There’s no place like home — unless your home has been ravaged by colossal debt, political crisis and blazing riots.
The economic situation in Greece, which has buried the country in a quagmire of debt and left more than a million of its citizens jobless and broke, has triggered a new wave of immigration to the United States as Greeks leave their homeland in search of a better life. Many of these immigrants are settling in Astoria, the Queens neighborhood that has for decades been home to a significant Greek population.
Immigration officials say the number of Greeks seeking legal residence in the United States is at a five-year high. Nine hundred forty-nine Greeks were granted permanent resident status by the Department of Homeland Security in 2011, an increase of 27.3 percent since 2010. That number does not include Greeks who have yet to acquire permanent status, who enter the country illegally or who already possess a green card and are returning to the United States after years of living in Greece.
Georgia Apostolidis, who runs the traditional Greek restaurant Stamatis in Astoria, has her 27-year-old nephew and her 23-year-old niece living with her. They arrived three months ago on temporary visas in the hope of getting a job.
“My nephew had a job for six years in the restaurant business. My niece worked at a dance studio, but it got closed down,” said Apostolidis. She said her nephew and niece, who do not speak English well, were looking for employment in Greece for six or seven months before moving to the U.S.
Although they have not yet secured jobs or permanent visas in New York, she said their prospects are bleaker in Greece. “They want to stay [here],” Apostolidis said. “They don’t want to go back.”
New Yorkers who work with Greek immigrants have noticed the influx. “We usually have about 200 clients a month,” said Antonio Meloni, the executive director of Immigration Advocacy Services, an Astoria-based nonprofit that offers legal and practical advice for immigrants. “We’re now seeing 300.”
Meloni said he first started noticing the increase a year and a half ago, when Greece was reeling from increasingly stringent austerity measures after receiving a $145 billion bailout package in 2010. “People aren’t stupid,” Meloni said. “They tend to see what’s going to happen.”
Since the spring of 2010, when Greek bond yields soared after the country’s government debt rating was downgraded to “junk,” Greece’s unemployment rate has climbed steadily from the 10 to 12 percent around which it hovered to an all-time high of 25.4 percent in August 2012. The unemployment rate among 15 to 24 year olds is above 50 percent, compared to 17.4 percent in the U.S.
“Greece is in a dire situation on all fronts and on every level,” said Neni Panourgia, a visiting associate professor of anthropology at Bard College in Manhattan. The job losses and austerity measures taken by the government have “pushed young people to leave,” she said. Most are choosing Northern European countries such as Holland, Norway and Sweden, as relocating within the Eurozone is simpler than emigrating to the U.S., which can have difficult entry regulations. The U.S. immigration system makes it easier for Greeks who already have family here or come with special skills; 65 percent of the Greeks granted permanent residency last year said they were immediate relatives of U.S. citizens, data from the Department of Homeland Security shows, while a fifth cited employment-based reasons.
Evie Poulakis, 31, moved to Astoria two months ago. Born in Athens, she spent her early childhood years in the U.S., lived in Greece between the ages of 5 and 24 and moved back to the U.S. in 2005 – and she has an American passport.
But after a four-year stint in Athens to have her second child, Poulakis found that her husband’s green card had expired, as he had stayed away from the U.S. for too long. This delayed her family’s return here and the visa paperwork set her back more than $7,500.
Staying in Athens was not an option, Poulakis said. “Greece is a nice country — very beautiful — but it doesn’t have any jobs anymore. [We had to move here] for my kids — they didn’t have nothing.” Despite the difficulties she encountered, Poulakis said she is lucky to have a U.S. passport. “All my friends want to come, but they don’t have someone to take them here.”
Like previous Greek immigrants, many in the new wave are making their home in Astoria, which is believed to house the largest Greek population outside of Athens. According to estimations by the American Census Survey, almost 15,000 people in the Astoria area identify as Greek.
“It’s very important to them to be in a Greek community,” said Jeannie Kouros, founder of the Hellenic Immersion Program, a school in Astoria that teaches immigrants to speak English and prepares them for naturalization. “They are very proud of their country and they are proud of their language. But you have to know when it’s time for change.”