What’s up, bro?” Or, “Hello, my friend. Where you from?”

And to the young women: “Are you a model?” Or, “You look nice. Life is beautiful.”

Most of the passersby never break stride. With a word or a gesture, some emphatically decline to engage. A few are willing to exchange fist bumps or high fives or hand clasps. A few of those slow down. When they do, the men in the wristband brigade act quickly. 

They extract a red, green and yellow woven band – Rasta colors — from a tummy pack and try to tie it around the passerby’s wrist. If the mark protests, the men of the brigade insist it’s a gift. If the mark accepts the gift, the men of the brigade ask for a donation – five euros, or whatever the mark can spare. 

Occasionally, they score. Summer is better, they tell me. More tourists.

“The money you make in the summer is the money you eat in the winter,” a Biafran named Johnson told me.

He’s one of about a dozen wristband hawkers at the 500-year-old White Tower, the busiest spot on Thessaloniki’s waterfront. They’re part of the city’s burgeoning migrant population, people who fled violence or oppression in their homelands and hoped to get permits to work in Greece or elsewhere in the European Union. 

While they wait, whether to be granted asylum or to be deported, they live on their own dwindling funds, NGO handouts and whatever extra they bring in from the wristband hustle. 

I pass the wristband brigade every day. For the first four months I lived here, I disapproved of them – the false friendliness, the “gift” that becomes the sale. 

I prided myself on warding them off with my New York stink eye. My wife thought they didn’t accost us because they recognized us: We’d become locals.

A Nigerian guy who did not want me to use his name provided a less flattering explanation: We’re old. They do better with young people. Once I started talking to these guys, my scorn evaporated.

At 49, Johnson – that’s his first name — is the elder statesman of the group. I could see some white hair sticking out from under his ballcap, which had a photo of the Parthenon printed on it. 

Johnson left home in 1999, worked in Egypt, then Lebanon until the work ran dry and has been in Greece for 14 years. I asked him what kind of work he’s done in the places he’s been. He laughed. “Black man work,” he said. “Loading and unloading.”

When I asked him why he left home, he insisted that I Google it. “Check the history of Biafra,” he said. “You will cry.”

And when I asked him if he had a family, he told me it was a sin to keep your wife and children hungry.

His last words to me were, “You think I like to chase people?”

A guy in a Lakers’ cap said he was from Jamaica, but I didn’t know whether to believe him. Another wristband brigade member had just told me that some of the guys claim that’s where they’re from in hopes of bonding with their marks over a mutual adoration of Bob Marley. 

Every day, the Jamaica guy told me, he sends out his CV. He showed it to me. It was in Greek.  He warned of what would happen as the number of refugees who couldn’t leave the country and couldn’t work continued to rise. 

“A person is denied the opportunity to lead a dignified life,” he said. “What do you think he will do?”

Christian, wearing a Chicago Bulls cap and flashing a brilliant smile, is the newest arrival. From his native Ghana he flew to Turkey and then he joined the masses of migrants entering the European Union by way of the Greek island of Chios. Chios is three miles from the Turkish coast. He was on an overloaded boat for three days. 

“I’m glad I’m still alive,” he said.

He then spent four months in a camp before coming to the mainland last year. I asked him how he’s finding life in Thessaloniki so far.

“There are too many racists,” he said. “They look at blacks as if we are not created by God.”

The Nigerian guy told me he’d been a bank manager back home. I asked him why he left. Boko Haram, he said – the Islamic fundamentalist group that has terrorized the people of northeastern Nigeria and adjacent countries for most of this century. I asked if he still had family in Nigeria. “I don’t want to talk about it,” he said. “It’s too painful.” And he pivoted to the next passersby. 

“Don’t worry,” he told them. “Let me make a wish for you.”

They had no interest in his wish.

“Sometimes you stop 50 people and no one will respond,” he said.


Russell Frank teaches journalism in Penn State’s Bellisario College of Communications. He is spending the 2019-2020 academic year as a Fulbright scholar in Thessaloniki, Greece.

A collection of Russell Frank's columns, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," is available from the Penn State University Press. His columns for won first place for commentary in the 2019 Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter Best in Journalism contest. The winning columns: The Women’s March: Notes from New York, It’s Time to Change the Script and Mixed Messages at Bellefonte High. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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