The Greek outsiders
Cornelia was about to book her tickets from London to Greece when Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras announced on 27 June that there would be a Greek referendum on Sunday 5 July.
Cornelia, who is 26, is studying and working as a psychologist in London; for her and other Greek expatriates, the week that followed the announcement was marked by anxiety, phone calls with family and friends back home and continuous updates on the country’s situation.
‘It affected me very much,’ she says. ‘It was very hard to function normally on an everyday basis. I was sad. I couldn’t concentrate. It was the standard topic I was discussing with Greeks, but also with foreigners who were interested in Greece. I became a news junkie. Checking the news was the first thing I did every morning and the last thing I did every night.’
Katerina, 27, who studies and works in Brussels, had a similar experience, especially when she learnt about the closed banks and the capital controls – a cap on how much money Greeks can withdraw from ATMs each day (€60, or $66).
‘I only had 5 or 6 hours of sleep every night. I called my family to find out if they could cover their needs with €60 per day and if they had been paid before the closure of the banks. I also texted my brother to ask whether he could use his PayPal [account]. I wanted to know if and how I could send money back home, in case of an emergency,’ Katerina tells me, underlining the fact that most Greeks who live abroad are more than willing to support friends and family back home in any way possible.
Half-jokingly, young Greek expats have been posting on Facebook that their homes are wide open to anyone in need, though hoping that such a gesture will not be necessary.
Babis, a young political scientist and consultant who lives in Berlin, was in the middle of a seminar on the Greek crisis when he heard about the referendum. If the situation gets worse, he says, he is ready to transfer money back to the country. He has also heard that some people have sent their credit cards to Greece, as there are no capital controls over foreign banks’ accounts within the country.
What was most irritating for Greeks living abroad, however, especially for those who left their country because of the financial and political crisis, was that they were not allowed to vote.
Their disappointment was obvious on social media and online forums, and in blogs, with expats continually asking whether or not they were allowed to vote.
Katerina tells me that her first thought after the announcement of the referendum was that she wouldn’t be able to take part in this historic moment for her country. Babis explains why not being able to vote is so problematic for Greek communities abroad:
‘First of all, when the people who left Greece – mostly due to the crisis – are unable to affect the situation back home with their vote, they feel powerless. Secondly, by not allowing them to vote, Greece breaks the bonds with its people; it cannot keep them connected. Gradually, all these people will start feeling disconnected from their country of origin and they will not want to return.’
As voting was out of the question, a number of Greek expats tried to influence the situation by raising their voice on social media or participating in solidarity gatherings and marches in the biggest cities across the world.
Katerina and Babis joined gatherings in Brussels and Berlin respectively, organized bilaterally by Belgians and Germans with Greeks.
‘I would have felt ashamed not to join [the protests], when Germans go out on the streets to support Greece,’ says Babis. But there are also cases in which Greek people have faced racist and ironic comments, rather than solidarity, regarding the crisis in Greece and Greeks themselves.
‘I have heard many ironic comments,’ says 28-year-old Eleni, who has finished her Masters degree and now works in London. ‘When I try to explain the situation in Greece, and talk about the [low] wages, for example, people show some sympathy. And it’s also in their culture here in Britain to respect others’ opinions.’
For her, the problem is also that parts of the media reproduce stereotypes about the Greeks. A common stereotype is that the Greek people do not want to pay off their debts.
Cornelia adds that the stereotypical image of Greeks is that they are corrupt and lazy and live in a country where tax evasion is rife. Sharing her own experiences, she tells me that the only time she felt true solidarity was when a colleague of hers – who has lived in Argentina – talked to her with compassion, telling her that no-one can understand what families and friends must be going through just from reading the media.
Do they believe that the resounding ‘No’ that Greece delivered in Sunday’s referendum will have any impact on their lives?
‘Even if I want to go back to Greece, I feel that I do not have this option,’ replies Cornelia. ‘I should stay here, where I have a job. I cannot see any solution for the country. I wish the solution would be a Yes or No to an agreement – but that’s not on the table any more.’
She speaks for many Greeks who live abroad and who cannot return amid the financial collapse of the country.
For Katerina, the result gives some hope that the financial future of the country might be improved if there is a new bailout programme with better terms for Greece.
Greece’s adventure is far from over. In the coming days, Greek communities abroad will keep following the news and worrying about the people they left behind, hoping that Greece will survive this difficult moment and gradually become a place of possibilities, rather than a place of no return.