Story by Olivia Arnold ·
THESSALONIKI, Greece – The summer after Marinela Tserepi graduated from college in Thessaloniki, she tried selling beauty products. Working for commission, she endured people who screamed at her over the phone, scolding her for asking them to purchase cosmetics when they did not have enough money to buy milk for their children.
After about two weeks, she quit. A bright mind, Tserepi had studied international relations at the American College of Thessaloniki for four years, but she entered the workforce in 2016 in the midst of Greece’s economic crisis—with more than half of her age group facing unemployment.
Tserepi’s father had lost his job as an engineer at the beginning of the crisis in 2010, and her older sister, who moved to the Netherlands for work in 2014, encouraged Tserepi to get out of Greece. In September 2016, just three months after graduation, Tserepi heeded her sister’s advice and moved more than 1,500 miles away to work at a youth center in the western Netherlands.
“I saw people losing their jobs. My father lost his job. I saw shops closing,” said Tserepi in a video interview from her new home in the town Rijswijk. “I saw banks closing and the people unable to take their savings. I saw a lot of people taking to the streets to demonstrate and stuff. So all this has created to me a feeling of… financial insecurity and instability. And I felt really vulnerable to all these changes.”
Tserepi, now 23, is one of more than 427,000 Greek citizens who have left the country since the beginning of the worldwide financial crisis in 2008, according to a Bank of Greece report published in 2016. Greece’s economic crisis, sparked in 2010 by global financial woes, has been marked by the accrual of government debt, hefty income taxes, cuts to public spending, high rates of unemployment and citizens demonstrating in the streets.
Of the nearly half a million Greeks who have emigrated from the country since 2008, more than 50 percent—at least 213,500—are relatively young, between the ages of 25 and 39. They are also well educated, with a study in May 2016 from the Hellenic Observatory European Institute finding that up to 75 percent of post-2010 emigrants graduated from a university or postsecondary vocational school.
The loss of these Greeks, the majority of whom are young, college-educated and highly skilled, has left experts lamenting over what they call a “brain drain” from the southern European country.
“Youth ‘brain drain.’ I think it’s quite literal in the sense that you have a considerable number of young graduates who decide to pursue employment opportunities outside the Greek borders,” said Maria Bozoudi, an adjunct professor teaching international relations at the American College of Thessaloniki. “They feel that the Greek market cannot absorb them, cannot offer them employment opportunities, aren’t going to be paying them well, aren’t going to be related with their studies and their interests.”
Employment opportunities in Greece
Sitting outside the library at Aristotle University, Nikoleta Lagaki says many students are nervous about Greece’s high rates of unemployment. Lagaki, in the fourth of a six-year School of Medicine program, says she has not decided between trying to stay in Greece or moving to Germany after she graduates.
“I studied German language in order to have this (choice),” said Lagaki, 21, originally from the Greek city of Drama. “It’s an alternative in case we don’t find something else.”
Job unemployment currently stands at 23.2 percent across Greece, but it is higher among 25 to 34 year olds at 30.4 percent, according to the Hellenic Statistical Authority. For the youngest age group, 15 to 24 year olds, the general unemployment rate more than doubles—to 47.9 percent.
Leonidas Makris, an advisor to Thessaloniki Mayor Yiannis Boutaris, acknowledges that the second largest city in Greece is impacted by the nationwide “brain drain,” especially considering that university students make up more than 10 percent of the city’s population.
Still, Makris sees little that the mayor’s office can do to combat massive debt and unemployment incurred by the national government.
“Of course we would wish all the people, like in the past, to have a job and work in Greece,” Makris said. “There are very few things that any municipality in Greece [can do] in order to reverse the tendency and trend that people have, the problems that people have, to find a job.”
The employment positions that are available to Greece’s newest college graduates are often unrelated to their fields of study, mainly opening up in the service industry—in restaurants, bars, hotels and supermarkets.
Originally from the Greek city of Kalamata, Stavros Papadeas graduated from the University of Crete with a bachelor’s in sociology in 2013. After, he worked a couple days a week managing the reception and administrative tasks for an apartment building owned by his uncle in the town of Kardamyli.
Though he had a part-time job, Papadeas said the work did not satisfy his professional dreams or personal needs.
