To what extent do Greeks in Oxford cohere into a community and retain links with their homeland, thereby exhibiting a diasporic response (Sökefeld, 2006)? What are their motivations in doing so? What kind of activities bring Greek migrants together in a medium-sized English town, which has a large and historic university but also hosts a variety of other economic activities? Do Greeks in Oxford retain an active interest in Greek politics, and if so, why is this involvement significant to them? These are some of the questions that our ongoing ethnographic work with Renée Hirschon among Greeks in Oxford aims to address. Here, we would like to share some preliminary reflections.
Firstly, our findings from Oxford are consistent with a recent view in the literature which portrays a significant part of recent Greek migrants to London not as driven by absolute economic need, but rather as enacting ‘a general strategy to “get ahead in life” and avoid social stagnation’ (Pratsinakis et al. 2019). This characterisation of recent migrants’ motivations is particularly applicable in a university town where many Greek migrants are students, but it also applies to a number of other migrants and their families who decided to move to Oxford and the surrounding area for work.
This motivation for coming to England has an impact on the extent to which recent Greek migrants seek the company of other Greeks for a number of reasons. Firstly, recent migrants often find ready support networks in their professional environments upon arriving to the UK, and they are therefore less likely at least initially to join traditional diasporic networks to seek help finding a job or performing basic daily tasks. As a student explained to us: “I found the adaptation to the new country really easy, especially for a student that enters the university… In the UK they take care of you, they assign you a mentor, a supervisor, a programme manager, so you know, there will always be people who will help you.” At the same time, it is interesting that often, even migrants who initially didn’t perceive a need to seek help from other Greeks, eventually discover that such contact can actually be very useful to them. Nevertheless, such contact often concerns other Greeks belonging to similar professional groups, rather than the traditional diasporic community, which to large extent coheres around the Greek Orthodox Church.
Migrants who arrive to the UK to take up particular positions often also have opportunities to join alternative social networks than the traditional diasporic circles, although the extent to which this is the case varies a lot depending on the profession. Students in taught programmes have many options to socialize with their peers from around the world, whom they meet at their departments, colleges, and university clubs. Some consciously pursue contacts with non-Greeks, “to learn about other cultures, speak English and not Greek”, and also as a result of a perception that the Greek community has a “closed”, inward-looking character. Their good level of English, and sometimes a sense of higher cultural proximity to their non-Greek peers than to the broader Greek community in Oxford, discourage some recent Greek migrants from seeking frequent contact with other Greeks. On the other hand, two professionals in high value-added sectors who live in the nearby town of Reading explained to us that they like to come to Oxford and socialize with other Greeks, as “even though Reading is as large a town as Oxford, there is a lot less happening there. There are many business parks, and it is really made for people to work – rather than live – there.”
Even though some of the Greeks who migrated to Oxford during the last decade may, to varying degrees, be less likely to join traditional diasporic groups as a result of the availability of alternative professional and social support networks, they do cluster around alternative organised groups, such as the Oxford University Greek Society (OUGS) and various associations affiliated with it, or around more informal and ad hoc groups. One important reason for this, cited by many participants in our research, is that having a common native language, common cultural reference points, and common experiences facilitates meaningful communication: “I started hanging out with Greeks more often when I joined the [OUGS-affiliated] theatre club… It would have been a double challenge to start acting and to start doing so with non-Greeks, in a language that is not Greek. And because I’ve often participated in activities in groups of non-Greeks, I can say communication is different there. This has to do with language, humour, the way of thinking, the value system.” This sense of familiarity and common identity that results from shared communication codes and experiences, plays a significant role in the (re)construction of the Greek community in Oxford, even if this takes a different form than in previous migration waves.
Our fieldwork is also yielding interesting results with regard to the relationship of the Greek community in Oxford and Greek politics. On the one hand, we observe a notable reluctance of organised groups in the Greek community to engage with Greek politics, due to a perception that all politics tend to degenerate into party politics, and party politics have the potential to corrupt and taint any organisation that gets involved. Indeed, it is interesting to observe that posts which are perceived to support ideologically and/ or financially a Greek political party are disallowed in the Facebook group “Greeks of Oxford”, which is administered by the Oxford University Greek Society; at the same time, posts that are perceived to have a more national character, such as about the Macedonian name dispute, are allowed to be shared. On the other hand, many individuals that we have spoken with retain a keen interest in Greek politics, and consider that participating politically at every opportunity that is given to them is a way to reassert their bond with the country and to express their Greek identity. As explained to us by a Greek woman who recently moved to Oxford with her husband who was transferred here by his company, “I came to vote in the primary elections of Kinima Allagis because I love my country, and I wanted to contribute what I can. I told you, I’m fully Greek. I will die Greek.”
These observations have a number of implications for policy-makers seeking to find ways to engage with the Greek diasporic communities abroad. For one, focusing on targeting the venues that have traditionally acted as focal points for diasporic networks would leave out large parts of the new diaspora, which tends to cluster around new types of groups. On the other hand, encouraging activities that draw on and reinforce migrants’ sense of Greek identity, such as the work of artistic clubs, events about the socio-economic situation in Greece, and opportunities to participate in Greek political life, have the potential both to attract great interest, as they fulfil the migrants’ longing to express themselves in ways that are familiar, and to bring the diaspora closer to home.
Sökefeld, M. (2006) ‘Mobilizing in transnational space: a social movement approach to the formation of diaspora’, Global Networks, 6 (3) pp. 265–84
Pratsinakis, M., R. King, C.L. Himmelstine and C. Mazzilli (2019). ‘A Crisis-Driven Migration? Aspirations and Experiences of the Post-2008 South European Migrants in London’, International Migration. https://doi.org/10.1111/imig.12583