Sitting in the aptly titled Pita (Greek) Street in the centre of Brussels having a yeeros and speaking Greek…my trip to Belgium began in earnest. I had ventured here on the recommendation of a priest.
A few years ago I had met Father Christos Sidiropoulos who drives from Belgium to Rotterdam in The Netherlands to deliver liturgies at the picturesque Agios Nikolaos Church. This encounter piqued my interest in the Greek Community of Brussels. Being on a tight schedule time wise, I had given myself just 24 hours to find out what I could.
Arriving in this spectacular city during the World Cup (2014), I had expected Brussels to be drab and boring. What else would you expect from the home of the EU Parliament and the one that had been eager to kick Greece whilst she is down economically.
Brussels, or Bruxelles, is not what I had imagined. It’s charming and almost at every turn you will find architecture that will captivate. Most of it dates back to the 19th Century and earlier.
I was fortunate enough to spend some time with Theodora and her friend Chariklia who is originally from Athens. It was with these two Belgian Greek speakers that I was introduced to Greek Street which was full of Hellenes, both locally born and from Greece. We sat at a yeeros shop at a table outside as we surveyed the packed street. Being the height of summer, people where everywhere and I was glad to hear a few Greek conversations.
Greek Street by the way is located at Rue du Marché aux Fromages, just off the main platea.
Theodora told me that her grandparents had arrived in Belgium about 60 years prior. She was born in Limburg, near Brussels and grew up speaking Greek which she is fluent in; it was great to hear Theodora speak to Chariklia in Greek and then talk to me in English!
She told me that most of the people with Greek heritage speak the language relatively well; the language is well catered for in the country. The European School for example has a Greek section for children who are from Greece.
Theodora is like many Greek people I have met in the diaspora. She has a love of Greece and will take her annual holiday in Greece, a place where she feels Greek. The strength of her own Greek identity is perhaps indicative of other third and fourth generation Greek speakers here. Theodora told me that the ‘strength in numbers and the proximity to Greece is a factor that will keep the community going for a long time.’
Ever wanted to know where the best in the beer in the world is? What about the best chocolates? Well, can’t help you with the first as I do not drink beer, though I have been told Belgium is the best. As for chocolates, my expanding waist line can verify that Belgian chocolate led by the world famous Leonidas is the place to purchase. Indeed, chocolate varieties can be found in ‘Leonidas’ branded outlets in almost sixty countries. In fact I have seen them from Seoul to Sydney.
Leonidas Kestekides was born in the Cappadocia, a then Greek area in Turkey in 1876. By 1893 he had moved to New York and in 1910 he visited Brussels to showcase his products at the World Fair. The quality was exemplary and he stole the show and also met the love of his life, making it impossible to stay away from Belgium. He returned in 1913 for the World Fair in Ghenk and soon opened a range of tea rooms across the country.
By 1935, Leonidas had passed on his business to his nephew Basile who expanded the chocolate range. He displayed and sold his products in the open window of a Leonidas shop in Boulevard Anspach which I visited. This new concept earned him praise and from then on Leonidas grew from strength to strength to become one the biggest confectionary companies the world has ever seen.
Leonidas is one of the first known Greek people to live in Belgium. As Belgium was not connected to ancient Greek colonialisation or medieval Byzantine territory, it is reasonable to deduce that he could have been amongst the first one to migrate to Brussels. In fact there was no Greek embassy in Belgium until 1945, indicative of a lack of permanent Greek numbers early last century.
On the subject of significant Greek business interests, it is worth noting that there is a Greek business group known as ‘Bucephalos.’ This is a business association, whose members have Greek heritage and are located essentially in Brussels; they were founded in 2006 and currently represents 300 members (a significant number for the ancient Leonidas). The association comprises members who represent the fields such as law, real estate, industry, research and development, media, arts and science.
Greek Miners and the Growth of the Community
In 1955, Belgium and Greece commenced the process to sign an agreement that would encourage Greek workers to gain employment in the coal mines. Greece suffered from a catastrophic Civil War between 1946 – 1949 and then famine set in across many areas.
Between 1953 to 1964, over 20,000 Greek people, mainly men went to Belgium to work in the mines. Many returned by 1965. Despite this, the Greek population had reached 22,000 in 1970. Conditions were tough for the young Greek men who had to work long hours and adapt to a new language. Part of their wage would also be sent to Greece, like many immigrants and this inevitably delayed their return to Greece as it would take a little longer to save money!
Unlike miners in say Australia who get paid a small fortune and many live in luxury, the miners of this generation were essentially poor.
When Greece joined the EU in 1981, 45.4 percent of the Greek speakers living in Belgium were located in Brussels, 12.5 percent in Charleroi, 9.7 percent in Liege and remainder in small towns according to research published by Lina Ventouris in the Journal of the Hellenic Diaspora.
Another interesting statistic is that 63 percent were blue collar workers in 1981, a fact that would change as the EU embraced Greece.
