NEW YORK - Its been just about a year since Michaelis Klouvas came back to live in Astoria, a section of Queens, New York that is also known as "Little Greece." During his two-decade absence, the area has changed. The influence of his native country, so present before his departure, seems to have faded. Klouvas finds that Astoria is more mixed now, more Latino. Before, there were Greek restaurants. Greek shops. Signs everywhere in Greek, he recalls.
Klouvas explains that once they had made enough money, a lot of Greeks packed up and headed for the more upscale suburbs on Long Island or in New Jersey. Others, like him, went back to Greece.
"Biggest mistake of my life, he says. But my wife wanted the family back together again. That was in 1988, about 20 years after Klouvas first came to America to join his father, a carpenter, whod emigrated to New York to seek his fortune. The situation back in Greece had improved a lot, so Klouvas who now goes by the name Mike decided along with many other of his exiled compatriots to go home.
For Klouvas, the first years back in Athens were admittedly quite nice. Business was good. There was plenty of money to go around. He opened a successful restaurant called Arxomani. People used to line up to get in, he recalls. But then the crisis ruined everything. In three years, the country saw its GDP drop 11%. Unemployment jumped to 20%. People from the working and middle classes were hardest hit.
Subsidies, pensions and minimum salaries were all cut. Today, in Greece, there isnt enough money to buy clothes, let alone go to a restaurant, says Klouvas.
More than 60 years old, white-haired but still chirpy, Klouvas decided to start all over again and head, once more, to the United States. He now works two jobs: one, as head manager of a restaurant that is about to open; the other as a waiter. Needless to say, he works long hours. From 8 a.m. to sometimes 2 a.m. the next morning, he says. Its the price he must pay to have a little bit of money stashed away before his wife and two daughters arrive from Greece later this spring.
Tapping into old-school social networks
How many others are in the same situation? Its impossible to say with any certainty. While some Greeks have taken the steps to acquire residency papers, or are in the long process of applying for them, others are likely living in Astoria illegally. But there are definitely signs that immigration from Greece is on the rise. Last year the number of Greeks who flew into New York via JFK airport was up 20% compared to 2006. And at the Immigration Advocacy Services in Astoria, a nonprofit organization that helps newcomers navigate residency paperwork, staff have observed a 50% rise in Greek clients in just the past year.
Its safe to imagine too that given Greeces ongoing economic problems, there are plenty more who would like to make the trip. All the Greeks want to come live here, says Spiro, a heavyset young Astoria resident who was born in the United States and has the America flag tattooed on his right arm.
New York isnt, of course, the only landing point for U.S.-bound Greeks. But the community of Astoria remains a real magnet for many because of the personal ties people still have: often immigrants already have a brother, sister or parent living in Queens, something that can provide both a practical and psychological boost.
Stratos who goes by the name Steve is a case in point. The friendly 42-year-old arrived in Astoria about two months ago. He barely speaks English, but he dreams about a career as a soccer coach. For now he makes his living working as a clerk in small grocery shop owned by a friend of his mothers.
But for others, those without family members or connections, coming to the United States is a challenge, and a risk. Back in my day, it was much easier, says Elias Tsekerides, president of the Federation of Hellenic Societies of Greater New York, an organization that promotes Greek culture.
Tsekerides, who arrived in 1963 and has two children he proudly calls Greek-Americans, says he often receives letters or phone calls from people in Greece asking for help or advice about how emigrate. People have sent me their resumes. But were not an employment agency, he says.
Still, for the Greek families who stayed put in Astoria, theres something comforting about this second generation of arrivals. Its hard to say for sure, but at the recent Greek Independence Day Parade, the turnout seemed bigger than usual.
Read the original article in French
Photo - flickr4jazz