By Andy Dabilis
ASTORIA, N.Y. – Attorney Leah Pappas stays in touch with her cousins in Greece, has sponsored one of the many young who’ve fled the crisis-torn country in search of work and a better life elsewhere, many never to return, but frets for her homeland, like many here.
Astoria, still the heart of the Greek community, is a destination of choice for many Greeks seeking family or friends and comfort with their native tongue and surroundings that remind them of the life they’ve left behind because they had no choice.
“My heart goes out to them … they are desperate to leave the country,” she told The National Herald from her law office where she was with her son, Constantine, thinking of their family too, one side on the refugee-overrun island of Chios near the Turkish coast.
Pappas returns for visits often but says she can’t bear to be in Athens too long and that she blames politicians mostly for making Greece dependent on the international loans that came with brutal austerity measures that have crushed the life out of many and as the rich, tax cheats and privileged prosper.
“I talk with my cousin and they say you’re laughed at if you pay taxes,” she said, a prime reason why Greece had to essentially beg for 326 billion euros ($349.26 billion) in three bailouts after years of runaway spending and patronage job handouts in return for votes.
With Greek suffering record unemployment, deep poverty, spiked suicide rates and a sharp decline in births because people fear they can’t afford raising families, Greece is in a mess that will take decades to fix, a sorrow not lost on Astoria’s Greeks.
Walk up and down the streets and you’ll see Greek names festooned businesses and restaurants, Greek flags flying as proudly as those of the United States. But there’s still the tug of Greece in the hearts of many.
“It’s going to be an excruciatingly slow process,” for recovery, said Pappas. “My cousin thinks it will take 25-30 years to revive …. You have nobody paying taxes.”
Stavroula Orkulas, manager of a branch of Atlantic Bank, said, “It’s very disappointing for Greece to be at this level … I blame the people and the politicians and the people,” she said, of those in power and those who kept putting them there.
Her family is from the island of Kefalonia where she said many have been relatively insulated from the austerity shock because of family support and the Greek tradition of most people owning their own homes and sharing them with their children and then passing the property on, leaving no worries about a mortgage or rent.
“In Kefalonia you don’t feel this economic distress like you do in Athens,” she said.
Her disdain is heavy for the ruling Radical Left SYRIZA of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, who reneged on anti-austerity promises and instead doubled down on putting more misery on workers, pensioners and the poor, the people he vowed to protect but sold out instead.
“They are just clowns. I don’t know how the Greek people deal with them. It’s political garbage,” she said.
Kosta Nikas, 56, who runs a mechanic and auto repair shop on 31st Street under the overhead subway, came to Astoria 30 years ago and almost spit out his contempt at those he said have ruined Greece. “I’m not happy, everybody there is leaving,” he said, talking about the exodus of those who’ve given up hope for recovery and moved to other countries – and Astoria.
“I talked to a friend who went to Germany and they don’t want to go back,” to Greece, he said, having found work and a life far from the madness of Greek politics and the roller coaster of worry.
His colleague, Peter Pappas, said not enough people understand the economic dynamics of the Greek collapse and the role of politicians and the banks who are the lenders and making huge profits off their lending. “They don’t control by democracy but by the markets,” he said.
Four years ago – before the crisis deepened, Nicholas Alexiou, a professor of Sociology at the Queens College, who has studied Greek immigration to Astoria for more than two decades, told the New York Daily News that the exodus was different from a century before.
“Now, it’s mainly professionals. Either they are doctors, teachers, people who have some kind of degree already in Greece,” Alexiou said. “Here (immigrants) are willing to take any job to support their family and themselves.”
The Astoria Project estimates some 10.1 percent of Astoria’s population of 165,589 as of 2016 had Greek heritage, and that new immigrants were coming, driven there by Greece’s crisis.
Waiting at the Atlantic Bank’s ATM – it has a big Greek-American clientele – Michael Mitaras, 65, didn’t hide his anger at what has happened to Greece. “I feel very bad, very sorry for the people who have no money,” he said.
Many of the Greeks of Astoria have long been settled there but now are seeing new immigrants coming to join them. Pappas said more will be coming and she doesn’t see any real change or hope.
“They have to change the system and create stability and educate people to be more responsible,” she said.