As students of literature know, “The Odyssey” is the story of one man’s frustrated attempt to return home.
Nestor, a noble warrior, came home shortly after his battles and discovered that little had changed. Agamemnon also made it home, but discovered that much, indeed, had changed. Menelaus was initially forced to wander about but eventually made the journey safely and in pretty good shape.
But, in Homer’s epic drama, it is 10 years since the fall of Troy and the victorious warrior Odysseia (Greek) or Odysseus, has still been unable to get back to Ithaka, his homeland.
Much later in history, the 20th-century writer, Thomas Wolfe, would give similar, though perhaps less classical, voice to similar difficulties in his novel titled “You Can’t Go Home Again.”
Recently, on a narrow balcony in a run-down section of Athens, Greece, a 40-year-old Albanian man – with a smoldering, roll-your-own cigarette between his nicotine-stained and calloused fingers – told me, with a tear in his baritone Balkan voice, of his own personal odyssey.
Twenty years ago, as a single young man full of virility and lofty aspirations, he came here with a willingness to work, seriously seeking a better life.
It was relatively easy for him to leave his parents and his impoverished homeland of Albania, then only recently liberated from the isolated dictatorial and famously unsuccessful communist regime of Enver Hoxa.
Back in the day, there was much work for him and the half-million fellow Albanians who streamed into Athens.
Greeks did not want to do back-stretching, muscle-tiring manual labor or low-skilled domestic or café/hotel industry work that a revitalized tourist town like Athens needed in its desire to catch up with the rest of the world.
Although there was much restrictive tradition and restraining due to Balkan prejudice against Albanians, a strong work ethic united with desperation and a willingness to work for considerably lower wages proved to be a workable combination at a time when the economy of Greece was on the upswing.
Preparations for the Summer Games of the XXVIII Olympiad of 2004 further fueled the need for cheap, reliable labor.
My now 40-year-old Albanian friend, Ilir (not his real name), had found, amid the narrow streets and historic neighborhoods of Athens, a home, a life and the promise of opportunity far better than in Albania.
That was then. But Greece’s dysfunctional economy eventually led to today’s crisis, with its increased taxes and a full stop in construction.
Today, Ilir is married with children who speak Greek (not Albanian) and is paying on an apartment that is so far “under water” that it makes the mortgage crisis in the U.S. seem like it is “high and dry.”
He tells me that he can neither return home nor remain in Greece. He doesn’t need to make a lot of money, just enough to get by.
But, as he gets older, he worries about his kids’ future and his own lack of retirement funding. Today, he must provide for his aging parents and surely doesn’t want to be a similar burden to his own kids.
Ilir’s story is more than just a modern iteration of a dramatic, epic poem. It is more than just another generic illustration of a displaced people group’s struggle. It is a very real problem for very real friends whom I know very well.
More important, it is an opportunity to be the presence of Christ among a people with whom others and I are privileged to give our lives, and a cause to which many believers are generously giving their time and money.
While we expect no help from Zeus or Athena, we are grateful for the prayers and financial support of many followers of Jesus. Daily, we encourage Albanians like Ilir to place their ultimate trust in the God who has made Himself and his care most completely known in Jesus.
Bob Newell is ministry coordinator for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship in Athens, Greece. He blogs at ItsGreek2U. This article is adapted from one that first appeared in the April 2013 edition of The Newell Post, Bob and Janice Newell’s monthly electronic newsletter.