By Ewa Kern-Jedrychowska
With Greece’s economy reeling and its unemployment rate running more than 20 percent, growing numbers of Greeks are leaving their homeland. Many are landing in America, but for some, that landing is hard.
Mikhael Klouvas works the night shift at a Greek-owned diner in the Bronx, serving burgers and grilled chicken sandwiches to latecomers. At age 65, Klouvas never thought he’d be doing this kind of work.
Back in Greece he owns a restaurant in a fancy Athens neighbourhood, but skyrocketing taxes and a shrinking clientele brought it to the brink of bankruptcy.
“Used to be, people were lining up on the street to get in the restaurant. Now, forget it,” Klouvas said. “Everything go up, the prices and cost of food go up and salaries and wages go down, so people don’t have no money to go out.”
Klouvas arrived in New York last spring. He belongs to a growing group of Greeks with U.S. citizenship who’ve recently returned to America.
His wife stayed behind to close down the business, and she plans to join him in a few months.
Klouvas is bitter about what’s happened in Greece.
“I feel sorry I invested money over there. I don’t even want to get buried over there,” he said. “I don’t want to go there. It’s bad.”
It’s hard to know exactly how many Greeks have moved to the U.S. in recent months. But Dean Sirigos of the Greek-American weekly, the National Herald, expects the numbers to climb as Greeks feel the pinch of government austerity programs.
“Although people have already started to struggle, the suicide rate has increased in Greece appreciably, the rate of homelessness is obvious, the major impact of the austerity has not hit yet,” Sirigos said. “The major layoffs from government have not hit yet, and the greatest pain might be experienced in the next year or two.”
The troubles in Greece also affect Greek-Americans who planned to move back.
“That dream is in hibernation because, at this point, they would be going back to a country in crisis,” said Sirigos.
Anna Eliopoulos is a case in point. She’s 25-year-old audio engineer at a Greek radio station in Queens. Eliopoulos was born in the U.S., but she spent a lot of time in Greece and planned to join her parents there.
“It’s a matter of where I feel most at home. Honestly I feel that I can contribute something that would be valued way more there than it is here,” Eliopoulos said.
But now – with Greece’s media sector cutting wages and jobs – her plans on are hold.
“This would be the worst time for me to try to find the job there,” she said. “I’m worried that I might not be able to go back and still be young enough to be an ‘active part’ of the job market. I’m just hoping that I don’t get there and that’s time for me to retire.”
Greeks in the U.S. have been trying to help those back home. But remittances have plummeted since 2008, as people here struggle with their own economic problems. Still, that hasn’t stopped one Greek-American from trying to promote Greece’s tourism industry.
Takis Vassos owns a travel agency in Astoria, a neighborhood in Queens. When he talks to clients, he pushes Greece as a destination.
“If somebody comes to my office and wants to go to France, let’s say, I’m trying to convince them to go to Greece. Everybody likes to go to Greece.”
And Vassos says the prices are down.
Maybe that’s one small upside to Greece’s financial woes.
Ewa Kern-Jedrychowska is a New York-based reporter for Feet in Two Worlds, which brings the work of immigrant journalists to public radio. It’s a project of the Center for New York City Affairs at The New School.