Exodus to Australia

'In Greece, you couldn't see anything ahead. It was just a blank'

Greek-Australian Con Hassiotis, (above, with his wife) saw only a bleak future in Greece, so he moved his family and pie-making business to Sydney, Australia in 2012.
Greek-Australian Con Hassiotis, (above, with his wife) saw only a bleak future in Greece, so he moved his family and pie-making business to Sydney, Australia in 2012.PHOTO: POPPYS PIES

Up to 10,000 Greeks have migrated to or returned Down Under since their country plunged into debt crisis

After years of worrying about Greece's deepening financial woes and the fate of his pie-making business, Mr Con Hassiotis, who had been living in the city of Trikala, decided three years ago that it was time for a new start.

Greek-Australian Hassiotis, 43, along with his Greek wife Pinelopi, 40, and three children, aged 14, eight and six, moved back to Sydney - the city of his birth - after selling his Greek business "for peanuts", he said.

They brought with them their manufacturing equipment and started where they had left off, opening a new pie-making shop in southern Sydney named Poppys Pies, which now supplies stores across the country. "The crisis  in Greece - it destroyed me," Mr Hassiotis told The Straits Times.

"Turnover started to fall, expenses started to rise, taxes started to rise, the banks had no money to lend. We kept on going and believed things would change, but they still didn't change. Things got even worse," he said.

For Mr Hassiotis, the voyage to Australia was something of a homecoming. His own parents, now both dead, migrated from Greece in the mid-1960s  but then returned in the 1980s just as Australia was facing a downturn and Greece was beginning to prosper.

Now, with Greece facing heavy debt and a constant threat to leave or be thrown out of the euro zone, Mr Hassiotis is part of a new Greek exodus to Australia. 

An earlier wave of migrants fled after World War II, as their nation faced civil strife and economic turmoil. About 160,000 Greeks arrived in Australia up to the late 1960s, with almost half going to Melbourne, which has one of the largest Greek expatriate populations in the world. 

Completing his own family's migration roundabout, Mr Hassiotis returned to Sydney in 2012. 

"I moved my business here," Mr Hassiotis said. "It is the best thing I have ever done." 

 

The ties between Greece and Australia have long been strong, with the last Australian census in 2011 showing that 378,270 people -  of  a population of 22.3 million - said they had Greek ancestry. One of the most prominent figures in the recent wrangling over Greece's debt bailout, the outspoken former finance minister, Mr Yanis Varoufakis, is himself a Greek-Australian with deep roots in Australia.

Mr Varoufakis, from the ruling left-wing Syriza party, spent more than a decade teaching economics at the University of Sydney from the late 1980s. While in Sydney, he met his future wife, an Australian of Greek heritage, Ms Margarite Poulos, at a dinner at a Greek restaurant  near the university. They divorced a decade ago and she and the couple's daughter now live  in Sydney.

A former Sydney University colleague,  Professor Frank Stilwell, described Mr Varoufakis as a "steely character" and predicted in January that his period as a minister would prove "interesting".

"Yanis is first and foremost a critical intellectual, always applying his intellect to economic theory," he told Fairfax Media.

As the stand-off between Greece and its European creditors worsened in recent weeks, Mr Varoufakis  became known for his unrelenting anti-austerity stance, likening the nation's creditors to terrorists. But he earned the ire of leading euro zone finance ministers and resigned earlier this month at the request of Greece's prime minister Alexis Tsipras. 

Mr Varoufakis  still reportedly visits Australia about twice a year, though it remains to be seen whether he will now join the exodus.

The Australian Greek Welfare Society has estimated that up to 10,000 Greeks have migrated or moved back to Australia since the country plunged into its debt crisis in 2010.

Mrs Susan Magonezos, an Australian, returned from Greece with her husband and their three sons to escape the financial chaos three years ago after running a restaurant on a Greek island for 25 years. Mrs Magonezos originally met her Greek husband Panatiotis Magonezos - who died last year - during a holiday there. She said recent events were "distressing" and she worried about her Greek friends and husband's family.

"They are not doing well - they have become poor village people," she told The Manly Daily, an Australian community newspaper, earlier this month. "It reminds me of tales from before and after the war."

The president of the Greek Community of Melbourne & Victoria, Mr Bill Papastergiadis, said he had received hundreds of letters from Greek-Australians looking to return and that most were young, educated and keen to work.

"The people who are coming back are aged between 20 and 50 and they are absolutely willing to work, even to just wash dishes," he told Melbourne's Herald Sun.

"These are highly educated people with tertiary degrees and they are struggling to find any work in Greece. They come here seeking opportunities."

Many Greeks have been moving their money to Australia, with about A$300 million (S$303 million ) a year reportedly being transferred since 2010, up from a previous average of A$20 million a year.

At his store in Sydney, Mr Hassiotis said that although he enjoys Greek culture such as food and community events, he "wouldn't want to go back".

"It will take a very long time for the system in Greece to kick back in at a good pace and for the people to change their doings," he said. "I can see a future here. In Greece, you couldn't see anything ahead. It was just a blank."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 20, 2015, with the headline ''In Greece, you couldn't see anything ahead. It was just a blank''. Print Edition | Subscribe