Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Broader Horizons

Saskatchewan Province within Canada. Español: ...
Saskatchewan Province within Canada. Español: Provincia de Saskatchewan en Canadá. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
By ASHLEY MARTIN And Charles Hamilton, QC March 21, 2012
Two years ago, Ilias Panagiotopoulos was working as a tile setter. His wife Evangelia Lymperi was an English teacher. Both were employed, but both saw the writing on the wall.

From their home in Argos, a small Greek city of 30,000 people on the Aegean Sea, they applied for the Saskatchewan Immigrant Nominee Program in February, 2010.
“We saw that we would soon become unemployed, as we did,” says Evangelia. “We had our parents supporting us and living at their home.”
With four children to support — Tasos, now 24, Sofia, 17, Konstantina, 16, and Maria, 10 — they heeded the advice of their cousins who had recently moved to Regina.
“They encouraged us to come here because there was plenty of work here if you want to work; that’s true,” says Evangelia. “You get lots of opportunities, and for the kids it was better. And things have got lots worse (in Greece) since we came here seven months (ago) and lots of people would like to come here if they could.”
The family arrived on July 25 last year, the three adults on work permits and the girls on study permits.
Ilias found jobs at two tile companies, Heaven’s Hands Ceramic Installation and Precise Tile. Evangelia is a cook, server and dishwasher at Houston Pizza, Wintergreene Estates retirement complex and St. Paul’s Greek Orthodox Church. She has no plans to go back to teaching: “I think I’ve had enough of that, 23 years. Maybe something different sometime but I haven’t figured it out yet.”
It’s not so much about them, anyway.
“For us, it’s that we came here to give our kids a chance to better life,” says Evangelia.
Tasos is working as a night attendant at Wintergreene; he’s hoping to save up enough money to become a pilot. Sofia plans to study nursing at the U of R next year. Konstantina, in Grade 11, is undecided.
The kids were all proficient enough in English — they studied it twice a week back home — but adjusting to a new school five times the size of their old one has been difficult. They miss life back home: “Our everyday life there, our school, our friends, our grandparents,” says Sofia.
It hasn’t been easy for Ilias and Evangelia, either.
“You miss home and you’re all alone all of a sudden — and we’re not kids. I’m 45 and my husband is 47; you don’t really want such big changes in your life at that time,” she says.

***

Canada, of course, was settled by Europeans. In the 1800s and early 1900s, people from Europe crossed the ocean in droves, many of them fleeing economic hardships back home. Some of them found a better life in the agriculturally rich prairies.
Now, a century later, many Europeans are again leaving their home countries, looking for a better life across the ocean. In Ireland, a recent report by the Economic and Social Research Institute estimates that almost 1,000 people are leaving each week, many of them highly skilled workers. In Greece, thousands are also fleeing a country with a massive unemployment rate in search of work.
When Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall visited Ireland recently in search of skilled workers, Lisa and Ian Corrigan were a few months ahead of him. The couple moved from Ireland to Saskatoon last summer, leaving a ravaged economy behind.
They were working four jobs to support their family. She was an insurance broker and an event planner. He worked as a consultant for a construction firm. In the evenings, they ran a small pub for extra money. There was barely any time for their kids — Katie, six, and Dylan, four.
“Our reason for coming here was the quality of life,” says Lisa, 30, sipping from her cup of tea.
“Back in Ireland, we were working a hundred hours a week. Each.”
“That’s what people back home are doing,” Ian, 36, pipes in. “They are working every hour God is sending them and they are getting it hard.”
The couple has no relatives here. Back home, they lived next to Ian’s parents and worked with Lisa’s parents.
“If you could pick (your family) up and bring them with you, you would. But Skype is a good thing,” says Ian.
“They can see that people who are home now are struggling,” Lisa adds. “They’ve gone from the thing of missing us to saying we are so lucky, so fortunate to be here.”
Faced with an unemployment rate of nearly 15 per cent, people like Lisa and Ian Corrigan decided it was time to leave.
“The construction industry just plummeted,” says Ian, who is now a construction consultant with Stuart Olson Dominion. “It went from a big boom to just nothing.”
Lisa has just started working with O’Reilly Insurance.
In terms of sheer numbers, Saskatchewan still lags behind other provinces when it comes to international immigration. But this province’s skilled labour shortage means Saskatchewan is seeing an influx of skilled workers from abroad like never before.
From 1998 until 2004, more than 14,000 people came to Saskatchewan from abroad. Since then, that has almost tripled. In 2011 alone, an estimated 9,000 foreigners came to Saskatchewan, the vast majority of them hand-picked for their skills through the province’s immigrant nominee program.
And in one of the largest shifts ever to this country’s immigration policy, skilled workers are bypassing all the usual red tape. They are being courted by the province because of their skills. Ian came over at the request of Stuart Olson Dominion. He and his family are now in the process of acquiring permanent residency and hope to eventually become Canadian citizens.
Between 2000 and 2011, 8,829 newcomers or 19.4 per cent of immigrants to Saskatchewan came from Europe and the United Kingdom. They mainly came from Ukraine, U.K., Germany and Russia. Ireland and Greece don’t even register in the top 10 in terms of countries of origin, but this is not a game of numbers. It’s about a shift in the way the province thinks about immigration.
“It used to be the ones who came here would move after one winter. They would go to Montreal or Vancouver,” says Doug Elliott with the Sask Trends Monitor. “But the whole nature of immigration has now changed.
“Suddenly, all these folks are coming here who are not refugees, who are not families of immigrants. They are now what we call economic immigrants. They are coming here for jobs.”
The Saskatchewan government is working on an aggressive immigration strategy, with a strong focus on places like Ireland. Since the collapse of the Irish boom — dubbed the Celtic Tiger — young, educated but unemployed professionals have become a sought-after commodity.
“In about 2005 to 2007, people here in Saskatchewan were really trying to figure out the magic of the Tiger and they all wanted to go see what they were doing to attract capital and people,” says Joe Garcea, a professor at the University of Saskatchewan. “But of course since then Ireland has collapsed and we are going there not to look at the miracle of it but rather to pick through the pieces and see what we can bring back.”

