Three times an immigrant

Αθήνα, 2012

Panayotis Sfalagakos, December 2014

When delving into the history of modern Greece, one fact that surely stands out in the mind of the student is the recurring theme of emigration and domestic depopulation. At what seem to be almost regular intervals, political, economic, social and other factors and considerations spur a new wave of Greeks to migrate, either internally (from rural to urban areas) or beyond the borders of the country, to foreign lands, both near and far.

Thus, the post-2008 ‘Greek crisis’ period may be viewed as simply constituting but the latest instalment in the history of Greek mass emigration.

On this occasion conditions are significantly different, however, in at least two respects:

a) In general, as is happening today, many Greek immigrants in the past seemed to leave their country with little or no money; however, they also immigrated with little or no accumulated debt, and also regarded their family home as something ‘sacred’ which had to be retained at all costs, and which would be passed down, eventually. Based on my observations, this is the first time that many, many Greeks are immigrating who have amassed much private debt—e.g. high credit card balances, unpaid personal and business loans and mortgages, state health and pension fund contributions, and so forth, unable to make payments and all of these debts in arrears—coupled with unpaid property and other taxes owed to the state; this has led many to attempt to sell their properties—including the cherished family home—in order to pay off debt and prevent the accumulation of further sums owed (and this, trying to sell in a housing market that has collapsed). Whereas immigrant Greeks used to work overseas to remit their earnings and support their families in Greece, they now do the same, but a great portion of the money they send home goes directly towards reducing their debt levels; and,
b) Unlike in the past, there has also been a substantial internal migration from urban centres to rural areas—especially tourist destinations—in the hope of securing employment. Many people have returned to ‘the village’, to the often dilapidated family home, seeking less expensive shelter and a decrease in their subsistence expenses. Some of those who have returned to the provinces have also begun farming, an area of activity that seemed to be avoided and neglected in recent decades. This is an important reversal, and may indeed constitute the first occasion (in times of ‘peace’) that this urban-to-rural shift has occurred (likely the first in the past 65 years or so). For some, this return to rural areas may constitute their sole option (they cannot leave the country) or may be their ‘last-ditch attempt’ to stay in Greece, before having no choice but to immigrate abroad.
I believe that both of these differences from previous periods of (im)migration are significant, and may indeed constitute ‘firsts’, and consequently may warrant further research.


Prior to the present (and still ongoing) ‘exodus’ (and leaving aside the decades-old depopulation of rural areas stemming from internal migration to urban areas, and also the sizable number of Greeks who leave each year to pursue academic studies abroad and subsequently remain there), arguably the previous major period of mass emigration took place during the course of the 1967-1974 military dictatorship, when thousands fled for political and/or economic reasons, primarily.

It was within that atmosphere and during that wave that my parents boarded the Queen Anna Maria with their two very young children and sailed through the Mediterranean, crossing the Atlantic to a ‘New World’ and ‘new life.’

In Canada they found a ‘clean slate.’ It was a changing and growing country, still relatively new, evolving and in transformation but at the same time stable, a land that welcomed newcomers with open arms and vast fields of opportunity, and which even (unofficially) encouraged chain migration to feed its booming economy. Canada proudly promoted its growing multicultural society as a ‘mosaic’, in contrast to the ‘melting pot’ espoused south of the border. Each immigrant group was a distinct, original and invaluable digit in that ‘mosaic’.

There, my father was not only reunited with two of his brothers, but even with old middle school mates from provincial Greece, thousands of kilometres away from the villages and towns where they had all been born and raised, and which they had left, for so many reasons, most of them related to poverty and lack of opportunity.

Everything was more ‘advanced’ or ‘developed’ in Canada: The education system, the health system, the social state, the infrastructure, telecommunications, the legal system, the economy in general… There was political freedom, too.