“I try a lot for a couple of months. I see that the salaries there are even not enough for survival,” Papadeas, now 27, said during a video interview from his home in the central Netherlands. “You have to take money from your family…You are never 100 percent independent. And I said to myself, ‘You are 25. You have to be productive. This is your productive age, so you need independence.’ That’s why I left.”
After serving nine months in the Army—as military service is mandatory for Greek men—Papadeas moved to the Netherlands in 2015 to study for his master’s in victimology and criminal justice at Tilburg University. Papadeas is now preparing to start his second master’s in September at Utrecht University and ultimately aims to get a doctorate degree.
He said he has no intention of living in Greece after he finishes his studies.
“If you make the mathematical result between your personal life time span and a perception about when the things (in Greece) probably will be better, you realize that you, maybe, you never live to see it with your own eyes,” Papadeas said. “I don’t think that I will be ever there again. Only for holidays.”
A unique era of emigration
Mass emigration is not unheard of for Greece, which saw one wave occur between 1903 and 1917 and the second between 1960 and 1972. What makes the current emigration flow unique, Bozoudi said, is that prior periods mainly saw farmers and unskilled laborers leaving the country, while those emigrating now are highly-skilled—trained to be doctors, nurses, lawyers and scientists—hence the “brain drain” moniker.
“This is perhaps what’s the saddest part, the striking part,” Bozoudi said. “That you have human resources that are well-trained, but when it comes to actually employing these human resources…you’re not successful in this process. You don’t know how to absorb them and integrate them into the economy.”
Though many are leaving because of high unemployment, Dimitris Diamantis, the American College of Thessaloniki career services and alumni relations officer, cautioned against lumping all college students studying abroad into the “brain drain” phenomenon. Ten years ago, Diamantis said, Greeks studying in other countries was considered “enlightenment.”
“The discussion about someone that tries to live abroad is very fast that it’s because of the crisis,” Diamantis said. “It’s because that they cannot do anything here. It’s because we are doomed. Not because it’s something positive—to go to another city, to experience another culture.”
However, another distinction that experts point out about the current emigration wave is that, unlike in prior decades, college graduates are not going abroad with the mindset of ultimately returning to Greece. This may be true for many emigrants, but not everyone is leaving Greece without looking back.
Rania Saranti, 27, left Thessaloniki three months after graduating from Aristotle University in 2013. She dreamt of becoming a secondary school teacher and, dismayed by Greece’s job prospects, decided to join her boyfriend in Zurich, Switzerland, where he was working at an information technology job.
Though her parents supported her decision, Saranti, an only child, said she was reluctant to leave her family behind, and that it has not always been easy living nearly 1,200 miles away from home.
“It’s kind of difficult when you are not able to see your parents when you want to,” Saranti said. “Suddenly, when emergencies arise or somebody has to go to the hospital and have an operation and you’re not there, that’s the toughest part.”
Saranti is currently working as an English teacher at Wings School, a private kindergarten in Zurich. Though she likes her job, Saranti said she still wants to teach secondary school, and is looking into moving back to Greece within the next year to start studying for her master’s degree. She now wants to become a special needs teacher, a position she hopes will be more in demand in Greece.
“I’m really disappointed (in Greece). I wish things were working for us,” she said. “I try to be optimistic that things will change.”
At the Don Bosco youth center in Rijswijk, Tserepi helps prepare themed activities—with dinosaurs and dragons and Pokemon—for the local children, some of whom are refugees. She runs a painting club, and is excited over making new friends with other volunteers from countries all around Europe. It is a far cry from her days of getting yelled at on the phone as she tried to sell beauty products.
Her temporary position at Don Bosco will be over this August, and she wants to pursue a master’s degree afterward. Tserepi sees herself working in education, helping craft policies and international programs.
When asked if she is glad she chose the Netherlands over staying in Greece, she laughs and says “for sure,” though there is a somberness in her voice as she goes on to describe the economic state of her country.
“For me, it’s really sad because it’s a really beautiful country,” Tserepi said. “We have seen a lot of mistakes from the government, and the youth feels really disappointed and not supported at all. So for us, it’s survival. I care about the future of Greece, but first I would care about my future.”