By Daniel Howden in Athens
24 October 2003
An Albanian schoolboy whose outstanding grades earned him the distinction of carrying the Greek flag at a holiday parade has surrendered the honour after a hate campaign led by his classmates and their parents, angry at an immigrant bearing the national colours.
Odhise Qena, 18, has found himself at the centre of a racist storm for the second time in three years, exposing the gap between Greece's multicultural rhetoric and the daily reality faced by hundreds of thousands of immigrants.
For young Mr Qena and his family it is a recurring nightmare. He bowed to similar pressure after coming top of his class two years ago.
The teenager told reporters at the school gates: "I thought that people change, that society can change with a second chance, but I was wrong. I declare that I give up the right to carry the flag." A few feet behind him, the slogan "Greek: the flag belongs to you", had been spray-painted on the wall.
"I feel great disappointment because of my rejection by the majority of my fellow students ... I didn't want to be the reason to spoil a national holiday, or to blacken the name of the local community."
The decision followed a concerted campaign that had placed the nondescript town of Nea Michaniona, outside Thessaloniki, at the centre of Greece's tense race relations.
The school was brought to a standstill by a fortnight of campaigning, during which a majority of parents voted to block Odhise Qena's selection and encouraged their children to begin a sit-in. When the school was backed by the Education Ministry, protesters threatened to force their children to boycott the parade.
Yiannis Mavromatis, the mayor, congratulated the embattled teenager for respecting the "majority view" of townspeople and described the protest by the boy's classmates as "democratic". The 28 October celebrations commemorate Greece's refusal to surrender to the Axis powers in the Second World War. Traditionally, schools award the role of flag-bearer to their best student as recognition of good work.
A spokesman for a parents' group said: "This flag is stained with the blood of our national heroes who fought to liberate Greece and must not be raised by the hands of a foreigner." The parents' stance has sparked condemnation among government ministers and commentators alike.
Petros Efthymiou, Education Minister, rejected residents' demands to ban all non-Greeks from bearing the flag, attacking the protests as divisive. "We cannot have two categories of students," he said. "This creates a ghetto."
Albanians make up nearly 40 per cent of the estimated one million immigrants who have arrived to live and work in Greece during the past decade. Widespread prejudice against Albanians has highlighted Greece's difficulties in moving swiftly from being a net export-er to an importer of migrants.
The former foreign minister Theodoros Pangalos, a senior member of the governing socialist party, said he had urged the Interior Ministry to use special powers to grant the student Greek citizenship within 24 hours. "This will show up the [community's] racism, xenophobia and fascist ideas."
The veteran singer Dionysis Savvopoulos attacked what he described as the complacency underlying the campaign to oust Odhise Qena. "Seeing as we can't make our children better, we eliminate the best so we can rest easy," he said.
Telemachos Hytiris, a government spokesman, said he could not understand the community's reaction. He said: "He [Mr Qena] will have a scar on his soul."
The boy's father, Zamir Qena, said his son had studied relentlessly to earn his top marks. "There are people who just don't like us because we're Albanian." Asked if he would remove his son from the school to avoid further conflict, he said: "I wouldn't give them the satisfaction."
(c) 1999- The Children and Armed Conflict Unit