Battling Economic Woes at Home, Greeks Look to NY for New Prospects

Takis Vassos, owner of Pegasus Travel, a travel agency in Astoria

Takis Vassos, owner of Pegasus Travel, a travel agency in Astoria. (Photo: Ewa Kern-Jedrychowska/WNYC)

This story originally aired on WNYC.

With Greece’s economy reeling and its unemployment rate about 18 percent, some Greeks are trying their luck in the U.S. — especially true in the stronghold of Astoria, Queens, where Greek stores, restaurants and travel agencies dot Ditmars Boulevard and 31st Street.

Maria, a waitress at a trendy Astoria café, came to New York from Athens 1-1/2 years ago when Greece’s financial problems started taking their toll. Though the U.S. economy is also struggling with just shy of 9 percent unemployment, she said prospects in the U.S. seem better than in Greece.

“I want to stay here and maybe bring my family from Greece — my parents and my brother,” she said.

Maria, who didn’t want to give her last name because she did not want to be identified, was born in the U.S. and moved with her Greek parents back to Greece when she was a child.

After Greece restored democracy and joined the European Union in 1981, the country experienced remarkable economic prosperity. Many Greek families who had been living in the U.S., including Maria’s, decided to return to their homeland. Now the situation has shifted again.

But it’s not only those who have U.S. citizenship that come to America. It’s been easy for Greeks to travel to the U.S. since Greece joined the Visa Waiver Program in 2010.

Antonio Meloni, the executive director at a non-profit immigration outreach center Immigration Advocacy Services. (Photo: Ewa Kern-Jedrychowska/WNYC)

Antonio Meloni, the executive director at a non-profit immigration outreach center Immigration Advocacy Services, has noticed an increase in Greek clients in the past two months.

He says many ask him questions like: “How do you stay? Can I go to school? Can I get married? Can I get a job?”

“Now they’re coming back because of the economic situation,” he said, “and a lot of them have ties here, and of course in Greece, and they coming back wholesale. The whole families are coming back. …  So that is very unusual but it is definitely happening.”

Astoria’s Greek-American school is trying to accommodate a small but growing group of students who have recently relocated from Greece.

“We try to offer some remedial classes for these students because a lot of them come here without any background in English language,” said Helen Hartofilis, the middle school coordinator at St. Demetrios School, where students can also learn Greek history and the Greek Orthodox faith. “They find a transition from Greece to here easier for them because of our culture, because of our religion.”

Because it is a relatively small school of predominately Greek students — about 600 total in pre-K through 12th grade — it is easy to see when recent Greek immigrants enroll in the school.

Helen Hartofilis, the middle school coordinator at St. Demetrios School in Astoria. (Photo: Ewa Kern-Jedrychowska for WNYC)

It’s hard to know exactly how many Greeks have come to the U.S. in recent months. The city planning department has data on the number of immigrants in the city, but the data is not up-to-date enough to show recent trends.

But Dean Sirigos, a senior writer at the National Herald, a Greek-American paper based in Long Island City, Queens, expects the numbers to increase as the situation in Greece becomes more difficult under the government’s austerity program.

“The major impact of the austerity has not hit yet; the major layoffs from government have not hit yet,” he said. “The greatest pain might be experienced in the next year or two.”

Sirigos said the situation also affects Greek-Americans who are approaching retirement age and had planned to spend their golden years in their homeland.

“That dream is in hibernation because at this point they would be going back to a country in crisis,” he said.

Meanwhile the New York Greek community wonders what they can do to help their homeland. Greek-American organizations and business leaders have reached out to the Greek government to discuss potential investments.

Promoting tourism — which contributes 15 percent to Greece’s Gross Domestic Product — is one initiative. Local travel agents are working on it.

“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. And everybody likes to go to Greece,” said Takis Vassos, who has owned a travel agency in Astoria since 1966.

Vassos also said many Greeks in Astoria try to directly help their relatives in their homeland by sending them dollars.

But the pool of jobs in the U.S. has shrunk too and it’s clear the Greek diaspora has been dealing with its own problems. World Bank data indicates that remittances to Greece went down from $2.7 billion in 2008 to $1.5 billion in 2010.

“We had our own financial meltdown in the United States. The job market in New York is not very stable, many people are losing their jobs, there are many people on unemployment, who have been on unemployment for over a year now,” said Assemblywoman Aravella Simotas (D-Astoria) who sees Greek immigrants of all professional backgrounds dropping by her office to ask about finding work, even those who were doctors or architects in Greece.

Feet in Two Worlds is a project of the Center for New York City Affairs at The New School, supported by the New York Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation with additional support from the Mertz Gilmore Foundation.

AboutEwa Kern-Jedrychowska
Ewa Kern-Jedrychowska was born and raised in Warsaw, Poland, and has lived in Queens, NY, since 2001. A former Feet in 2 Worlds reporter, Ewa now works as a staff reporter for covering Queens. She was formerly a reporter for Nowy Dzienik/The Polish Daily News, where she covered stories about Polish immigrants in the U.S.