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The Greeks of Sweden – Keeping the Fires of Hellenism Burning in the Cold North

ATHENS – Hellenism lives everywhere  – in Sweden too. Three cheers for the Omogenia in the cold, dark northeast corner of Europe. When politicians in the homeland praise the communities of the Diaspora words like ‘affluent’ and ‘successful’ dominate, but rarely heard is the word that best describes all diaspora communities: heroic – for the sacrifice, effort, and imagination building communities far from the homeland entails.

It would be so easy to completely assimilate almost right off the boat or plane in places like America, Australia, western Europe – every immigrant does it: OK now we are Americans or Australians or Austrians. Many Hellenes took that approach, but the rest master the alchemy of ethnicity – they become model citizens of their new homes, yet remain Hellenes at their core – and convey they same to their children, whether they are fluent in Greek or not: “We are Greeks” rings out in whatever language becomes their first – but they do make every effort to preserve their glorious ancient tongue.

In this article the spotlight is on the Hellenes of Sweden, to enlighten but also to give Greek-Americans a sense of the fluidity and variety of Hellenism that exists around the world.

Katerina Roussou established a musical society in Stockholm. She has performed with the Greek National Opera and Megaron Mousikis and in Gothenburg – she can be seen on YouTube. (Photo: Courtesy of Katerina Roussou)

Apostolis Papakostas is a good person to begin with, because he is President of the Greek Cultural Center – Stiftelsen Grekiska Kulturhuset – as well as a professor of Sociology at Södertörn University. He belongs to the early waves of Greek immigration, the first beginning in 1962 and the latest a response to the recent Greek Economic Crisis. With roots in Epirus, Papakostas’ family moved in the 1970s to Athens and attended High School. A longtime relationship with a Swedish woman led to his decision to move there, attending university in Stockholm. He now has three children in their 20s, so his roots are firmly planted there – but his Hellenic heart beats strong.

“The situation here is different” from the United States. “In American there have been Greeks for more than 100 years. Greeks came here in the 1960s – the big immigration wave began around 1965, and more came in response to the Greek Dictatorship. Most came to work in Swedish factories. They were mainly from Epirus  and Central Macedonia” and the latter, “are immigrants twice over – they came from Asia Minor to Greece, and then went to Sweden.”

They have more opportunities to maintain strong ties with the homeland than Greek-Americans. “Most families go to Greece every summer… In some cases the flight to Greece is cheaper than flights within Sweden,” he said.

Students watch a presentation of Aristophanes’ play ‘Peace’, an event of the Hellenic Community of Stockholm. Photo courtesy of the Hellenic Community of Stockholm.

Many children gain fluency during those trips, but the situation is complex. “There are 2nd and 3rd generation children of two Greek parents and they speak Greek – but there are many families with only one Greek parent…the children’s desire to learn Greek varies…some of them live where there is a concentration of Greeks to interact with, but others do not.”

Sometimes, grandparents take the lead. “They take their grandchildren to the schools on Saturdays, then they gather at the cafes and enjoy the company.”

The biggest difference between the Omogenia communities in Sweden and the United States pertains to the role of the church. “In the U.S. the schools and other organizations are part of parish life, but not so in Sweden.” The Church strictly serves people’s religious needs through the services, separate and distinct from the organized communities. The schools are run by the organized communities, as part of civil society. Community life is also affected by Greek partisan politics, unlike the U.S.

Metropolitan Cleopas of Sweden, who previously served in the U.S., spoke to TNH for an interview that will appear next week.

What is common to the two experiences is that the success of the Swedish immigrants is due entirely to their own efforts – “many of the original adult immigrants could not finish elementary school, but they pushed their children to succeed in school. They worked hard to send them to university and then they established careers. If you compare the children of the Swedes and of the Greek immigrants, the Greek children are more successful.”

Katerina Roussou established a musical society in Stockholm. She has performed with the Greek National Opera and Megaron Mousikis and in Gothenburg – she can be seen on YouTube. (Photo: Courtesy of Katerina Roussou)

The Swedish state helps to make a university education affordable. “Those requiring loans pay only 3% of their salaries.”

There are many associations – regional and cultural, and there is a federation, but it is not as active as it used to be.

Like all immigrants, the Greeks of Sweden have seen their communities evolve. Papakostas emphasized that in the past 10 years, there was a new wave due to the Greek Crisis after decades of little immigration. “They tend to be not workers seeking factory work but professionals. They are well-educated, many doctors.”

