Thou­sands leave is­land of Ka­lym­nos to start new lives on for­eign shores

Kathimerini English - - Focus - BY IOANNA FOTIADI

“Fifty years ago they would dive deep to col­lect sponges, to­day they climb as high as pos­si­ble to paint bridges,” Chris Ala­houzos, vice mayor of Tar­pon Springs, a city in Florida founded by Greek sponge divers and im­mi­grants from the is­lands of Ka­lym­nos, Halki and Symi, told Kathimerini re­cently. Ala­houzos moved from Ka­lym­nos to US when he was 12 years old and for the past three years has wit­nessed a new surge of mi­gra­tion from his home­land. “They choose dan­ger­ous but prof­itable jobs. That is what we Ka­lym­niots are like – dar­ing.”

The re­mote south­east Aegean is­land has seen its pop­u­la­tion plum­met from 17,000 in 2011 (when the last cen­sus was con­ducted) to an es­ti­mated 11,000 as res­i­dents seek their for­tunes abroad, mainly in ar­eas with large Ka­lym­niot com­mu­ni­ties, such as Tar­pon Springs, Dar­win in Aus­tralia and Port-de-Bouc and Pont Saint-Louis in south­ern France.

“Around 70 per­cent of the mi­grants are peo­ple who worked in con­struc­tion, now dec­i­mated by the cri­sis,” said Gior­gos Mavros, a mu­nic­i­pal coun­cilor in Ka­lym­nos. “But we have also seen the de­par­ture of sci­en­tists, doc­tors and civil en­gi­neers, pro­fes­sion­als who are sought after in Aus­tralia.”

“In 2014 I is­sued around 400 tick­ets to Aus­tralia, about the same as in 2013,” Mano­lis Man­gos, a travel agent on the is­land, told Kathimerini. “Many had pass­ports as they were born in Aus­tralia and had come back when times were good, but oth­ers got travel visas and will be taken in by mem­bers of the large Ka­lym­niot com­mu­nity once they ar­rive.” Th­ese mi­grants of­ten have a com­pa­triot guar­an­tee­ing them work and are able to ex­tend their visas to three or six months after ar­riv­ing in Aus­tralia, Man­gos ex­plained.

The av­er­age Ka­lym­niot mi­grant is 35 years old, in an age bracket that is ex­pe­ri­enc­ing 50 per­cent job­less­ness. Oth­ers are fa­thers or moth­ers in their 40s and 50s. Other than Aus­tralia and the US, some opt for Bel­gium, Ger­many, Swe­den and Norway.

“They come to my of­fice des­per­ate, squeezed by banks and com­pletely broke. We have sent about 10 peo­ple to South Africa and another 40 to Congo, places where the Ka­lym­niot com­mu­nity once thrived,” Man­gos ex­plained. “I es­ti­mate that around half the pop­u­la­tion has left, or more than 8,000. Thank­fully they re­turn for their sum­mer hol­i­days.”

For those left be­hind on the is­land, life has not been easy.

“There are closed shops and lockedup houses all over the place,” said Dion- ysis Trik­ilis, a lo­cal physics teacher. “Fam­i­lies are pack­ing up and leav­ing, even in the mid­dle of the school year,” he added, say­ing that the num­ber of stu­dents at the lo­cal high school has shrunk from 270 five years ago to 160 to­day.

The teacher at­tributes the huge ex­o­dus from Ka­lym­nos not just to un­em­ploy­ment but also to the re­duc­tion in sub­si­dies for large fam­i­lies – for which the Ka­lym­niots are renowned – as well as to the re­duc­tion in salaries and the drop in con­struc­tion ac­tiv­ity.

The dire sit­u­a­tion in which many peo­ple on the is­land find them­selves is also at­tested to by the rise in the num­ber of peo­ple ask­ing for as­sis­tance.

Am­filo­chios Sakalleros is a cleric and one of the founders of the Love Bank pro­gram. “When we first started the Love Bank in 2006 we pro­vided meals to 60 peo­ple,” he told Kathimerini. “To­day we feed 200 adults and around 50 school­child­ren who were brought to us by their teach­ers. Our pro­gram sur­vives thanks to the support of Ka­lym­niots liv­ing abroad.”

The is­land’s met­ro­pol­i­tan church also runs a free gro­cery store that pro­vides food to 40 res­i­dents, as well as a free pharmacy.

“I hope we can muster up the courage to weather the storm once more,” the priest added.

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