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F - 209 : Bye to Poverty - Welcome to Freedom and Prosperity - Greek Emigration


Greek Immigrants in New York - Could not find the Date of the Photo - prob. around WW1


Planned to write about the Sultanate of Women this week but my last blog led to another subject which I want to write about first: Greek Emigration. It was massive – almost 20% of the 6 million Greeks living in Greece and Anatolia in the 19th century left. The people drain was not as big as in Italy where almost half of the population emigrated (see my blog D – 30) but it was significant. Had the US not changed the immigration laws in 1917, the number probably would have been higher. Today, around 5 million people with Greek ancestry live abroad. For the US, the number is estimated at between 1.2m - 3.0 million (depending on how you count); for Australia somewhere between 0.4m – 0.6m.

The Ottoman Empire and the Greek Kingdom in 1877


The story of Greek emigration is not as straight forward as in Italy. Both countries were poor and under-industrialized and both lacked natural resources. But Greece before 1912 was also divided. Of the 6 million Greek people, only 2 million lived in Greece itself. The rest lived under Ottoman rule in Asia Minor, Thrace and Constantinople. Most of the Greek emigrants before the First World War came from the countryside in Anatolia and Thrace.

The Naturalisation Numbers lag Immigration by about 10 - 15 Years


After the war of Independence (1821 - 1832) Greece became an independent Kingdom with a Bavarian King. Whilst the fighting stopped, real peace did not return. Both sides looked at each other with suspicion. The massacres of innocent civilians were not forgotten and created a lot of bad feelings. People did not forgive. Nationalist sentiments were running high. Add to these bad memories that the Ottoman Empire espoused French style nationalism to modernize government, education, army and navy (that is why 5% of the Turkish vocabulary is of French origin – see blog B – 3). Steadily, discrimination against the Greek minority became Ottoman government policy. There were fewer and fewer prospects for young Greek people.

Piraeus Harbor in 1889 - Sail Ships still dominate


It was not easy for these Greeks to emigrate. The Ottoman Empire had no interest in letting its people go. Whilst this was the time before passports and borders were porous, the Turkish Authorities controlled the ports. Nobody could emigrate from Izmir or another Turkish harbor without their consent. But as always, where there is a will, there is a way. Greek families pooled their money and sent the most capable son abroad. Before 1910, over 90% of the Greek emigrants were male. Typically, they were smuggled out of Turkey on a small fishing boat and ended up in Piraeus, Athens big harbor. After a few weeks of waiting, they found passage or at least a hike to Livorno or Genoa from where they could continue. Most of them used their last money for the ticket and arrived with less than five dollars in their pockets in the US. The journey usually took two to three months.

Greek People arriving in Ellis Island - Undated Photo from before 1912


Since I know Greek emigration to the US better than to Australia, I will focus on America. All Greek immigrants arrived at Ellis Island in New York. Thanks to its meticulous record keeping, we know a lot about the people who arrived. Immigration is seldom so well documented. The young untrained and often illiterate men found employment in the booming construction industry on the east coast or moved further west to work in the mines. Their settlement pattern is still detectable in today’s demographics.

Distribution of People with Greek Ancestry - most still live in New England and NY


Still many of them work in construction and now own their own businesses. But they diversified early into the restaurant and hospitality business. Being as Orthodox Christians also a religious minority in a largely protestant country, the Greek minority put a high value on preserving their culture and identity. For children, going to Greek school in the afternoon was mandatory since many Greek parents insisted that Greek was spoken at home. The academic achievements of the Greek minority are thus not surprising. They are one of the communities with the highest number of college degrees.

Road Sign in Chicago from the End of the 19th Century


Parents also made sure that every child gets an orthodox education and that everyone goes to church. The Greek Orthodox Church in the US is a quite closely knit family – closer than the Catholics. Religious festivals are celebrated as in Greece and Easter remains the most holy time of the year, not Christmas. In the Orthodox Church the celebrations follow the Julian calendar. Their festivities are thus 13 days behind ours. Under Pope Gregory XIII, the western world switched in 1582 to the Gregorian calendar. The Orthodox Church stayed with the Julian calendar.

Holy Trinity Church on the Upper East Side in New York, 2017


There was a second wave of immigration after the Putsch in Greece in 1967. For a good seven years, the Army ruled Greece and achieved nothing else than political disaster and economic misery. The military dictatorship brought Greece close to a military conflict with Turkey over Cyprus in 1974 when I was stuck on a camping place close to a Greek Air Force base and saw missiles and anti-aircraft batteries being put in place. Also, for a week all public transport was suspended since the army mobilized. It was eerie… and the end of military rule. People went on a massive strike and the junta resigned. With Karamanlis, Greece got an elected president again. But for many younger Greeks, this was a lost decade. They emigrated to the US which offered freedom and prosperity.

The Greek Military Junta who ruled the Country from 1967 to 1974


Of course I had to watch the US comedy “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” again which was released in 2002. It was as funny as when I saw it the first time and has lost nothing of its charm. It is also surprisingly accurate.


Love this movie - wonderful Comedy from 2002


Also looked up the list of US citizens with Greek ancestry you find on Wikipedia. It is an impressive list. That the former democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis had Greek ancestors was easy to guess. But Jamie Dimon from JPM? Jennifer Aniston? Tom Hanks? Tina Fey? Ariana Huffington? You need to look up the list yourself.


The Greek community in the US shows us what Greece could be, was it not stifled by the rule of its established families and the red tape that was put on at every opportunity to protect incumbent businesses. Life in Greece is not easy. The sovereign debt crisis in 2011 made it even worse. Compare this to the success of Greek people in the rest of the world. When we are in Greece this summer, we will see the warmth and ingenuity of Greek people. To experience the mind-numbing bureaucracy we would have to stay much longer.



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