ATHENS – Brooklyn-born Yvette Jarvis traveled to Greece in 1982 after graduating from the University of Massachusetts. An accomplished basketball player, she was recruited by Panathinaikos and became the first salaried player in the Greek Women’s Basketball League. Her celebrity status gave her the opportunity to speak about the rights of women, immigrants, and individuals with special needs. In 2002, she became the first African-American elected to the City Council of Athens. Recently, she spoke with The National Herald about her life, her connection to Greece, and her concern about human rights both in Greece and the United States. The interview follows.
TNH: Yvette, what took you to Greece, how long ago was that, and what made you stay there?
YJ: I was a basketball referee at the time, and the Hellenic College in Boston was on my circuit. I met a tall, dark, handsome Greek with whom I fell in love and left for Greece with in 1982. We later married and divorced but I fell in love with Greece and Greece with me!
I was like Alice in Wonderland, what was there not to love?I ate the mushroom and was a professional athlete, a famous model, aTV personality, a vocalist with a band that performed all over the country, a human rights activist and politician, an Athens City Councilor! The “first” of many feats, and the first African-American elected to public office in the history of the nation. Greece for me was paradise!
I met John Muller, an American in Greece from Pennsylvania, former teacher at the American Community School,a dog whisperer, owner of the LOBO Canine School,the founder of the Kennel Club of Greece, the founder of the Schutzhund Club of Greece, musician, composer, and vocalist, at Ax Maria, a famous club in Athens. It was one of my first singing jobs, he was composing songs with the guitar player there and needed a backup vocalist without an accent. The rest is history. We married and had a son.
TNH: When and why did you leave Greece?
YJ: My family left in August, 2012 to enroll my son in school in Denver and I joined them in December. We left Greece because like everyone else, it became increasingly difficult for us to survive. My husband’s teaching salary was reduced twice and at the end of the school year they announced there would be a third cut. My salary was greatly reduced as a performer and we were raising a 17-year-old for whose future we feared. We three were our “only” family in Greece. Of course, we were and are blessed to have lifelong friends and “koumbaroi,” but it’s not the same as having parents and grandparents, sisters, and brothers close by to help you. I lived in Greece for 30 years and my husband for 39years.
Greece was our home and it was an incredibly painful decision for me to have leave.
TNH: How easy or difficult was it for you and your family to adjust to life in the United States?
YJ: The decision to leave Greece was easier I think for my husband, who was more pragmatic than I. He understood that staying would have been the end of life as we knew it and that we would be in irreparable financial ruin. I did not want to leave and was in denial about the situation notably so that I didn’t believe it until I actually saw the movers in my home.
I know now that I went into a deep depression my first two years back in America. As much as I rejoiced at being closer to my family and friends, I missed Greece terribly! I thank God for my friends and family because they kept me whole, I don’t know what I would have done without them.
Adjusting to life in America wasn’t difficult per se, after all, my husband and I are Americans. We love the organization and the ease with which you can conduct business with the state. Everything is done online and we certainly don’t miss the chaotic bureaucracy in Greece.
My son, John (Jr.), was raised as a Greek with American parents so, miraculously, he adapted to life here in the States exceptionally well.
During our long transatlantic phone calls my husband would report how much our son had changed. John continued his sports and joined the soccer team, the track team and exceled in school. Social media kept him connected to his friends in Greece and when he graduated from high school, the only thing he asked for was to go home.
He received a scholarship from the Koklannis Foundation and attended the University of Colorado for a year studying business, then decided he wanted to follow his heart and become an audio engineer. He left for Phoenix, studied at the Conservatory of Arts and Sciences (CRAS), interned at Jimi Hendrix’ famed studio Electric Lady, and now works in New York at Flux Studios.
As for us, we found work easily enough despite all of the negativity we heard about the economy here.
We are both working in very different fields than what we had known in Greece, but working and living comfortably.I work for Denver Public Schools and John in corporate America in communications.
TNH: How different was everyday life there as compared to Athens?
YJ: Vastly different. First, I had to acclimate to day life versus night life. After I left the municipality in Athens, I formed my band and from 2010 until two days before I left I worked in clubs. I was VP of an International NGO, FARE (football against racism in Europe) and traveled all over Europe to board meetings. Athens and Greece have a special way of life, we Greeks live life.
Americans live to work, I think, and I awoke one day and exclaimed to my husband “I hate living for Friday.” I never thought about Fridays in Greece. I was constantly on the move in Athens rehearsing, TV appearances, volunteer work, etc.
I suppose being in Denverfar from family and New York City doesn’t help, either. We chose Denver because Johnhas family here and it was a much more friendly environment for our then-17-year-old to ease in to American culture.
What irony that our son is now in NYC and we are still here in Denver!
America has a sobering effect on you and life becomes work-home, work-home, work-home! Of course, we have the occasional night out and I visit my son and family in New York as often as I can. It’s great to visit old friends in Los Angeles, Virginia, and so on. They are all really happy that I am finally on this side of the pond.
TNH: After being away from America for so long, did you find it as you expected it to be?
YJ: I was astounded by the violence and the racism. America is a polarized nation and the current political climate is horrible.I had a rude awakening with the killings of unarmed black men and boys, even women! I was in disbelief.
