Greece May Be Turning a Corner. Greeks Who Fled Are Staying Put.
Posted June 5, 2018 9:26 p.m. EDT
DUESSELDORF, Germany — After a decade of economic pain, Greece finally appears to be back on track. Try telling that to the Greeks who left and have no plans to return, like Constantine Kakoyiannis.
As Kakoyiannis raised a glass of pilsner beer, he toasted his girlfriend at a German cafe in Duesseldorf, alongside 40 of their friends. The group, part of a club of expatriate Greek engineers, was welcoming several newcomers who had fled Greece in just the last few months.
“The situation isn’t getting better,” Kakoyiannis said. “When you realize that your country has become a cemetery of dreams, you need to find dreams elsewhere.”
While the Continent is finally emerging from the economic crisis, Greece still faces challenges. Nearly half a million Greeks have become economic migrants since the crisis began, one of the biggest exoduses from any eurozone country.
And they are still leaving.
Among them are doctors, technicians, architects and other skilled professionals as well as recent graduates who continue to stake out Europe’s prosperous north for work. Kakoyiannis managed to secure a coveted job as an engineer, and his girlfriend followed him here.
As Athens prepares in August to exit an eight-year dependency on international financial bailouts and repay those debts, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has declared a recovery. Growth is showing some signs of a long-awaited rebound. Recently, Tsipras unveiled a new economic blueprint for Greece and urged Greeks to return to help rebuild the country. European leaders are heralding the symbolic end to a Greek debt crisis that began in 2010.
Yet for many Greeks who escaped their fractured economy, the optimism seems premature. A fifth of Greeks are still unemployed, and the economy remains smaller than it was a decade ago. And the political uncertainty in Italy, with the pall it casts over the fate of the euro, has the potential to undermine the progress that Greece has achieved.
“When an economy has been destroyed, it takes many years to rebuild,” said Vasilis Kapoglou, who founded the Greek Engineers of North Rhine-Westphalia club after leaving Greece in 2013, as construction projects dried up. “The bailout may be ending, but the problems that drove people away aren’t.”
Many who have come here followed a path cut by an older cadre of Greeks in the 1950s, when Germany sought guest workers for mining and construction to rebuild cities after World War II. Today, in North Rhine-Westphalia, a booming industrial region that includes Duesseldorf and Cologne, an estimated 130,000 Greeks ply in-demand modern skills at German technology, telecommunications and construction companies, as well as banks, hospitals and pharmacies. So many Greeks have descended on Duesseldorf in recent years that a mini-Athens is thriving. Near the central train station, Greek tavernas and cafes are filled with cosmopolitan young Greeks sipping frappé coffee and puffing on rolled cigarettes, a scene reminiscent of any Athenian square.
A boutique, run by Greeks from the wave of guest workers in the ‘50s, offers white taffeta baby dresses and sugarcoated almonds, traditional symbols of Greek Orthodox baptisms. At the Cafe Byzantio, Greeks savor baklava desserts while playing backgammon. Tickets for trains, planes and buses headed home are sold at a busy Greek travel agency festooned with nostalgia-inducing posters of the Parthenon and the sunny Aegean Islands.
At the forefront of the continued emigration wave are engineers. While investors are showing renewed interest in Greece, construction, development and technology-related projects there are still struggling to recover.
“Engineers are connected to the development of a country,” said Martha Ouzounidou, a chemical engineer from Thessaloniki who came to Duesseldorf in October after landing work at a German maker of electric car batteries. “But there is no development happening in Greece.”
Engineers who stay behind tend to be supported by parents, or are finding mainly low-paying jobs working on hotel construction linked to tourism, one of the country’s few growth sectors, Kapoglou said.
At the cafe where his club gathered on a recent Saturday, there were at least five new Greek engineers who had moved to Duesseldorf in recent months. They quickly landed jobs. The club now counts nearly 900 members.
“The Germans have welcomed us,” Kapoglou said. “They want highly skilled people.”
That is a bitter irony for families back home. Germany was seen as the lead enforcer of austerity in Greece, demanding debilitating cuts in pensions, salaries and the public sector in exchange for 326 billion euros ($380 billion) worth of bailouts from creditors to reduce Greece’s mountain of debt. Many Greeks now blame Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany for their plight.
The Greeks who left, however, are more angry at their own government, which they say has chronically mismanaged the economy by failing to end corruption, reduce the lumbering state or revive investment. The changes required by Greece’s creditors sought to force improvements to deeply rooted structural problems in public administration, tax collection, the judicial system and business regulations. Those creditors are still pressing Athens to carry out austerity measures before a June deadline to determine whether to grant the country more debt relief.
Kakoyiannis, the engineer who left with his girlfriend, had resisted decamping until 2016, shortly after capital controls were imposed in a chaotic moment when Greece nearly crashed out of the eurozone.
Before that, he made ends meet with three research jobs that barely paid the rent. Over family objections, he sent résumés outside Greece and was soon offered two jobs in Silicon Valley. To stay closer to home, Kakoyiannis opted for a job near Duesseldorf, where he works for a German technology firm with 180 other engineers, designing antennas for cellphones and other wireless devices.
His girlfriend, Kalliope Rapti, ran an online language training company in Greece. Despite government pledges to help small businesses, more than half of her time was spent navigating the country’s bureaucracy and shifting tax rules. When she registered her business here after they moved, the process took five minutes online. She plans to hire five employees this year.
“In Greece, it was a mess,” Rapti said. “In Germany, their approach is, ‘If we help you make money, you’ll pay taxes.'”
Still, while many Greeks are planning careers and even families in Germany, the transition is not always easy.
Duesseldorf’s drizzly skies, the direct demeanor of the Germans and the difficulty in making German friends — even after learning the language — can be a struggle. Nevermind homesickness, broken dreams and a gradual acceptance that the lives they wanted to build in Greece may materialize only elsewhere.
Kapoglou and his wife, Katerina, an environmental engineer, are among the few who might dare to return. Although they have little faith in the Greek government, they are betting that they can parlay their engineering experience and international business exposure in Germany into a profitable business.
To capitalize on the interest in tourism around their hometown, Ioannina, which lies in a verdant region in northern Greece, they plan to create a consultancy to draw Russian and Chinese investors for building projects. “We’d like to be part of a brain gain,” Kapoglou said.
Yet it may take years, or even another generation, before a groundswell follows them. In their tidy brick apartment complex outside Duesseldorf, Kakoyiannis and Rapti settled down after the engineering club meeting and made a Sunday lunch of traditional Greek souvlakia, pita and garlicky tzatziki.
Kakoyiannis let drop that his mother had been pressing him on when they would return to Greece.
“Go back to what?” he recalled replying. “To no job and no future?”
Sweethearts since they met in university, the couple had put off having children during the Greek crisis. Now, they are planning on having a baby — though not, as their parents wished, back in Greece.
“In Germany, we have hope for the future,” Rapti said. “And so will our child.”