My Fulbright-Hays Odyssey: Threads from Greece to America, Albania and Back

Mary Shiraef
12 min readMar 10, 2024

My research has not always been based in Albania. The spark for my project began long ago at Piraeus Port in Greece as I disembarked a ferry from an island trip and made my way to the metro stop. I boarded the train as I’d done many times before that year and looked around. Instead of the typical lazed look, as Greeks settled in for their journey to the center, I was surrounded by foreign faces filled with angst. Of course, Pireaus has been frequented by foreigners since days of old — literally since BCE times — but a public train in Greece full of black people was particularly unusual in Piraeus since most tourists then were white and took taxis to the center. Instead of suitcases, these migrants from sub-Saharan Africa clutched overstuffed trash bags. The children among them had the eyes of adults. As a collective, the group embodied exhaustion.

At the same time that I was emotionally and literally “on their journey,” it struck me how different our paths through Greece would be.

Like them, I was a foreigner — but unlike them, I was headed to Athens with the glisten of a “Greekend,” full of sun, relaxation, and welcome. I literally felt “at home” in Greece. (A shorter version of this piece was published on Fulbright Greece’s website.)

Sunset view from one of Athen’s closest islands, Agistri, which I would later learn still has speakers of an old Albanian dialect living on it

My great-grandmother, my yiayia, had embarked herself at Piraeus in 1920 and migrated to the US . She left her village in the Peloponnese before the Second World War, and the Greek Civil War would have come to her doorstep, as would the severe economic aftermath. She must have been similarly exhausted when she finally arrived at Ellis Island. She was admitted as an adult — although her Greece-based birth certificate says she was fourteen years old. She’d had no schooling before, but the ship manifest’s “calling or occupation” column for her reads: SCHOLAR. She was promptly placed in the 2nd grade. Rather than becoming a scholar, she became a seamstress and worked in a large factory with conditions I imagine I would find today far more oppressive than I do her now peaceful village home. Arbitrarily, though, her family’s decision to leave Greece put me in a position to more easily access Greek culture than those choosing to come today.

On the left is the multi-family household my yiayia departed from in 1920 and on the right, my sister and I are outside the house built just next door after the war on either side of our cousin Nagia whose line in the family who remained in Greece and largely work(ed) in the local schools

I had the paperwork proving my status as a student, an American, a visa holder, and a Greek by descent, while these new arrivals from Sub-Saharan Africa likely had none.

They had the need to access Greek culture. I had the desire.

I had local contacts and relatives, not to mention funded Greek language classes and an apartment arranged for me by my study-abroad program in Athens. They had handlers who herded them and shouted in a foreign language I hadn’t heard in public in Greece before. Many improvements since then have been made for integrating foreigners into Greek culture — for instance, through the Melissa Network — but this was pre-Giannis and also prior to any culture in Greece of founding and maintaining non-profit organizations.

Watching these cultural forces collide at the same port from which my grandmother departed made me reflect on the counterfactual of my life as the great-granddaughter of first-generation migrants. What if my yiayia hadn’t made that journey; what if she’d stayed and married into an Albanian-speaking family from the region just a 6-hour walk from her village?

Academic Origin Story

This navel-gazing exercise was the topic of my senior thesis in 2011, which I defended at College Year in Athens under the supervision of anthropologist Aimee Placas. To understand what my life would have looked like had I been born in Greece, I interviewed most of my Greek relatives in the US — as well as around 30 of those in Greece. The difference I immediately identified is how much better educated Greeks in Greece were compared to those in the U.S. This was both true on paper, with more degrees earned earlier in life and across both genders — but also qualitatively, when the meaning of education was described.

My relatives in the U.S. described the purpose of education in a utilitarian way, i.e. to obtain jobs and a career, but for Greeks in Greece, education meant growth and learning. A Greek term I was introduced to by one of my relatives from Rethymno is μορφωμένος. Morfomenos means educated, but it is also a synonym for cultured or well-rounded; it literally means “a transformed me.”

It is no understatement to say that my year in Athens, unraveled at Piraeus Port, transformed me.

Leaving Greece Myself: A Deeper Dive into History

I continued my great-grandmother’s initial quest as a scholar — also in a transcontinental sense, much like hers. In St. Andrews, Scotland, I completed a Master’s degree with a thesis that reflected on how cross-cultural dialogue occurs in Europe — derived from Hans-Georg Gadamer’s philosophy as well as Plato’s Republic, which symbolically begins with the line: “I went down to the Piraeus yesterday.”

The verb Plato used for going down, καταβαίνω, gives the impression that Socrates was getting off his high horse and descending from the heavens of rationality and righteousness to the foreigners-filled port to engage with the realities of people.

Similarly, Gadamer’s philosophy focuses on dialogue, actual dialogue with people, and unpacking our prejudices to cultivate a “fusion” of our horizons within a shared world rather than ruptures between them.

