July 1, 2015 / 9:10 PM / 2 years ago

Fleeing a crisis, Greek migrants flock back to Australia

MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Greek translator Nikos Fotakis considers himself one of the lucky ones.

Spiro Caras stands out in front of his family-run shop located on Lonsdale Street in central Melbourne, Australia, July 1, 2015. REUTERS/Melanie Burton

At 39, he found himself virtually penniless, in debt, and desperate for ways to support his wife and two young children.

His escape route came via his wife’s birthplace. Fotakis left the turmoil in his homeland six months ago, arriving in Australia with few possessions but hope of a better future.

“I feel like I‘m on a lifeboat and seeing the Titanic sink,” said Fotakis from his new home in Melbourne.

“I‘m relieved but my people are still on that ship.”

Fotakis is one of tens of thousands of Greeks with Australian ties who are forming the biggest wave of immigration from Greece since the country’s civil war in the 1940s sent more than 150,000 Greeks to Australian shores.

This generation of immigrants is better educated than their forebears but many are just as poor, arriving with almost no money and reliant on the expatriate community’s charity.

In the cafes and shops of Melbourne’s Greek precinct, sandwiched between the city’s Chinatown and a major shopping center, the crisis is the only topic of conversation.

Melbourne has an estimated 300,000 Greeks, the largest grouping outside of Athens and Thessaloniki. A shop on Lonsdale Street’s “Little Greece” sells children’s books written in the Greek alphabet and replica number plates with Greek names on one side and the European Union emblem on the other.

The community is gearing up to welcome more new arrivals as Greece teeters on an exit from the euro zone after defaulting on a 1.6 billion euro loan repayment to the International Monetary Fund.

Welfare groups estimate between 10,000 and 20,000 Greek nationals have come to Australia since mid-2013, the majority of them dual nationals or with family ties to Australia.

“They’re coming back with nothing -  just a suitcase and trying to start up again,” said George Spiliotis, chief executive of the Melbourne-based Greek Welfare Society.

EXIT ROUTE

Jenny Karatzidis, student liaison officer at a privately held adult education school that also houses the Greek Centre for Contemporary Culture, returned to Australia two years ago.

Like Fotakis’ wife, Karatzidis was born in Australia to Greek parents who were part of the post-World War Two immigration wave. Both women were toddlers when their parents took them back to Greece in the 1970s. Between the 1970s and the middle of 2013, the migration path was firmly from Australia to Greece, with 120,000 Australian Greeks reported to be living in Athens.

Now the two women, returning as adults and bringing their own Greek born children, are reversing their parents’ path.

“Greece is very difficult, no work, no job, no future,” Karatzidis said.

Fotakis, who owned a cafe in Greece and now has a part-time job as a journalist with a Greek-language newspaper in Melbourne, arrived alone in December. It took him three months to find work and his wife and two toddler children followed him in March.

“I have heard people here complain they can’t find work and they have to spend four months looking,” Fotakis said.

“This is a joke. People over the age of 20 in Greece are ruined.”

Many Greek Australians are also looking for ways to send help to relatives who don’t have an exit route, with some ordering them groceries online.

Bill Papastergiadis, president of the Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne, said more Greeks than usual are heading back home for the northern summer, taking cash for relatives.

NATIONALITY A GIFT

In Melbourne, there is concern that as the number of new arrivals grows, so will pressure on the welfare system.

Many Greeks already stay in overcrowded homes with extended relatives. The network of jobs that the community can access will also shrink.

Papastergiadis said he has thousands of letters from people interested in moving to Australia. Peter Jasonides, managing director of Melbourne’s Institute of Tertiary and Higher Education Australia, warns it is a tough road.

“Don’t just come blindly, and don’t expect people to be waiting for you at the airport with signs saying there’s a job for you,” he said.

Still, for the many Greeks who have come on the basis of nationality by descent or marriage, they know there are many more back home who would take their place. Entry to Australia for those without family ties is dependent on a skilled migrant or a student visa, both of which come with long waits and hefty fees.

“My parents gave me a really big gift,” said Karatzidis of her Australian nationality.

Editing by Rachel Armstrong

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