BY SHEILA DABU NONATO, POSTMEDIA NEWS FEBRUARY 22, 2012
Former restaurateur George Varvarigos has started a new career in auto sales after immigrating from Greece seven months ago.
Varvarigos, 37, sold his share of a restaurant and came to Canada with hopes for a better future.
``Everybody works hard for every daily expense . . . and the bills they have to pay,'' he said. ``Nobody is lazy . . . So they're fighters.''
``(Canada) is a better environment with better chances for people who would like to do something in their life, to have a family, to have their job and to get paid for that and to look straight to the future,'' he explained.
Varvarigos adds that he's thankful for the new opportunities in Canada, including his new job where he is training in auto sales in Toronto.
Members of Greek-Canadian communities say Varvarigos's story is becoming familiar as an increasing number of Greek residents inquire about job opportunities in Canada. They are hoping to start a new life because of the financial uncertainty in their homeland, which is on the brink of bankruptcy and has been plagued by sometimes violent anti-austerity protests.
The EU approved a $172-billion bailout for Greece on Tuesday, committing the government to unpopular austerity measures, which include deep cuts to pensions, public-sector wages and the country's minimum wage.
Greece's unemployment rate hit a record 20.9 per cent in November, compared to 10.4 per cent for the 17 countries sharing the euro.
With these economic prospects, new immigrants are increasingly attracted to Canada's economic engines, such as Alberta.
John Yannitsos, president of the Hellenic Society of Calgary, said a few dozen Greek residents have been arriving in Calgary on a weekly basis recently. Most are Greek citizens with Canadian relatives. There are also some Canadian citizens who had been living in Greece and are now starting to return, he said.
Inquiries from Greek residents are skyrocketing, he said, noting it's come to a point where they now land on a daily basis.
``People were inquiring about the city, the climate. Now, it's getting to be, you can sense the desperation in their voices and in the inquiries,'' he said. ``(They say) `can you help us with opportunities? How can we get there? We'll take our chances when we get there.'''
``People were reading (about) where are the economic opportunities, places that could use labour and Calgary and Alberta kept coming up as a province with high economic (prospects),'' Yannitsos said.
New Toronto resident Roula Loukaki says it was when the tourists stopped buying that she and her husband decided to close their decade-old, family-run gift shop in Greece.
Born in Toronto, Loukaki moved to Greece with her family when she was nine years old.
In her late 30s, Loukaki returned to Canada in early February.
``It's a difficult decision but we want a better life,'' she said. ``We thought, let's just try something else because we don't see any future there,'' she said.
Loukaki is from Kefalonia Island, a popular tourist destination on Greece's west coast.
Since 2009, the Loukakis noticed that business was becoming ``slower and slower.''
As the economic crisis deepened, tourists stopped buying trinkets and gadgets, and local residents also found the items too expensive.
``They stopped buying stuff that are not really important,'' she said, instead preferring to save on necessities, such as food.
She says her friends and young people in Greece are considering moving to Canada, Australia or other European countries, such as Germany.
Although there hasn't been a large immigration wave from Greece in Toronto yet, the return of ``bold ex-pats,'' such as Loukaki, also will include individuals who are single, unattached and Canadian-born who are ``coming back to their roots,'' said videojournalist Trifon Haitas, who was born in Greece, works with Toronto's Greek media and was a former candidate for the Liberal nomination in Jack Laytons old Greektown riding.
Some immigration programs could facilitate the arrival of more Greek citizens in Canada.
In Manitoba, the provincial nominee program for skilled workers is open to individuals from several countries and fast-tracks them to receive permanent Canadian resident status.
``Greek skilled workers invited to Manitoba,'' says the government's immigration website. ``Greeks will feel at home here. Our capital city, Winnipeg, has a vibrant and prosperous Greek community.''
``From business life to nightlife, Greeks have helped forge and form our economic and cultural success,'' according to the website. ``The Canadian province of Manitoba has one of the strongest and most stable economies in the world.''
The program has a set criteria, including minimum age, education, work experience and language ability requirements. The government also partners with employers and communities.
Chris Katopodis, board president of Winnipeg's Greek community, said there have been a few inquiries from Greek residents wanting to immigrate to Canada. Some are Canadian-born and hoping to come back, while others have no family connection here.
That's where the Greek community in Winnipeg may come in, he said: to assist those who don't have family in the city by helping them connect with employers and doctors and to ``be more like hosts.''
The program would be similar to a successful provincial program involving the Jewish community and its support of new immigrants from Argentina with Jewish heritage during their country's 2002 financial crisis, he said.
Katopodis said there haven't been many Greek immigrants in Winnipeg - which is home to about 4,000 Canadians of Greek heritage - since about the 1970s, the tail end of a postwar wave of immigration from Greece to Canada.
In the nation's capital, Dean Karakasis, president of the Hellenic Community of Ottawa, said inquiries from Greece have doubled to about 30 calls per month this year.
Karakasis said the Greek community in Ottawa, which numbers about 6,000 individuals, directs Greek residents to contact the Canadian Embassy in Rome for immigration inquiries.
``Where we fit in is when they've come and been accepted. We help them find places to live,'' he said.
The increase in calls is ``about uncertainty, people wondering whether we will have the same opportunities'' in Canada.
With files from Reuters
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