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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

As Italians head to polls, the people of Greece are grappling with a very fundamental question: Who is Greek? Three years ago, Greece's parliament passed a law making it easier for the children of legal immigrants to apply for citizenship. But the country's highest administrative court just struck down that law.

Joanna Kakissis reports from Athens that the decision reflects popular anxiety about the ability of Greece's battered economy to absorb newcomers. It also taps into centuries-old emotions about protecting an ancient national identity.

(SOUNDBITE OF A CROWD AND MUSIC)

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Jackie Abhulimen is a petite and lively college student from Athens. She's hanging out with friends at a jazz cafe in a bohemian neighborhood.

JACKIE ABHULIMEN: I enjoy going out just as the next Greek kid. You know, the whole, let's go out, let's have fun, let's dance, let's laugh. That's so Greek and that is just so familiar.

KAKISSIS: Jackie's mom is from Kenya and her dad is from Nigeria. She was born, raised and educated in Athens and speaks Greek fluently. But Jackie is not a Greek citizen.

Unlike in the United States, birth in European countries does not confer automatic citizenship. Jackie wants to be a Greek citizen and applied for her passport nearly three years ago.

At that time, former Interior Minister Yiannis Ragousis told parliament that he wanted to make it easier for people like Jackie to get citizenship.

YIANNIS RAGOUSIS: (Through Translator) If someone really wants to become a Greek citizen, something which is an honor for this country, then we must create an efficient, respectful and transparent process through they can apply for it.

KAKISSIS: Ragousis says the process of applying for citizenship was riddled with corruption. Unless you paid bribes or had political connections, you often had to wait at least 10 years for anyone to even look at your application. So he sponsored a legislation, adopted in early 2010, that fast-tracked citizenship for the Greek-born children of legal residents who had lived in the country for at least five years.

But Antonis Samaras, now the prime minister, lobbied to overturn the law. And earlier this month, the country's highest administrative court obliged. Now tens of thousands of people like Jackie Abhulimen are in limbo.

Dimitris Christopoulos, who leads the Hellenic League for Human Rights, says Samaras believes Greeks are a nation and that this law would abolish nationhood.

DIMITRIS CHRISTOPOULOS: He is convinced that nationhood is based on racial belonging. He uses that as communication tool in his political campaign.

KAKISSIS: Prime Minister Samaras capitalized on rising Greek fear of foreigners in a TV interview just before his party prevailed in elections last spring.

ANTONIS SAMARAS: (Foreign language spoken)

KAKISSIS: He said he planned to wipe out the new citizenship law and stop giving handouts to immigrants at a time when Greeks are suffering.

Growing up black, Jackie Abhulimen was made to feel that Greece was not really her home.

ABHULIMEN: Well, I was always made to feel from the textbooks how the foreigner is always viewed as something negative, something threatening, something like they're coming after us and we must defeat them.

KAKISSIS: Some Greeks believe that defeating foreigners will protect Greek language and culture, which has survived for centuries through wars and occupations, says Nikos Konstandaras, a newspaper editor and essayist.

NIKOS KONTANDARAS: For example, the triumphs of Alexander the Great, they mingle with the fall of Constantinople and the loss of Asia Minor. And so on, as if they were all part of everybody's life.

KAKISSIS: He says that Greeks especially see the 400-year occupation of the country by the Ottoman Turks as a time when preserving identity was a matter of life or death.

KONTANDARAS: The fact that their lives depended on the Ottomans' wishes helped define who was on one side, and who was on the other, to a very, very strong extent. That has sunk in, in the Greeks. And there is that sense of us against them all the time.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "HECUBA")

STEFANOS MWABE: (as Polymester) (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) (Foreign language spoken)

MWABE: (as Polymester) (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) (Foreign language spoken)

MWABE: (as Polymester) (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) (Foreign language spoken)

KAKISSIS: Stefanos Mwagbe, a well-known actor of Ugandan descent, was born in Athens and is a proud Greek citizen. He says Greek history and mythology have always been part of his life. He's now playing three roles in "Hecuba," a play by Euripides.

His experience as a naturalized Greek citizen is exceptional. His parents, a doctor and a nurse, are among a handful of Africans who work high-profile jobs at Greek hospitals. The police officers who stop other black men on suspicion of being undocumented migrants ask Stefanos for his autograph. He wishes his homeland was more welcoming to people like Jackie Abhulimen.

MWABE: (Foreign language spoken)

KAKISSIS: Anyone who's born here ought to have the chance to become a Greek, he says. Why feel like a foreigner in your own home?

For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis in Athens.

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