Greek Diaspora Struggles to Maintain Ties to Homeland in Coronavirus Times

Photo: AMNA

By Sean Mathews

As the coronavirus drags on and lockdown fatigue increases, Dino Gerousis says he has found himself dreaming of the small fishing villages on the Ionian island of Kefalonia an average of 3 times a week.

For Gerousis, a data analyst and consultant from Illinois, daydreaming of travels in Greece is more than just escapist longings for packed cafes and Mediterranean breezes at a time when going to buy groceries requires wearing a mask and sticking by ubiquitous social distancing guidelines at checkout lines.

Gerousis is a second generation Greek-American whose father is from Patras, a city in the Northern Peloponnese. He was raised there from the age of 4 until the end of high school when he returned to America to pursue his studies.

He is part of a long line of members of the Greek diaspora who left the country since the end of WWI and up through the financial crisis in search of greater economic opportunity abroad. Yet, through visits to their home villages and islands, these people have been able to maintain their familial, religious and cultural links over the generations.

The married father of three says he is still hopeful he can return to Greece this summer with his family.

“Flying wearing a mask for 8 to 10 hours is rough,” he told Greek Reporter over an online interview, “but I’d be willing to do that. I have thought of going to the Ionian islands and then to Patras to visit my family and friends if possible. With that said, I’m taking coronavirus very seriously.”

Gerousis is not alone amongst the millions of Greeks living abroad who has kept strong ties with his homeland and who is longing for another opportunity to return this summer. Last year it is estimated that roughly one million Greek-Americans visited Greece.

On stand-by 

Augustis Neamonitis, a Greek American from the island of Chios who is also president of the Island’s tourism organization, said his first cousins in New York have taken advantage of low airline prices to purchase tickets — which were less than half of what they would normally pay to travel at the end of July. They are gambling that Greece will be open for international flights by then.

“They are a family of five, so they figure if something goes wrong, they will change their ticket or use it later on. Because lots of Greek Americans come as big families, they can save a lot of money,” he told Greek Reporter.

For now, that still seems to be the intrepid few. Neamonitis said most of his family and friends are either on standby or have canceled their trips this year.

George Kounoupis, a well-known Greek American lawyer who specializes in international law, said he has been doing a brisk business amongst the members of the diaspora. His firm has seen an uptick in inheritance and real estate cases that he says clients had previously planned to pursue on their own when they returned to Greece this summer.

“About 70% of people I have spoken with won’t be going to Greece this summer,” he told Greek Reporter. “If they had legal matters and planned on going to the kafenio to hire their cousin’s lawyer, that trip has been canceled and they have turned to us instead.”

Airport fears

Kounoupis says it is not so much the coronavirus situation in Greece that has made his clients leery of traveling, but the chance of contracting the virus while in transit in airports.

As the many members of the diaspora find ways to deal with their personal matters in Greece without traveling, their family members — and business owners — who are anxiously awaiting their return are now bracing for a different kind of summer this year.

Nowhere is this more evident than on Neamonitis’ home island of Chios in the Northern Aegean.

“This is going to be hard on the businesses. Some of them will not survive if things are really bad this summer,” he says.

During July and August the harborside restaurants in Chios town usually fill with 2 or 3 generations of the same family.

Pyrgi village on the Greek island of Chios. Photo Source: Wikimedia commons

Grandchildren speaking in British and American-accented English play on the sidewalk while grandparents converse with relatives in Greek. Beaches like Agia Fotini, with its sleek hotels and minimalist white cabanas draw the young diaspora crowd to its late night beach bars.

Big blow to tourism

Maria Kova of the Department of Tourism for Chios told Greek Reporter, “The United States is one of the main tourist markets for the Northern Aegean Islands and especially for the regional unit of Chios… If coronavirus prevents the Greek diaspora from visiting this year, this will be a big blow for the local economy.”

Yet the island is not a tourist haven in the same way as Rhodes or the Cycladic Islands. Chios, and its surrounding smaller islands of Oinousses and Psara, have a strong maritime history that makes up much of the local economy. While 20% of Greece’s GDP is dependent on tourism, it accounts for only roughly 10% of the regional unit of Chios’ GDP.

The return of the diaspora each summer is as much about busy cafes and beach bars as it is about visiting family, completing projects around grandparents’ homes, and reconnecting  with family roots.

Beach at Chios. Source: Wikimedia commons

“Even when I was going to school in the US and growing up there, it seemed most Greek Americans are somehow from Chios, and they come back, so the travel restrictions are really going to affect us,” Neamonitis said.

The annual migration of the diaspora back to their native homes is at times an injection of life and vitality into small villages suffering from the effects of urbanization and aging populations.

Fear of infecting elders

Pantelis Bournias, president of The Union of all Chian Diaspora, says “We have villages in Chios that have a population of 5 people in the winter months, but in the summer the number is close to 150.”

“We have to keep the new generations close to us, for them to respect and love Greece and learn about the history of the island. Coming back to the village is how they get connected to the whole North Aegean environment,” Bournias said.

But it is the very nature of the multigenerational family structure that is making some hesitant to return. “People are also worried about coming back and bringing the virus to their older relatives,” Neaminitis said.

Antigoni Maistrali, President of the Chios Hotelier Association, said it will also be difficult for large families with young children to return if the travel restrictions last into August. “Families get two weeks of vacation to travel back home. It will not be easy for them to come after August, so this year will be difficult.”

Bournias estimates that amongst members of the diaspora over the age of 50 there will be a 50% to 60% drop in those returning.

However, he says, smiling, that the younger 3rd and 4th generation beach goers of Agia Fotini could make the trip. “The youngsters are not afraid of anything, so that might bring them back to Chios. And they can be more flexible about making plans last minute.”

As those like Dino Gerousis cautiously watch the reopening of Greece, much of the focus in deciding to return or not seems to be the changes in travel. He says he doesn’t mind getting tested for coronavirus at the airport, but a redline would be if he had to be quarantined. “I understand why they would do it, but you only get so much vacation time.”

Nevertheless, he has yet to give up. “Greece definitely seems a lot safer to me than where I live in Illinois right now.”