BERLIN — One of the most heartbreaking scenes I’ve witnessed from the Greek crisis took place in Swabia, a hilly, prosperous region of southern Germany.
Swabia is home to a thriving auto industry that has long lured laborers from Southern Europe, including many Greeks. Most of them came in the 1960s and early 1970s. By the time I visited in 2013, the economic depression back home was creating a new exodus. From 2010 to 2013, about 218,000 Greeks emigrated, according to an estimate from the Greek statistics agency. Nearly half of them went to Germany.
In a factory town dotted with half-timbered houses, I visited a warehouse owned by the son of Greek immigrants. There, I met a new employee who had recently arrived from northern Greece, a 38-year-old woman named Maria Saoulidou. She was hanging packages of children’s party supplies on a rack. Ms. Saoulidou told me the supermarket where she had worked in Greece had stopped paying her. For a while, she kept working there anyway in the hope that the paychecks would arrive, but the money never came. Work for her husband, a truck driver, had also dried up. When they ran out of savings, the couple decided to start a new life in Germany, where an uncle lived. They left their two young sons back home with the children’s grandparents.
In Swabia, the couple lived in a gloomy, dank basement rental that was sparsely furnished with a mattress and a couple of chairs. They were planning to bring the children once they had a more suitable home. “It’s very hard,” Ms. Saoulidou said, nearly in tears with a package of balloons in her gloved hand. I looked down at the floor and noticed that one of her shoes was badly torn. Once the boys arrived in Germany, she said, the family would never return to Greece for more than a visit. “We’re looking after the future of our children, and unfortunately, there is none for them in Greece.”
Ms. Saoulidou’s story resonates with me in part because I’m the American-born son of Greek immigrants and have inherited a grasp of what Greeks call xeniteia — a term for wandering abroad but that implies nostalgia for the motherland.
Greece has a long history of emigration, and there are large Greek diasporas in America, Germany, Britain and Australia. Almost everyone you meet in Greece has extended family members living abroad. In decades past, the pain of seeing them depart inspired many folk songs. “My exiled and dissatisfied bird,” go the lyrics to one of them. “Won’t you have mercy and turn around?”
My paternal grandfather left Greece for the United States in 1916. He worked for two decades laying railroad tracks and cooking in kitchens from Chicago to El Paso before his homesickness got the better of him and he returned to his village near the Corinthian Gulf. There, with the money he’d saved, he built a nice home and started a family that included my father. When my father was a teenager, he received some simple guidance about life in America from my grandfather: “In America, if you work for a week, you get paid for a week.” My dad left Greece on a ship bound for New York at age 17.
Over the course of my life, Greece secured its place in the European Union, benefiting greatly from subsidies for agriculture and infrastructure, and later, from the cheap borrowing euro membership enabled. Even as dire problems loomed, an increasingly wealthy Greece became a nation people migrated to rather than a place people left behind. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, waves of Albanians and ethnic Greeks from the former Soviet Union flocked to Greece.
Over the past several years, however, life for many people in Greece has become insufferable. Unemployment exceeds 25 percent, and Greek businesses routinely fail to pay their workers on time. Young families have been particularly hard hit; 40 percent of Greek children live below the poverty line. In these circumstances, many Greeks put off having kids.
Given these conditions, many Greeks have chosen to take advantage of the European Union’s free movement of labor. Germany is one of the main destinations. There is a simple reason: Greece has the highest unemployment rate in the European Union; Germany has the lowest. Resentments against Germany — Greece’s most powerful creditor — quickly fade when it comes to the prospect of a regular paycheck.
Many of those leaving Greece are highly educated professionals and scientists seeking greater opportunity and better pay. An estimated 135,000 Greeks with post-secondary degrees have left since 2010 and are working abroad, according to Lois Labrianidis, an economic geographer and official in Greece’s Economy Ministry. “We think this is human capital that is crucial for the development of the country,” Mr. Labrianidis told me recently, calling the departures a “major blow.”
Still, emigration — for both the emigrants and Greece — is often better than the alternative: remaining unemployed at home. In theory, expatriate Greeks could send their earnings to family or return and apply the skills they’ve gained abroad. But recent emigrants aren’t sending much home in the way of remittances, and it’s unclear whether Greece will ever be able to offer the opportunities that could lure back its brightest minds. Why return to a place where it’s almost impossible to find a good job?
While much of the attention on recent Greek emigration has focused on the highly educated, I’ve been surprised by the number of working-class Greeks I’ve met who left due to financial desperation. On more than one occasion, I’ve met Greeks who, upon learning that I live in Germany, have asked me for help finding menial work there.
“Can you help get my son a job?” one woman asked me, while her granddaughters played with my child in a suburban Athens square. The woman told me her son had closed his construction business after demand for his work disappeared. He had recently left for Düsseldorf, where he was renting a cheap room and looking for a job. He’d left his wife and daughters behind until he could get settled. She told me she was afraid her granddaughters weren’t getting enough to eat. “Please, mister,” she said. “You’d be saving a whole family.”
The latest bout of political and economic tumult has further damaged Greece’s battered economy. And the recent agreement for a third bailout deal — with its emphasis on austerity — only repeats the mistakes of the past. Unless the Greek government and its creditors act with far more urgency to restore growth, one outcome is certain: Many more Greeks will be seeking their futures elsewhere.
James Angelos is the author of “The Full Catastrophe: Travels Among the New Greek Ruins.”