Realizing the pressing need to understand how foreigners encounter Greekness, I decided to look beyond modern Greece and delve into the past of how “Greekness” was curated, guided by Gadamer’s framework. Furthermore, it is difficult to study a topic or phenomenon while it is constantly evolving. Indeed, studying “Greekness in Greece” would be like studying my personal family history as my only course of study.

Expanding My Horizons: From Theory to Fieldwork

In 2016, I joined the University of Notre Dame as a PhD student determined to study “non-Western” political theory with Gadamer’s former student and interlocutor, Fred Dallmayr. In particular, I was interested in comparing the philosophies of two diametrically opposed Greek theorists, Christos Yannaras and Stelios Ramfos. But Prof. Dallmayr, alongside the somersaults of my natural interests and world events, pushed my sights toward a more practical line of study. Indeed, his paraphrased case against supervising my committee on this topic was: I am too old, your interests are too inter-cultural, and democracy is too uncertain for you to write a purely theoretical dissertation in a “Western” context like Greece. Except about age being a factor, he was right. (He proceeded to look into Yannaras’ work himself — producing a complete review of his work with exceptional speed and coherence.)

That time when your favorite living philosopher shows you his writing process and encourages you to get your own

Long story short — in a place far, far away from Greece in COVID-infected East Palo Alto with only books and booze to keep me company, I came across a fascinating policy in communist Albania, which dramatically shaped my Ph.D. dissertation topic. Albania’s communist dictator, Enver Hoxha, set out in the most forceful of ways to engineer Greekness — that is, strategically manipulate identity to bolster support for the new regime’s political preferences. He both recognized and repressed the Greek minority living in the south after a complete border closure in 1945 — setting the stage for my Ph.D. dissertation’s experimental design to understand how states transform cultural identities and how families, in turn, acquiesce or use identity to survive repression.

After years of fieldwork in southern Albania, studying both the repressed and recognized Greek identifiers, I was ready to return to Greece. In particular, with a Fulbright-Hays Fellowship, I set out to identify the ideal “control group” for my study, i.e. the regions in Greece were most comparable in demographic terms to those in southern Albania before 1945. With a Ph.D. committee whose expertise is far outside the “Western” world and my own historical research on the parallel and conflicting nation-making processes in Greece and Albania, I have honed the skill of illustrating how these seemingly small countries offer histories that can teach us about the future of Europe and global peace.

Preliminary Findings: more recent burials, ethnically mixed cemeteries, and (foreign) state capacity in Albania’s villages bordering Greece

I hit the ground running at Fulbright’s welcome event when I met Kyriakos Pierakakis, the current minister responsible for Digital Governance in Greece, after his speech. He and his staff informed me that the period I wished to study using Greece’s civil registry (1930–1974) is not yet digitized. With only four months in Greece and several other research and writing tasks to accomplish, I knew digitizing it myself would not be feasible.

To improvise, I used historical data gathered in the Ottoman period to identify my sample, which, in the end, will be the roughly 30 villages in the Pogoni region of Greece’s northern region called Epirus. Rather than their civil registry data, I will use these villages’ cemetery data as a proxy for how naming traditions shifted over time throughout the period of Albania’s communism. This is a similar approach I took in Albania — before gaining access to their civil registry.

A notable difference between Albania’s Greek village cemeteries and those I sampled in Greece is far fewer burials in Greece’s Pogoni villages post-2010. My future research will gather the rest of this data to see if this is true across the greater region and, if so, find out why. Is the phenomenon of laying relatives to rest in one’s ancestral village more salient in Albania? If so, this is significant in the sense that burying relatives in a village maintains a physical connection to it, as well as a local community, since maintaining a cemetery requires at least some level of a collective (e.g. a church and/or local state representative).

Perhaps this difference is simply because Greeks in Albania, who largely live and work in Greece now, are not able to move their relatives to cemeteries closer to where they live and work now. The author Osman Balkan described a similar phenomenon in his book, Dying Abroad, whereby migrants who die abroad are either laid to rest in their home or host countries, often as very intentional political acts. (If anyone reading this has stories or knowledge of identities in this region, especially on this question, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me.)

Another important distinction between Greek village cemeteries in Greece and those in Albania is that northern Greece’s graves show Greek script and display crosses uniformly. But in Albania, predominantly Greek cemeteries, even in the officially recognized Greek zone, contain some graves with Latin script, no cross, and even a few distinctly Muslim names.

The common factors between them are that in both Greece and Albania, each predominantly Greek cemetery has a small, usually unlocked Orthodox church attached in which one can light a candle and leave a euro at will. Furthermore, the Orthodox cemeteries in both Albania and Greece were relatively well maintained and contained physical evidence that relatives visit the graves on a regular basis (or, at a minimum, pay for their upkeep)—despite these villages often being quite a drive away from the nearest town.