***

Konstantinos Makrodimitriou didn’t even know Saskatchewan existed before he moved here from Greece with a work permit. The 28-year-old works as a line cook in a Saskatoon restaurant. He left a country in the throes of eurozone economic collapse. High unemployment and government-imposed austerity measures meant less pay, fewer benefits and higher taxes. More than 20 per cent of the country’s population is unemployed, but the collapse is hitting the youngest the hardest. Over half of Greece’s youth are without work.
“Things are not good in Greece. Jobs are not good anymore. No money, no future if you stay there anymore,” he says in a thick accent.
“Stay there for what? There is no reason. I came here for something better, so we will see.”
According to Greek media reports, in the last six months since the Greek economic debacle peaked, the Rome embassies for Canada and Australia have seen applications for work permits and visas nearly double. Greeks like Makrodimitriou are leaving their native country by the thousands, hoping to get back at least a little of what they lost before the collapse.
Even though they are almost a continent apart, the Irish and Greeks have a lot in common. As in Greece, the unemployment situation in Ireland is hitting the country’s youngest workers the hardest. According to the National Youth Council of Ireland, youth unemployment has tripled since 2008 with one in three young men under 25 being out of work. The organization also estimates that 70 per cent of unemployed youth plan to emigrate.
Canada’s immigration policy has created a double reality for people wanting to move to Canada. On the one hand, there is a massive backlog of applications — some estimates put the number of applications waiting to be processed at more than a million. At the same time, provincial programs like Saskatchewan’s Immigrant Nominee Program allow provincial governments to hand pick immigrants according to their skills. Highly skilled workers with corporate backing can skip ahead, while others are left to wait in line.

***
One of Ian Corrigan’s favourite expressions is to say that he and his family “fell on our feet.” They have been welcomed by their neighbours and their employers. When people hear their accents, they ask what brought them here.
“I say Saskatoon is really beautiful, why not live here?” says Lisa. “And they kind of look at you and say, ‘Oh do you really think so?’ There is a real modesty.”
After less than a year, the family is mixing into Saskatchewan culture. Katie is already “talking like a Canadian,” Lisa says.
“She came home one day and she said, ‘Mom it was so awesome — I got a muffin at lunch time, it was so amazing.’ At home, it would have been ‘Mamy, I got a bun off the teacher and it was great.’”
For the Panagiotopoulos family, there has been a bit of a language barrier for Evangelina and the kids — little things, like understanding a joke. But for Ilias, it has been more than that. He understands some English but speaks very little. During an interview in the living room of their south Regina bungalow, Tasos and Maria are helping him write a work-related text message in English. His wife would teach him but, she says, “We hardly see each other; we work different hours.” Ilias and his boss are communicating well enough — his boss is learning Greek as Ilias learns English.
The family has seen other struggles during their settlement. The immigration process wasn’t easy and they’re still waiting on permanent residency.
Getting their drivers’ licences was a big hurdle — Ilias is unable to take the test because he was denied use of an interpreter.
“They told him he has to learn English if he wants to be in Canada. He will learn English, of course, but he needs to have his licence and if he cannot drive, how is he supposed to go to work here? That’s a big thing,” says Evangelia. Ilias’ boss picks him up for work every day, or Tasos or Evangelia — who understood English well enough to take the test — have to drive him.
But all in all, the family is happy in Regina.
“When we came here it was a major shock; we didn’t know anybody. You feel insecure, but we soon got to know people and it’s getting better all the time,” says Evangelia.
Would they move back to Greece?
“There would have to be some major changes back there and things to get really good,” says Evangelia. Ilias interjects in Greek: “He says, ‘We can always go there on holiday but things are really good here.’”


Read more: http://www.leaderpost.com/news/Broader+Horizons/6336481/story.html#ixzz1pnL5Zg8j

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