In their new—and so different and diverse—country, most of them wished and sought to retain their Greekness, their Greek identity, and built on it (in some cases unknowingly) by incorporating elements of Canadian culture. The local Greek Orthodox Church and Greek community provided the quickest, easiest and most familiar point of reference and gathering spot, an opportunity to meet (with) fellow Greek-Canadians and ‘learn the ropes’, to become ‘initiated’ into their new surroundings and gather information on social, political and economic matters, to keep Greek customs, traditions and their native tongue alive and attempt to bequeath these to their descendents.

Being first-generation immigrants ourselves, my sister and I soon realised that we differed greatly from other children born to local Greeks; firstly, these children had been born here, many of their parents having already made the transition to life in this country, and having incorporated local elements into their lives. Their children’s native language was English, ours Greek. They learned Greek as a second language, one only occasionally spoken and heard, and to this day still carry their linguistic errors and Canadian-tinged Greek accents with them. They are proud Canadians of Greek descent.

In contrast, my sister and I always felt out of place, floating in one of those in-between grey spots where so many immigrants reside. Neither Canadian nor Greek. Not even Greek-Canadian. The balance tilted towards the Greek, owing to birth, language and memory.

Our somewhat naive and idealistic (both in retrospect) but at the same time genuine and well-meaning love of and for Greece and what it represents eventually carried both of us back to that country. After graduating from university in Canada and completing postgraduate studies in the UK, I re-settled in Greece, fulfilled my military obligations (stemming from the fact that I had been born there and consequently was in the Registry of Males), and subsequently found employment. I ended up moving from Athens to provincial Greece after a number of years, newly married, in order to enjoy what could be termed as a ‘more natural and pure Greek way of life’. It was there that our two children were born a few years later.

In the two decades I lived in Greece I worked at a variety of jobs, both as an employee and self-employed, both in the private and public sectors. The most constant of these was that of translator. I carried out translations in almost any field imaginable during those 20 years.

Today, there seems to be a romantic perception on the part of many that ‘pre-crisis’ Greece was a land of plenty and abundance, of unbridled growth and prosperity, of unbound promises and prospects for the future, a dreamy time when everything was fine and worked well—for all. I believe that anyone who lived in Greece during that ‘golden age’, if asked to comment with sincerity and honesty, would admit that it glittered but was not gold—for many, if not most. For example, for three years during that period I worked in the civil service as a contract employee. My contract stated that I would be paid monthly. In practice, the state paid me every six to eight months, on average. How did it expect me to live, to pay my taxes? And I was not alone; this was the rule—not the exception—in much of the public sector—and not only. Were those, I wonder, the ‘good old days’ people talk about today?

It was in that milieu that I had attempted to present (and perhaps propagate) the view and sincere personal belief that all of this could not last, and that we should perhaps consider re-thinking our outlook and attempt to change things ourselves, beginning with the individual and his or her personal responsibility and extending this to the communal level (from ‘me’ to ‘we’, in simple terms), before it would be too late and drastic measures would be introduced and implemented—from without and within the country.

My involvement and that of other like-minded individuals in the Greek local political scene was an extension of this view and endeavour, an offshoot that stemmed from an attempt to transform theory into practice. It was surprisingly successful, but premature (yet, strangely enough, at the same time too late).

The aftershocks of the economic collapse hastened the departure of our family from the country. Originally, we had hoped to relocate to the UK, so as to be geographically close to Greece, but this proved impossible owing to the fact that I was unable to find employment there.

Our last choice was Canada. So far away. Our children and I have Canadian citizenship, which made it an option. Again, an immigrant couple with two young children—not on a boat now, but on a plane. This time, however, both the adults and the children were much older, with fewer opportunities, in troubled economic times the world over, a world more financially-intertwined and fragile than ever.

But hope is the last to leave, as they say. Like all immigrants, we arrived with only hope in our baggage, and a dream of a better life and more opportunities for ourselves and our children.

