Since finishing primary school at the age of 12, he’s worked with aluminium doors and windows in the village. “The economic situation meant I couldn’t continue my education, so I started making doors and windows. I’ve been doing the same job for years, so I know it well by now,” he says.
Thirty years ago, when he was still in primary school, half of the pupils were Black. “Today, there is only one or two who are Black, really Black,” he says.
“I married a White woman, from Moldova. My parents weren’t too keen but I loved her to bits,” says Sabri, who adds that there “is no racism here in the village. And in the town of Xanthi, they know us when they see us.”
Once, indeed, I was taken in to the police station because they thought I was an immigrant. They brought me to the police chief, I showed him my identity card and he stared at them before turning to me. ‘What’s he doing here?’ he said. And I said: ‘What have I been telling you all this time? Why did you bring me in for nothing? Leave me in peace!’ – Ogun Sabri (41)
Then he describes his experiences from travelling in Europe. “When I say that I’m Greek, people are amazed. Go and learn the history of your country, they tell me. Go to where you’re from.”
Has he ever been stopped by the Greek police? He laughs. “What should I tell you? … I think you can guess. They stop me and start asking ‘What are you doing here?’ and things like that. In Komotini, a nearby city, I’ve been stopped twice. Once, indeed, I was taken in to the police station because they thought I was an immigrant. They brought me to the police chief, I showed him my identity card and he stared at them before turning to me. ‘What’s he doing here?’ he said. And I said: ‘What have I been telling you all this time? Why did you bring me in for nothing? Leave me in peace!'”
Regarding the villagers origins, Sabri says that “nobody can tell you anything with certainty. And you end up not knowing who you are.”
“Up to some years ago, I was determined to find out, even to the point to using DNA. I looked up the head of the Sudanese community in Thessaloniki and I received an invitation to go there to look for my roots. But I didn’t go in the end. I got scared at the last minute. I don’t know why,” he says.
“My mother remembers them wearing rings in their nose. They’re the descendants of families who worked the fields of [the Ottoman governor of Egypt] Mehmet Ali,” says Ioannis Agkortsas, the local doctor in Avato, who says he tries to keep the locals in touch with their past.
“They were brought to work in the fields. At the time of the exchange of populations under the Lausanne treaty between Greece or Turkey, they were told they could stay or leave. They had nowhere else to go, so they stayed here. In 1923, they officially became Greek citizens and, as such, took a share of the estates left behind by the Turks, with the authority of the Greek government,” he says.
The community has received little attention from academics. The first researcher to write about the Blacks of Thrace was Prince Peter (1908–1980), the anthropologist grandson of King George I of Greece who studied the villages of northern Greece and was impressed by this particular community.
Young children play in the streets of Avato. “There are about 50 children in the village. The school is in Erasmio, about 40 minutes way on foot. We get there by car,” says Merve Sabri, a pretty middle school student.
Aged 14, she speaks English, Turkish, Greek and some German, listens to Greek and Turkish music, regrets that “so many children don’t go on to study after high school”, dreams of becoming a hairdresser and complains that there’s no cinema nearby.
“We pass the time on Facebook,” she says.
When it comes to genealogy, she doesn’t know much. What she does know, like most of the kids around, is that “my grandmother was Black”.
But the story of how their ancestors lived; their troubles, customs and traditions; their journey from Africa to Xanthi, their enslavement, and freedom in 1923, was lost forever in the stories told by grandparents that no one can now really remember, leaving Merve’s only links with Sudan in her hair and her lips.
Slowly but surely, a legend will be the only thing left. That Africans once lived in the village of Avato.
By: Alexandra Tzavella