Mr Kestikides is typical of many Greek people over the course of the last 150 years. With crisis after crisis in Greece, Greek people inevitably move abroad if they can afford it as highlighting by the passage above. I have met Greek speakers on just about all of my travels (I have been to 47 countries) who sought better economic opportunities.
Officially there are 17,000 people in Belgium who have an affiliation to Greece via their heritage. However, the Greek Government places this figure at closer to 40,000. This includes those who were born in Greece, those who study, those who are second or third generation and those who are in the employ of the European Union.
I met Anastassios Papadopoulos who is one such person and a leading member of the local community.
Anastassios came here in 2002 to work and has stayed in the city he adores greatly where he has a senior role in the Council of the European Union. He has studied in Greece, Belgium and Germany. We met near the Council of the EU and it was a thrill to be close to EU institutions which employ around 1000 Greek nationals.
With a background in European law, he was quick to point out how the Greek emigration has evolved, ‘Billy there have been four waves of Greek migrants to Belgium.’ As outlined in the article, there have been certain eras when the Greek speakers have come out and it was interesting to note the use of the term waves, with the latest being the economic crisis in Greece.
It was explained that he was one of the drivers behind the ‘Hellenic Circle’ cultural organisation (www.hellenic-circle.eu) and for several years he devoted a significant amount of his spare time to ensure that regular events were held. His objective and that of the organisation was to build bridges to create and maintain links with people in Greece and abroad; this resulted in his involvement with 70 events (concerts, conferences, book presentations, networking).
The Greek community in Brussels is active. Anastassios pointed out there are numerous Greek groups ranging from theatre to cultural that work tirelessly to serve the interests of the Greek community and those interested in Hellenic initiatives. Greek education is highly valued.
My own research indicates here are possibly 31 school institutions that are either directly Greek such as the Greek Primary School of Bruxelles or teach Greek as a language either during school hours or afterward. This ensures that Greek speaking people will be able to maintain the Greek language quite easily in generations to come.
Being a fan of football, it was interesting to note that one of the best players in Greece was born in Seraing; Viktor Klonaridis. His father is a native Greek and his mother is from Belgium. Having played 100 top flight games across AEK, Lille, Mouscron Peruwelz, (Belgium) and Panathanaikos he is a rising star at the age of 22. There are many mixed marriages in Belgium involving a Greek partner and it is interesting to see their children lean towards their Greek roots as Victor has.
The Greek Orthodox Church
In 1900, a Greek Orthodox Church was created on the coastal city of Antwerp for the Greek sailors and merchants. This resulted in a small permanent Greek presence in Belgium. The first Greek parish in Belgium opened in 1926.
With the influx of Greek people to the mines during the 1950’s approximately 12 new parishes were created in Belgium. In 1969, the Patriarchate of Constantinople created an archbishopric, the Metropolitanate of Belgium and Exarchate of The Netherlands and Luxemburg, appointing His Grace Emilianos Zacharopoulos as the first Metropolitan.
There is an excellent relationship with the Russian equivalent and between them, approximately 90,000 people in Belgium are Orthodox adherents. The growth of the Greek Church in Brussels resulted in the purchase of many Catholic Church buildings including one in the ‘Stalingrad Avenue’ (near the Brussels South Station), which is now the Greek cathedral of Belgium.
I was fortunate enough to visit as I stayed nearby and I met with a wonderful priest, Father Chris, who was originally from Rethymno. His knowledge of Belgium, the Church and the local community and his warmth was greatly appreciated.
He had just finished meeting with a local group of Belgian locals who were interested in the history of the Church which he was explaining/teaching and like me was glad to have a breather for a few minutes. As we sat in the Cathedral, I could feel the presence of the church (Saints Archangels Michael and Gabriel) and was glad to have someone to explain some of the intricacies of the Church and its local history.
Father Chris told me that the Cathedral had been bought in 1985 and became the hub for the Greek Orthodox Church. There are some services in Belgium that are provided in the local language, not just in Greek, which is a great way to engage with young people especially with many now in the fourth generation as well as mixed marriage offspring.
It was also confirmed for me that the Greek people that came in the 1950s struggled somewhat initially and were housed in ‘barrack’ style accommodation. The Church was a way to help the immigrants adapt to their new, unfamiliar surroundings.
The Church is led by the energetic Archipriest Stavros Triantafyllou, who has been in post since the 1980’s I believe. He has helped to inspire and support a number of Greek language schools and undertakes social activities such as helping newly arrived with their integration, visits to hospitals and coordination of activities for families.
I understand that the Matriarch of the Leonidas business empire has been a contributor of the Church, Marika who is in her late 80’s.
For anyone interested in the history of the Church in Belgium, there is a museum located nearby where you can find icons, liturgical objects, sacerdotal clothing and is free to enter.
It was fitting that I finished my quick visit to Brussels watching a World Cup match with a number of Greek expatriates who are friends with Theodora. As we watched the match near a piazza adjacent to the EU Parliament, I leant over to speak to someone outside the group. Wanting to see who he was supporting, he told me ‘hello mate, I too am from Greece, my name is Leonidas.’