I had to constantly speak with my son about the realities of being black in America. How he needed to conduct himself if confronted by the police. He knew absolutely nothing about those things. A childhood friend of mine’s husband is a retired detective from the NYPD, he gave John his card and told him to show it and tell them to call his uncle if he ever needed to.
Reality set in soon enough when he was stopped twice walking home late at night in a suburb of New Jersey, where he lives. Luckily, there was no confrontation but they gave him a ticket because he was walking in the street. They told him it was illegal!
If you know New Jersey suburban streets, most often there isn’t much of a sidewalk and people often walk near the curb.
Of course, his Greek mother told him to go to court and dispute the ticket. Some things never change. He did, and he won.
TNH: You were the first African-American elected to public office in Greece in October, 2002. What was that experience like?
YJ:It was the most amazing experience ever. Especially representing Athens here in America in New York and LA in 2004. I was extremely honored. Campaigning was grueling and I walked miles and miles, neighborhood to neighborhood, door to door. I wasn’t part of the political machinery, so often I was left out of the big political candidate gatherings, but I had a few good friends, such as N. Angelakis and V. Gardikis, who kept me abreast and would tell me go here, go there, this is happening and I would show up unannounced at Party gatherings, to the surprise of many.
What I did have was face recognition and name recognition. Everyone knew Yvette. I was really surprised to find out how many also knew me other than the model and the singer, they knew my political views on domestic violence, women’s rights, immigrants’ rights and the rights for those with disabilities. “Wow,” I thought,“they have been listening to me!” They have been following my work, years of volunteering and lobbying Parliament. They took me seriously. It wasn’t all roses, when the newspaper made some off-colored (no pun intended) remarks such as “Why would we need a black to whiten Athens?” The people defended me and their attitude was “keep your hands off of Yvette, she is one of us! She is more Greek than the Greeks!”
TNH: When and how did you decide to develop the Greek Language Program for Immigrant Mothers for the City of Athens?
YJ: I had been close to immigrant women’s organizations for many years and language was always a barrier. As a City Councilor I wanted to do something about that. I met with the women and we discussed their needs. I sent out a questionnaire to determine why they hadn’t learned Greek, the main barriers were time, childcare and hours the classes were offered.
I turned to teachers that I knew whom taught Greek as a second language and we developed the program. I set out to meet the women’s needs. I created a three-prong strategy, classes would be held early evening, their chosen days of the week and we would make use of the municipal daycare centers where their children attended and offer programs for any and all of their children for the two hours they would be in class.
The outcome was that women became familiar with going to school, teachers, and they learned the language. The program was extremely successful and at one point was adopted nationally by prefects.
TNH: What is your opinion on the immigrant situation that has been going on in Greece for the past year and a half?
YJ: I think you are referring to the refugee situation which is quite different from immigration. I think what is happening in Greece is a tragedy for the refugees and a testament to the fortitude, goodwill and charity of the Greeks.
I don’t think the EU has taken the appropriate measures to alleviate Greece’s burden and for sure the legal inability to send people back to countries of origin doesn’t help.
However you look at what is happening in the world, the wars in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan are tragedies against humanity with women and children suffering the most.
TNH: You were the coordinator for the Obama for President – Greece organization for American expats in Greece in 2008 and 2012. How did you feel when you read about and saw President Obama’s visit to Greece, especially his touring the Acropolis and giving an inspirational speech at the Stavros Niarchos Cultural Center?
In 2008 I joined the Obama campaign by forming the group Greece for Obama. We actively campaigned, blogged, held rallies and events to support his campaign. At the same time, I was also Vice Chair of Democrats Abroad and we held voter registration campaigns.
In 2012 I was Chair of Democrats Abroad and as a Party member we did all of the same types of events and campaigning for Obama’s reelection.Oh boy, was I incredibly sad when Obama finally went to Greece [because I was no longer there]. I had waited as Chair of Democrats Abroad for him to come. It was my dream to meet with him. I wanted him to know about the Black Greek who worked incredibly hard to get him elected both times and I wanted him to know about all I had accomplished in my adopted land. I was proud of him, I loved his speech and I enjoyed watching him at the Acropolis. I was proud of Greece.
TNH: How do you see President Trump’s governance after three months in office?
YJ: An embarrassment and scandalous. I feel violated and disturbed. He has rolled back every legislative protection for our health, clean air, clean seas, workers’ rights, school lunch, feeding the elderly, student loans etc. all by executive action!
Congress has yet to do anything except to pass a health bill that will leave 23 million people without health care. We as a nation have had our elections tampered with and he plays golf, spends millions in taxpayer money to stay in his own resorts. I am very concerned about the state of affairs here in the United States.
TNH: Do you see any similarities between events in Greece that led to the election of Alexis Tsipras and the election of Trump in the United States?
YJ: Yes, of course there are many similarities. People who were just fed up with the status quo. The two parties in power that continuously disappoint. The reactionary vote against the status quo and the demand for change.
TNH: What do you miss most about Greece?
YJ: I miss the lifestyle, the Greek temperament, the sea, the people…Greece is my home. I miss home!
TNH: If the economic situation becomes better in Greece, would you consider returning?or would you return for vacation?
YJ: If I could make a sustainable living, I would return to live in Greece in a heartbeat.