This hope, however, was soon to be dispersed by reality, like the morning mist by the sun. Things were not so sound in Canada. Like someone returning to his or her village after many, many years, only to come face-to-face with the shock of the deep changes precipitated by the passage of time, I rapidly came to discover that conditions and circumstances were not even remotely ideal, and many of the positive elements had been lost through the years. The list is endless:

  • Severely cut-back social services; a health system once the pride of Canadians and renowned the world over, now increasingly privatised with only skin and bones remaining;
  • An understaffed, underfunded, overcrowded education system propped up all the more by the volunteer efforts of parents and guardians’ associations, with no funds available even for new copies of books and a visibly deteriorating school infrastructure;
  • The clear-cutting of forests—both governments and citizens were once so environmentally-conscious and -sensitive—to make way for new multi-unit residential or mixed ‘developments’ (in other words, forests of buildings and immense car parks are in the process of replacing forests of trees), moved along by the false dilemma ‘either forests, or construction and jobs for the economy’; this clear-cutting of forests, along with shale gas ‘fracking’, the pollution caused by the exploitation of the tar sands, and the mining activities of Canadian companies abroad have all helped transform the country into one deeply criticised around the world for the destruction of the natural environment;
  • The shift in Canadian foreign policy and the transformation of Canada from a respected, independent international peacekeeper to an active military ally of the US and unquestioning, staunch supporter and instrument of US foreign policy;
  • The increasing and apparent non-involvement and apathy of citizens and residents in political processes, and the curtailment of civil and labour rights; and,
  • Lastly, among many other things, the now tightly interwoven relationship between the economic/financial sectors and the state, and the resulting spike in corruption, at all levels of government and elsewhere, which is not only rampant but also tacitly accepted, as there is no public debate and no apparent will on the part of the state to locate and punish this corruption, and ideally eradicate the problem. News reports have exposed corruption in the Canadian Senate, in election campaigns, in state procurements and shipbuilding contracts. But this extends all the way down to the local level, to the personal level. Wherever one goes—from the independently-owned hairdresser’s to the self-employed auto mechanic’s—a receipt is rarely, if ever, issued. An electrician even took the initiative and provided me with two quotes: This much with a receipt, this much without.

In the 1970s and 1980s taxation was lower, the tax base was smaller, health and education expenditures were at a greater rate but there was little, if any, state debt. How could it be explained that today, despite much higher taxation, a larger tax base, so many cutbacks in state spending and in the number of civil service employees, so much state debt has been accumulated that there is a danger of it becoming unserviceable and things like state pensions being slashed?

Well, so much then for the view unabatedly presented in the global media in the run-up to the ‘Greek bailout’ that Greece is rife with corruption and tax evasion. A quick internet search on corruption in Canada confirms that the gap between Greece and Canada (and, indeed, the rest of the ‘West’) is not as large as once presented or believed, unfortunately.

I also saw this illustrated in practice when seeking ‘gainful employment’; wherever I went to apply for a position, whomever I talked to—from state-funded and privately owned job-seeking agency employees to friends—they all concluded our conversation with the following phrase, which they uttered under their breath: ‘It’s who you know…’

Unable to find a job, despite my qualifications and employment experience (but no ‘who I know’), I was forced to borrow money and buy what used to be my father’s takeaway food business many years ago, along with my sister, who also immigrated to Canada from Greece with her two children (in their 20s), they, too, ousted by the demolition and collapse of the Greek economy.

All told, would we have been better there? Likely not—but things are not much better here, it turns out. That makes our nostalgia even deeper, and intensifies our feeling that we are living in exile, yearning, like Odysseus, to return ‘home’ one day (wherever ‘home’ may be, when you have no country).

In the meantime, and in my sparse free time, I still translate, and am registered in Canada as a ‘Certified Translator’, after passing written examinations. But instead of translating literary works, like I once did and so enjoyed, the greatest demand by far has been coming from fellow immigrants from Greece, who are arriving in droves, and need their official documents translated in order to apply to extend their visit or become permanent residents in this country.

Translating the documents of immigrants in Canada is something I had never imagined I would be doing. But then again, I did not think I would become an immigrant three times either, twice to Canada and once to Greece.

Panayotis Sfalagakos, December 2014

Photograph: Michel Fais

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