Greek nationals move to Melbourne to escape growing economic, social crisis


Antonis Kontogonis

The bleak economic outlook in Greece has seen thousands of people move to Australia to find work and join their extended families, with many coming to Melbourne, the city with the largest Greek population outside the country itself.

Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras is due to meet with eurozone officials and the International Monetary Fund to put the finishing touches on a deal to prevent a debt default at the end of the month.

New concessions designed to break the deadlock, which included introducing higher taxes and gradually increasing the retirement age to 67, provoked anger from anti-austerity protesters in Athens overnight.

Bill Papstergiadis, the president of the Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne and Victoria, estimates that in the past three years about 10,000 Greek nationals have come to Australia.

He said it was a level not seen since the 1970s.

“They’re coming back to a country where quite a few of them either were born here and left at a very young age with their parents, or they left as young adults and have been away for 20 or 30 years,” he said.

“So their connection to the drivers of life and society and commerce in this country are very limited, and that’s created some difficulties … for them.

Media player: “Space” to play, “M” to mute, “left” and “right” to seek.

“Certainly from the Greek community’s perspective here in Melbourne, what it’s meant is there has to be renewed focus in terms of providing services to migrants, something we weren’t used to for the last 30, 40 years.”

Mr Papstergiadis said his organisation had received thousands of letters from people in Greece seeking help.

“One I received last week was from an engineer who hasn’t been able to find work for three years, and got to the point now where he’s got three children, can’t feed them,” he said.

“His letter to us was ‘help me, I don’t know what to do or where to turn to to feed my kids, is there anything I can do, I’m happy to wash plates’.

“We’re seeing an exodus out of Greece. We’re seeing a brain-drain, many young people who are highly educated, highly qualified looking for jobs elsewhere.”

Moving to Melbourne for strong community links

Construction worker Antonis Kontogonis moved to Melbourne two months ago to find work.

“I come from Athens. I’m the eldest, I have a sister and three more brothers,” the 40-year-old said.

“I used to belong to a middle class family, and [then] all of a sudden things were getting tight and I could not find work.

“I have been two years out of work now.

“I came to find new opportunities. I knew there were quite a few Greeks here, that’s why I’ve had a go.”

He said other family members moved throughout Europe, including England and Norway, to find work.

“I would like to be back [in Athens] but unfortunately, that cannot be.”

‘You really can’t see light at the end of the tunnel’

Nikos and Chrystal Psaltopoulos live in Richmond, in Melbourne’s inner-east, but are following their relatives’ struggles back in Greece.

“We’re almost all-consumed by it because it affects people that we know about, that we care about and that we love,” Mr Psaltopoulos said.

“And what’s really distressing is that you really can’t see light at the end of the tunnel.

People are going hungry. People don’t have food to eat. They have no jobs.

Nikos Psaltopoulos

“It is quite dire, because people refer to this as a Greek debt crisis and what they’re missing is that this is a massive humanitarian crisis of a level that we haven’t seen before since the Great Depression.

“What that means is that people are going hungry. People don’t have food to eat. They have no jobs.

“There are families that are living on the income of one person, generations of families that are doing that at the moment.

“You see Athens now and it’s really a ghost town. It’s a ghetto of what it used to be.”

Mr Papstergiadis said it was difficult for Greek-Australians to watch the effect the economic crisis is having on their relatives overseas.

“It’s soul destroying because we’re seeing people we know who are educated working for less than $3 an hour,” he said.

“You have almost 60 per cent unemployment for people under the age of 28, while the average starting salary for them is roughly equivalent to $200 a week.

“And when prices are equivalent to Melbourne prices in Athens, you can tell people are living well below the poverty line.”

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