By Amy Abdalla
ATHENS — In a quiet neighborhood here, a small sign hangs in the garage entryway of an otherwise nondescript building. In both Arabic and English, it reads Al-Salam Mosque.
On Friday afternoons, the place comes alive with men and women flooding through the garage. Taking off their shoes before descending the damp stairwell, they file into a large carpeted basement and take a seat on the floor.
This is one of the many makeshift praying spaces to which Muslims here have become accustomed. Athens is the last European capital without an official mosque. Though plans to open a government-funded mosque in September are underway, the Muslim community has been coming together in basements and garages like this for decades.
However, in recent years, the congregation has changed. What was once a community of established immigrants has been inundated with transitioning migrants. Greece, like the rest of the world, has been deeply affected by the 25.9 million refugees displaced from their homes, mostly from Muslim majority countries. For local Muslim communities, this means adjusting to a new way of life, and a generation with a new identity.
On this particular Friday, Mohamed Rassas, the 43-year-old owner of the basement-turned-mosque stood at the foot of the winding steps, greeting the worshipers warmly as they arrived.
The buzz of conversation and greetings came to an abrupt halt as Naim Elghandour, 64, started the service. “Allahu Akbar,” he began, as the space filled with the sound of his voice, ringing out and delivering the call to prayer.
Chadi Ayoubi, 45, then stepped up and began the sermon. He conveyed a message on the responsibility of Muslims who live in non-Muslim countries. “People who are not Muslim don’t read the Quran, and they don’t know the hadith of the prophet. They learn about Islam through their interactions with us,” he said.
These three men who stood at the head of the congregation are all immigrants to Greece and all leaders in the Arab Muslim community. They are emblematic of the decades-long fight to preserve the identity and integrity of Muslims in Athens. They also represent how that struggle and those interactions have changed across generations.
Elghandour, who immigrated from Egypt in 1974, represents a generation of Muslim immigrants who chose to make this country their home, arriving in search of financial opportunity. “I could’ve gone to any country in the world, I wanted to come to Greece,” he said.
However, this choice came with its own set of struggles. Islam was viewed as a barrier to citizenship in Greece in the 1970s, so some Muslims converted to Christianity through baptism in hopes of gaining more access to society. Elghandour instead fought to achieve his goal of assimilating into Greek life while still holding onto his Muslim identity.
In 1981 he successfully won Greek citizenship. Elghandour made photocopies of his ID and distributed it to members of the Muslim community who were applying for citizenship, to show them it could be accomplished without compromising your religion. Elghandour said that he wanted to show members of the Muslim community that they didn’t have to get baptized against their will.
Outside of the fight for religious freedom, the Muslims of this generation found assimilation into everyday aspects of Greek society to be fairly seamless. “The life of Muslims didn’t differ from the life of any other Greek citizens,” Elghandour said. He claimed that was especially true for the Arabs who chose to accept Greek society and fully enter into its culture. “We didn’t try to create ghettos, we lived in all the neighborhoods across Athens.”
This narrative also rings true for Mohammed Rassas, the Saudi-born businessman who came to Greece in 1981 with his family. Rassas has watched the Muslim community shift and felt the tensions that arose as it did.
In 1989, when the Rassas family decided to convert their garage to a space for prayer, they faced little pushback from their community. “We had a good reputation here, we had no problems with our neighbors,” Rassas said. He attributed this ease in coexistence to the similarity in lifestyles between Greeks and Arabs. “Whatever they did, we did, that’s how we grew up,” Rassas proudly said. However, he claimed that this dynamic changed after the recent wave of refugees arrived.
“You go downtown and the ones that are stealing, the ones that are dirty, most of them are Muslim. They’re giving us a bad reputation,” Rassas said. “Back in our time, we didn’t have none of this.”
With the influx of thousands of refugees flooding onto the mainland of Athens, Arabs and Muslims have become much more visible in the media, and in society. A trip through Omonia, a neighborhood in the heart of Athens, shows that Arabs are starting to settle into a living community, exemplified by the constant rattle of Arabic on the streets and the number of headscarf-clad women. “Today, if I go downtown, I get scared from the Arabs. When I go walk around the markets and I hear Arabic, I check my pockets for my wallet and phone,” Rassas said.
This generational clash may in part be because, unlike the generation before them, Muslim refugees in Greece did not voluntarily choose to come here. Instead, they were forced to flee their homes and make a new life in the most accessible country of Europe. Instead of embracing Greek culture, this generation is fighting to escape the grasp of assimilation in a place they don’t wish to call home permanently.
Chadi Ayoubi, who came to Greece from Lebanon in 1994, and received his citizenship in 2018, is able to better understand the political landscape of more recent arrivals. As such, he appreciates the importance of maintaining a connection to the homeland.
Unlike the generation that came before, Ayoubi believes that the Arab community’s dispersed nature is its greatest weakness.
“Here, in Greece, we have a very strong, very old community of Arabs, but everyone is busy with themselves,” he said. “There needs to be spaces for families to get together, we should put together activities for the kids, sports teams, things like that… We haven’t made a future for our kids in this country, for the people who will come after us.”
In 2015, Ayoubi, along with two colleagues, founded an institute called the Development Forum in Athens. The first of its kind, the institute’s main function is to offer Arabic language classes to children, free of charge. Ayoubi claims that about 90 percent of the students at the institute come from refugee families.
“It’s very important to maintain their Arabic language. Anyone who forgets their language forgets their homeland and their culture and grows up a stranger,” he said.
Ayoubi believes that the legacy of first-generation immigrants should be a school instead of a mosque. He believes an official space for Arab children to learn and grow is more important than a space to pray.
“The older generation needs the Mosque, but for the kids, for the future, we need school,” he said. “The children are lost. If we don’t take care of them, we’re going to lose them. We’re going to lose ourselves.”