Finally, an interesting factor in comparing Albanian and Greek cemeteries is that some but not all in Albania have put forward applications for local state and/or internationally-funded support for their upkeep based on the local church being a cultural heritage sight worthy of preservation. These Greek cemeteries in Albania were the best maintained, had the freshest water sources, and were the most likely to have local memorials for those who were killed during the communist period. Furthermore, perhaps ironically, because religion was banned in the late period of communism in Albania, the walls of some of the churches in Orthodox villages also have older frescoes preserved on their walls than you see in small churches in Greece because they were locked away in disuse for so long rather than updated over time.

Several of them have breathtaking views, being situated in the mountains. Relatedly, the churches receiving state funds and/or international recognitions were also sights that the EU border agency Frontex guards use to monitor illegal activity at the border with Greece. This was of particular interest to me as a political scientist studying the dynamics between the state, local traditions, and cultural heritage sites.

New Connections Made and Future Work

I worked primarily from Thessaloniki since the University of Macedonia has a fantastic institute that surveys public opinion in Greece: the Public Opinion Research Unit (PORU). PORU’s staff members helped me integrate into Thessaloniki’s vibrant academic scene directly and provided crucial guidance as I make plans for a future survey that spans the Balkans and their respective diasporas in the U.S.

“Coffee on Arrival” with the leader of PORU, coffee with EUI stars Alsena Kokalari and Ophelia Nicole-Berva, and and coffee towards the end of my stay with Elisavet, my cousin from Rethymno

Incidentally, one of my grandfather’s cousins also got set up in Thessaloniki while I was there, so I had the chance to see her and “show her my neighborhood” nearly a decade after she showed me hers.

I presented my work at a Fulbright conference in Alicante, Spain — and in the span of just three days, I met scholars, doctors, engineers, and artists working around the Mediterranean — many of whom I truly wish to know for a lifetime.

Furthermore, Fulbright Greece connected me with a book project that is also operating in the Pogoni region — albeit about the long but waning tradition of breadmaking in the Balkans. I immediately connected with the editor because she is similarly obsessed with the meaning behind certain traditions in the Balkans. Like me, she loves the stories, food, and even cemeteries. We plan to collaborate for her book with a story about how breadmaking in communist Albania overlapped as a method for the destruction of banned books and top-secret crimes.

Saying goodbye to Thessaloniki with stops at several of my favorite food places, a cat among the millions, and a long walk with my PORU host, Maria Zemperidou

Final Thoughts

My research has taken many a twist and turn since I first became interested in examining “Greek culture” not only from a personal perspective but also from a more objective one, using data from both the state and the families who compose (and oppose) “Greekness.”

I conclude with an excerpt by Lea Ypi, inspired by Rosa Luxembourg, capturing the essence of my research’s connections across Europe, America, authoritarianism, identity, and my personal journey:

“Among the many-tongued masses of starving proletarians on the middle deck of an ocean liner, she migrates from Europe to America with each wave that flushes away the misery stemming from the crisis. In this way, should an American crisis well up as a countercurrent in the direction of her original misery in Europe, she will return to new hopes and disappointments, to a new hunt for work and bread.

This spoke to me as I navigate my own career between Europe and the US. Both provide crucial context and face political crises reflective of the historical phenomenon of mass migration and negative national reactions to it. For instance, while researching for this piece, I learned that the ship my great-grandmother took from Piraeus, the Megali Hellas, was subsidized by the Greek state at the time. It sailed from Piraeus to New York under the Greek flag with intermediate stops that included Patras, Marseille, the Azores, and Lisbon — where one of my brothers has chosen to settle. But could he have — if our yiayia hadn’t braved the journey there first?

I owe my story to both my yiayia and the collective forces behind her arduous journey — including the Greek state and the US. However, much like the current conditions of immigration, national support for Greeks’ journeys to the US was soon discontinued by both Greece and the U.S. The U.S. Immigration Act of 1924 was passed to “preserve homogeneity in the U.S.” and limit the number of migrants from specific countries — drastically shaping the demography of the U.S. today. The Greek government also stopped subsidizing the company that owned the Megali Hellas (by then, renamed Byron) sometime after 1935. In short, I am lucky to be Greek-American or a μισή Ελληνίδα (half-Greek), as they call me in Greece. It is both tradition and great ruptures in tradition that break up my ancestral story and make me whole.

This was me with my summer class of Greek language learners in Athens in 2017 in attendance of the famous Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis final show held at the Kallimarmarou Stadiou. I had no idea then how significant the show was (although I could gather from the swooning). Nor did I know that Mikis himself was one of the first to travel to post-communist Albania as a cultural ambassador.

From these historical connections and personal narratives, I aspire to illuminate the ongoing challenges and hopes of migrants across the Balkans and beyond. I aim for a future where both our national policies and personal perceptions foster inclusivity and cross-cultural communities rather than conflict.

One of my many sunsets in Thessaloniki — a unique place in Greece because of its exceptional ethnic diversity

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Mary Shiraef

Everyday Researcher, Occasional Teacher. I write here about the people, experiences, and businesses that bring me joy and occasionally, the politics that don't.