Greek families forage abroad to stay afloat in crisis

The wistfulness in the voice of George Kapetanios is heart-warming and an increasingly familiar tone for Greek families at home and in cities all over Europe and the world these days.

Put out of business by a shrinking economy that has been crushed by the eurozone crisis, unable to find work at home and desperate to stay afloat financially, Kapetanios, his wife Katerina Germanou and daughter Paraskevi came to London months ago so the parents could find work abroad.

Now they are hoping for a brief taste of their former family life when stepson Thanos Kehagias, who has remained in Greece to finish his university studies, comes for a visit.

"I've met people here from all over the world, who say I've not been back for seven years, not been to see my mum for seven years, I don't do that,» Kapetanios told Reuters in London. «I don't live like that. We (Greeks) are very close with family."

In Munich, Maria Zatse dreams of work and frets about improving her faltering German. The 49-year-old was a hairdresser in her native Greece for 30 years.

Then the eurozone crisis hit. The construction company where her husband Niko worked went bankrupt in 2010 and he lost his job. They struggled along on her income for a while before business at her salon dried up. Then they sold their house and moved to Germany in search of work.

"People didn't have any money,» she said.

The story for the Kapetanioses and the Zatses is being replayed for Greek families all over Greece and Europe.
About 600,000 jobs in debt-riddled Greece have disappeared since 2008 and economic output has shrunk by around 20 percent. So far, more than a fifth of all Greeks are unemployed, creating an army of jobseekers spreading out across the European Union and beyond.

One meal a day

Some 7,000 Greeks have come to Germany in the past year, according to its Federal Statistics Office. The number of migrants from other debt-stricken countries -- Spain, Portugal or Italy -- has been significantly less.

The tale for young Greeks is just as dire in a country where one in two cannot find a job.

George Kapetanios' stepson Thanos Kehagias said he has made peace with his parents' decision to take his sister and leave him behind while they made a new start in London.

The 23-year-old stayed to study engineering at a state university in Patras, Greece's third largest city. He said he lives on just over 6 euros per day and can only afford one daily meal at the cheap university restaurant.

"I weighed 97 kg but have lost weight, I'm now almost 70,» he told Reuters in Greece. «I can't afford to order food or eat out."

Although he struggles to make ends meet and is afraid that the university may shut down due to the budget cuts, he said he was not prepared to join his parents and sister in London.

"My parents' move was not a bad one, at least they make some money there. And my sister is going to school there and is a good student,» Thanos said.

Life is perhaps a bit tougher for Maria Zatse's 15-year-old daughter Margarita, who hopes to follow her mother into the beauty trade.

Within a month of moving to Munich all their money was gone, spent on hotels and guesthouses. Maria still has no job and Munich is one of the most expensive cities in Germany. Niko has found modest work at a printers.

The family slept in Munich's central station for 10 days, before they got accommodation in a hostel in Aubing, in the west of the city, through a social worker. Maria, Niko and Margarita now live, eat and sleep on a tiny bit of floor space.
Three beds, three lockers and a little table complete the room. Clothes, hand towels and other belongings are piled up on the chairs, things they have salvaged from their old lives.

In the corner, an image of the Madonna stands on a shelf, next to family photos. Maria's brother emigrated to Italy, only her father refused to leave Greece. She telephones him regularly, but he can only visit once she gets more space.

Sons and mothers

In London, George Kapetanios is reminiscing about the old life in Greece and how quickly 15 years of work and family life evaporated in the crisis.

"Where I live is a small village, a small town. Nine, ten thousand people. I couldn't find a job anywhere,» he said.
Faced with crippling taxes imposed as part of the government's austerity measures to appease the financial markets, a deteriorating health system and massive unemployment, Kapetanios said he had little choice but to leave.

But the move has been hard on his wife Katerina.

"She has a really big problem with leaving our son behind. Because you know, mum and son. But what can she do? She knows we don't have a chance back there. No chance."

Kapetanios and his wife both work part time, he as a chef in a restaurant and her in a café in west London. It's a far cry from the enviable life they had a few years ago in Greece when they had a successful restaurant and owned three cars.

Post-eurozone crisis he faced losing everything he had. The restaurant was not doing well, and he was unable to find a new job. He rents out their house and sold the restaurant, but still cannot afford to make the monthly 800 euro mortgage payments.

Now he works in London at a Greek restaurant after arriving by himself and living for the first two or three months without the family in London.

"I was alone and it was really bad. But it wasn't London's fault. It was my psychology that was really bad. Because when you feel alone and doing what I'm doing now, you think I don't have anything here, I don't know anybody."

Kapetanios says he dreams about moving back to his hometown, back to his mother, father and sister and his friends whom he left behind but realises this is just a romantic notion.

"I speak with people every day in Greece. They tell me: George, you do your best. Don't do anything stupid and be romantic and sensitive and say I'm coming back to live here.

"Don't do that. You'll regret it».


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