Wearing a blue baseball cap adorned with a white-and-blue Greek flag and bold white letters that read “ATHENS” and “GREECE”, Dimitris Kokotos, 50, approaches the customers that just entered Tom’s Restaurant on Coney Island’s boardwalk. He grabs his notepad from the counter where he keeps a neatly organized stack of receipts, his recently acquired New York City certificate in food protection and five different Greek Orthodox Christian icons.
“Good morning. What can I get you?” he asks with a heavy accent that rolls the “r” and pronounces the strong and clear “a” that one hears in Greece. The customers, a group of construction workers that have been frequenting Coney Island since Hurricane Sandy destroyed most of its infrastructure, order coffee and bagels.
Kokotos quickly scribbles down in Greek letters “Μπεϊγκελ” – a word that does not exist in the Greek language but sounds like “bagel” when pronounced in Greek. Then he quickly notes “cafe” in Latin letters, the Greek word for “coffee.”.
“At the beginning I wrote everything in Greek letters. Now I am learning to write in English too. But it is hard. Your brain doesn’t ‘register’ new things as fast when you are middle aged,” says Kokotos.
Kokotos is one of the victims of the notorious financial crisis that has turned thousands of Greeks into immigrants. Men and women of all ages and educational status are leaving Greece, fleeing from a record unemployment rate of 27 percent and a GDP that contracted by 6 percent in 2012, according to the International Monetary Fund.
Kokotos arrived in Coney Island, Brooklyn, this past November, when he realized that his income could no longer allow him to pay for his family’s everyday expenses. He is now helping out in his cousin’s restaurant on Coney Island’s boardwalk.
“I sat down with my wife and told her, ‘there are two options. Either we let the bank take everything we own or we do something radical’,” he says.
Exact numbers of how many Greeks have immigrated to the United States since the crisis began are not available. But some data is published in other countries that demonstrate the extent of Greece’s ordeal.
According to the Federal Statistical Office of Germany, the number of Greek immigrants to Germany rose by 90 percent reaching 23,800 in 2012. In April 2012, a spokesman for the Greek embassy in London, UK, told the national Greek newspaper To Vima that the embassy received a record number of 300,000 emails asking for information on immigration to the UK. Similarly, studyportals.eu, the EU’s centralized educational site, reported that in 2012 the number of Greek students that expressed interest in studies abroad rose by 162 percent.
“Young Greeks are stuck in a contradiction. We are offered high quality education that makes us dream big. Then we enter the workforce and realize that all we can hope for is to perform mundane tasks for a beggarly salary,” says Eleni Takou, 28, a Greek architect engineer specialized in urban design, who moved to New York at the end of 2012. She is now working as a project engineer in a New York construction firm.
Greece’s youth unemployment reached a staggering 61.7 percent this February, while the minimum monthly wage for employees under 25 is a meager 510 euros ($663) before taxes. This means that young Greeks cannot find financial independence, let alone a creative fulfillment in their professional lives, says Takou.
“It feels like they are taking away our reason to live. We have to choose between feeling depressed in Greece or homesick in another country,” she adds.
Many middle-aged Greeks who have emigrated to the US end up feeling the same way. They have families back home who depend on them and despite their love for their country, they cannot afford to live there anymore.
Nikos Karadimas, a Greek-American businessman who in 2007 decided to sell his New York restaurant and relocate with his wife and two children to Athens, Greece, suffers a similar predicament. Six years later, he is adjusting to life as an immigrant in New York once again – this time, however, without his family.
When Karadimas relocated to Athens, he thought that he was returning to his home country for good. But with the economy in a downward spiral, his attempts to open a new restaurant in Greece failed. By the end of 2011, Karadimas had lost his initial capital and was convinced that his only hope to support his family was to move back to the US. He has since been working as an employee for his cousin’s restaurant in New York. His family is still in Athens.
“I love my country but I cannot afford to live there while my children are still in college,” Karadimas says. “My dream is to go back to Greece as a pensioner and never leave.”
Being away from his family is the most onerous part of immigration for Kokotos too. “It is hard,” he says, gazing at Coney Island’s beach, which reminds him of the Athenian seafront. “I had to change my entire life and start from scratch. I don’t know what to tell my kids. They miss me; and this is not their fault.”
Back in Athens, Kokotos, the father of two 15-year-old twins, used to own a small pastry shop that sold coffee, baked goods and sandwiches, in the middle-to-high-income seaside neighborhood of Faliro. He and his wife took turns working the morning and evening shifts, selling their signature tyropita, a Greek cheese pie.
Business was good, says Kokotos, and the couple was gradually paying off the loan they had received for half of the initial capital required to open the pastry shop.
But in 2010 when the crisis hit Greece, Kokotos’s revenues began to decline.
“Before I knew it, it was 2012 and clients were asking me if they could pay for a 1.10 euro ($1.43) cheese pie next week, when they would get their monthly check,” says Kokotos. “That was when I knew I had to do something.”
He called his uncle, a successful Brooklyn restaurateur. Back in 1982, his uncle had invited him to relocate to the United States to run his restaurant. But Kokotos declined.
“I was stubborn. I didn’t even come to visit until the age of 50, when I emigrated for good,” he adds laughingly, “and now I am living in a room in my uncle’s house in Coney Island.”