– Carol Sanders, Winnipeg Free Press
WINNIPEG, Canada – When Lia Andronikou saw fashionably dressed women in Athens picking food out of garbage cans, she knew it was time to get out of Greece. “I could see people getting food from the garbage, not only beggars but people with nice clothes,” she recalled recently.
Since the start of the economic crisis in Greece in 2007, an estimated 320,000 Greeks have left – most heading to European countries. Now, the Greek economy has got so bad, the educated and ambitious are seeing more of a future in this faraway, frozen flatland.
In September, Andronikou, her husband, Stefanos Boukis – a cellist with the Athens Symphony – and year-old daughter, Danae, moved to Winnipeg.
They’re in the vanguard of the biggest influx of Greek newcomers to Winnipeg since the late 1960s and Greece’s last major economic slump. Until now, large Greek communities in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver have been more attractive to Greek immigrants than Winnipeg.
Of the nearly 350,000 Canadians who claim Greek ethnicity, census figures show only 5,500 live in Manitoba. That number is expected to climb as Greeks anxious to leave find doors open in Manitoba.
Right now, about one or two are arriving in Winnipeg every week, said Chris Katopodis, President of the Greek Community of Winnipeg. A job fair in Athens in June, hosted by the Manitoba and Canadian governments, attracted 1,200 applicants. Around 200 who met the language, education and financial requirements have been processed and are expected in the next year, he said. Close to 20 have arrived in the last few months.
Angelos Karatsialis, 26, an information technology specialist, came in August. He was working for his dad’s recycling company in Thessaloniki, Greece’s second-largest city, because there were no IT jobs to be had.
“The unofficial youth unemployment rate is 70 per cent,” said Karatsialis. He watched his dad’s business shrink while taxes and costs soared – with no sign of anything ever getting better.
“I knew things were going badly and getting worse.” Three years ago, he tried immigrating to Quebec, where he has a relative, but didn’t meet the French-language requirement. The Canadian Embassy emailed him about the job fair in Athens and the streamlined immigration process offered by the Provincial Nominee Program. It fast-tracks immigration for people with skills and supports in place.
Karatsialis was welcomed by St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church – the hub of Winnipeg’s Greek community – and found a job driving a truck. He’s learning his way around the city, discovering its diversity, local customs and driver etiquette.
“People take more care and respect pedestrians,” he noted. The gregarious and single Greek sees himself in sales one day. “I’ve been here less than three months, and I can see a future already,” he said.
In May, Andronikou checked out Winnipeg on her own and left with a job offer from Montessori School. She returned to Greece, her family packed up, said their goodbyes and arrived in Winnipeg Sept. 19. Like all of the recent arrivals from Greece, they’re fluent in English with a post-secondary education, said Katopodis, an engineer who arrived in 1969 with his high school diploma, limited English and a ton of ambition.
Andronikou, 40, has music theory training, a PhD in psychotherapy and worked as an English as a Second Language trainer for the last 14 years for a cellphone company in Athens.
“So now I am here teaching music to toddlers,” smiled Andronikou who, one day, hopes to open a music school with her husband, the symphony cellist who is now working for a trucking firm. “We wanted a better future for our children – to move and feel secure,” said Andronikou. It was the right move. “We already feel secure.”