When I was growing up in New York. people would ask me where my family was from. Deep inside I would wince and think to myself, "Here we go again." The conversation would go something like this: "Where are your parents from? Northern Epirus. Where's that? Albania. Where's that? On the northwestern border of Greece. So you're Albanian? No, we're Greek. Is that where you were born? No, I was born in Turkey. Turkey? I thought the Greeks and Turks didn't get along. They don't but Greeks have been living in what is now Turkey way before the Turks ever got there. How can you be Greek, if your parents were born in Albania? Well actually the southern part of Albania is inhabited by mostly ethnic Greeks who speak Greek and are Greek Orthodox. So you and your family never lived in Greece but you still think you're Greek? No, we don't think we are, we know we are. How could anyone be Greek if nobody in their family ever lived there? Because God has a sense of humor."
My next few posts will deal with the land of my ancestral roots, Northern Epirus. It's history is complex, and little understood. Northern Epirus, along with Cyprus, constitutes the last remaining area where Greeks have lived for thousands of years yet is not part of the Greek state. In 1990, the small isolated country of Albania burst onto the scene when Albanians, taking their cue from the tumult throughout eastern Europe, began a flood of emigration in the wake of the collapse of the Albanian economy and the Stalinist Communist regime. Emigration from the southern Albania by ethnic Greeks was so massive that the British magazine, The Economist, would report that "most northern Epirots no longer live in Albania." This created a great deal of instability between ethnic Greek residents of Albania and their Albanian neighbors. Fields were left uncultivated, villages depopulated and during the general instability of the times, claims to property were left in the hands of old men and women.
With unemployment in Albania at 60%, Albanian workers flooded Greece and provided cheap labor for Greek farms and businesses as well as fueling a crime wave of rural banditry and urban theft. This created a situation where the emerging free market economy in Albania and the expanding Greek economy became dependent to an extent on a reciprocal relationship characterized by Greek investment in Albania and cheap Albanian labor in Greece. As a consequence the relationship is volatile and ambivalent. The two minority issues, that of the status and security of the ethnic Greeks of Northern Epirus and that of Albanian migrants in Greece, have been tightly linked.
My family roots in what is known to Greeks as Northern Epirus run deep. Northern Epirus is geographically part of the northwestern Epirus region of Greece, whose capital is Ioannina. Northern Epirus is described as a belt of land 90 km at its broadest, stretching northeasterly direction from the coast north of Corfu to the lakes of Prespa and Ochrid. It includes the port of Agios Sarande and the important towns of Agirokastro, Koritsa and Himara. My father grew up in a village called Sheperi approximately 9 miles from the border and my mother was born in Politsani, about three miles south, at the foot of a mountain range called Nemertska. These villages are part of a series of villages in one of the most beautiful and wild areas of Epirus known as Pogoni. The thirty or so villages that comprise this area extend from the south northward. Eight were unlucky enough to end up on the wrong side of the border and include the two villages where my parents, grandparents and great grandparents were born, as well as the villages of Sopiki, Sxoriades, Opsada, Tsiatista, Mavrogero, and Xlomo.
My next post will cover the history of Northern Epirus.