Sweden’s Greek Schools: Labors of Love

The story of each immigrant has its element of the heroic, and in the Diaspora, all immigrants and later generations that preserve our language and culture are heroes, but  the soldiers most deserving medals are the founders and maintainers of Greek schools abroad, and the teachers – sometimes far from home, sent by the Greek state, underpaid, but much appreciated.

Dimitris Siotis is the president of The Hellenic School of Stockholm. With roots in Serres, he studied economics and works for the Swedish tax authority.

Students of the Hellenic School of Stockholm watch the film ‘Medea’ of Dimitri Athanitis.

Siotis School explained to The National Herald that some public schools – perhaps as many as 70 – have about 40 minutes of Greek language instruction. “It is at a basic level because not all children experience Greek at home – there are families that speak 2 and 3 languages.”

He stressed that the schools, which lease costly space for Saturday instruction, exist because of parents who took the initiative to create them, established by the communities and the associations. There is no central council, but Embassy officials in London oversee the programs.

“Our school – the The Hellenic School of Stockholm – was established in 1967. It is a recognized center for the Greek language (TEG), one of three in Sweden; among them is the Hellenic School of Sweden, also in Stockholm.

There is an association of parents and guardians who vote at general assmemblies after being informed about developments and needs.

“There is a staffer in London to whom we communicate our needs in the hope that she can intervene for us to receive more teachers. There is no program for housing them, however, and that is a big problem.”

The school’s philosophy is to “try to embrace all Greek families, whether or not Greek is spoken at home. We want the children to come to the school so they can learn our traditions and ethos, and to help them recognize that Greece and Hellenism has contributed to civilization all over the world.”

Official Communities, Not Parishes Are Key

Theodoros Houliaras is the President of the Greek Community of Stockholm. He is from a village near Arta in Epirus and is a retired ‘aktinophysikos’ or Medical Physicist. He told TNH there numerous organized communities in Sweden – four in the Stockholm area. “In the past there were more, but ours was the first, established in 1962. It was much bigger, but over time people scattered. There were Greeks here before 1962 but that is when organized immigration began. The company Skania made an agreement with the Greek government to receive people ‘ready to work the next day’ in factories.”

“They organizaed for various reasons – for mutual support, to resolve some issues, like pensions, and for social and cultural reasons.”

The communities organize dances and celebrations of Greek holidays and there are groups like chess clubs and a children’s theate and they sponsor art exhibitions.

Houliaras also noted the community is undergoing a transition. “People from all kinds of professions and areas of science come. Young people, doctors, engineers, come here for experience after their studies and they remain.”

But it’s not easy. “Restaurants open and close because there are complications – like the need to learn Swedish…of course the new generations are born and there are issues with the Greek language. We work hard to maintain the Greek language and culture,” but they are constrained by the lack of teachers. “Before the Greek crisis Greece sent teachers – 18 or so, now we have two.” The burden on families is heavy to support the teachers and to rent facilities.

He noted that the Federation includes ‘Ethnikotopikous’ – like the ‘topika somatia’ in the U.S. and while they and they other communities are smaller and less active – “they all hold dances.” As in the U.S., new endeavors and organizations emerge, especially in the cultural realm.

Katerina Roussou established a musical society in Stockholm. She has performed with the Greek National Opera and Megaron Mousikis and in Gothenburg – she can be seen on YouTube. (Photo: Courtesy of Katerina Roussou)

Katerina Roussou is a noted Mezzo Soprano from Athens who is proud of her roots in Santorini. She, electrical engineering at the Polytechnic – her family’s science background blossomed in a love of mathematics – but her love of music drew her to the Odeion Athinon conservatory. She continued her studies in England and Slovenia, where she met her husband. They moved to Sweden 12 years ago, where he is an assistant professor in Environmental Physiology and she is the Senior Front Office Supervisor at the Grand Hôtel  in Stockholm.

“When I arrived I informed the cultural organizations and the Greek Embassy of my artistic background and I worked with the Cultural Attache on various projects.” As she met more people she moved forward by creating a musical society that performs and promotes classical and art music.

“I then spoke to the the Hellenic School of Sweden,” which has 300 students, “because they did not have music classes, and I developed a program. While there are few other Greeks with a musical background, people helped us in other ways. That is where I taught music for 10 years.”

The responsibilies of supporting and raising a family – she has two children – caused her to pause her musical career. As for Greece, while she misses the country and the climate, she enjoys the high quality of life there. “Stockholm is a city that functions well – transportation and bureaucracy run smoothly. It’s a calm place – people show respect to their fellow citizens and outsiders.” And the state helps families – Katerina appreciated the lengthy family leave when she had her two children – and there is good daycare.

All the Greeks in Sweden miss the homeland, but in their hearts and minds and endeavors, Ellada lives.

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