In Astoria, OXI Spells Solidarity with Greece

Protesters gathered at Athens Square in Astoria the evening of July 1 to say 'OXI," or "no," to demands being made on Greece by the European Commission, The European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund. (Photo by Dinos Avlonitis)

Protesters gathered at Athens Square in Astoria the evening of July 1 to say “OXI,” or “no,” to demands being made on Greece by the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund. (Photo by Dinos Avlonitis)

[Editor’s note: On July 5, about 60% of Greece’s voters rejected the austerity demands made by Greece’s official creditors in a special referendum that had been called by Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras. The Greek finance minister resigned to give the government a chance to send a new negotiator to debt relief talks, while officials in Brussels challenged the legality of the referendum. Before the July 5 vote, Alexandre Soares went to Astoria Queens, to learn the views of members of the Greek American community there.]


Ono the morning of June 30, Nicholas Alexiou was driving along 30th Avenue, in Astoria, Queens, and smoking his pipe.

Block after block, the 56-year-old sociologist, who has been studying the Greek-American community for more than two decades, pointed to dozens of restaurants, grocery stores, bars, and sports associations with Hellenic names and blue and white flags.

“There’s not even one bookstore. Not one music store. That goes to show you the priorities of the community – they are conservative and business oriented, but they are still very concerned about what’s going on politically in their country,” he said, as he took another puff on his pipe. “They support the government in these negotiations.”

The professor of sociology at Queens College then drove through Athens Square, where a bronze statue of Socrates depicts the philosopher in a seated position, gesturing as if engaged in a dialogue.

Astoria is home to a large community of Greeks and Greek Americans, and this square is at the center of the Greek-American life – that’s why Alexiou chose it as the location for a rally to show “solidarity with the Greek people” and say “no to the bankers’ blackmail,” scheduled for the next day.

In the last few years, he has organized several such events, including demonstrations in front of the U.N. headquarters and the Greek embassy, but he predicted this one would be the biggest.

Nicholas Alexiou (Photo by Alexandre Soares for Voices of NY)

Nicholas Alexiou (Photo by Alexandre Soares for Voices of NY)

On July 1, several hundred people gathered in the square holding signs that read “OXI,” the Greek word for “no,” making speeches about democracy and sovereignty, shouting “No Troika Tyranny” – a reference to the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund, which have pressed Greece to pursue economic austerity in exchange for debt relief. Given the turnout at the rally, it seemed that Alexiou’s prediction might have been correct.

“If the ‘no’ wins [in the referendum on debt relief that Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras called for July 5] the European Union won’t be able to say the negotiations failed because the Greek government was unwilling to negotiate. They will have to admit they do not want to respect the will of the Greek people,” believes Alexiou.

Back in the office of Greek News, Apostolos Zoupaniotis, the editor in chief of the weekly, was having a busy day. He has gotten used to it: The last few weeks have been a succession of last minute meetings, new proposals, passionate speeches, and nerve-breaking negotiations between Greek and European leaders. There has been a lot of breaking news.

Over the last weekend, though, after talks crumbled between these leaders, voters have been called to judge the proposals in a popular referendum: Should the country accept the last proposed agreement or not?

The Greek finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, has said he’ll resign if the “yes” wins, that he would rather cut off his arm than accept a bad deal; French president François Hollande called a victory of the “no” a “leap into the void.” Zoupaniotis believes both sides have taken things too far.

“When Syriza [the prime minister’s party] won the elections, back in January, people [in the community] liked the idea of having a tough negotiation. They didn’t like that the previous government was just signing whatever was put in front of them,” he says. “I think that support was blown out in these last few days.”

The support dissipated, the journalist believes, with news that the government would limit cash withdrawals, when people heard that Greece had become the first country to fail to repay a debt to the IMF since Zimbabwe in 2001, and finally, when they learned that letting the program expire was one step closer to leaving the euro.

No matter how the negotiations eventually end, Zoupaniotis says Greek News will continue to print advertising for tourism to Greece, in every edition, including a very valuable front-page advert. They have been doing it since 2011.

“We do it for free, out of solidarity,” the journalist says. “Like many people in the community, we’re showing support for the country, because we have families there and we know of their situation, because we have houses there, businesses. It is not rooted in ideological reasons.”

Every day the editor gets phone calls, emails, and letters from people across the ocean. In those messages, people share how they lost their jobs, their houses, and how increasingly difficult it is to feed their family. In the end, they always ask if there’s any chance he can help them move to America.

Apostolos Zoupaniotis (Photo by Alexandre Soares for Voices of NY)

Apostolos Zoupaniotis (Photo by Alexandre Soares for Voices of NY)

Zoupaniotis tells them he can’t help, but many come anyway.

Nicholas Alexiou confirms that economic turmoil has spurred a new wave of Greek immigration. “I believe that, since 2011, 5,000 people have arrived [in the U.S.] every year,” he says. Unlike the immigrants of the 20th century, they are health professionals, teachers and lawyers.

Some come under the Visa Waiver Program, but others have American citizenship. They are Greek Americans who returned to the country in the 1990s and early 2000s, when the Mediterranean economy was racing forward, and now they are forced to return. People like George Giannopoulos, who was born in Astoria 45 years ago.

Like many first-generation Americans of Greek descent, Giannopoulos learned the language of his parents and returned every year to their homeland for summer vacation. When he saw an opportunity to live in the country he loved, he took the risk.

In Sparta, his parent’s home city, he built a successful agricultural business. He opened a restaurant. At one point, he employed eight people. He got married. He had two children.

“By 2004, 2005, after the Olympic Games, we knew something was wrong. Everyone knew things had to change. That’s why I now have problems blaming Europe. It was everyone’s fault,” he says.

In 2010, Greece got the first bailout loan. Austerity measures were put in place. Businesses suffered. In 2011, the Troika offered Greece a second bailout. More austerity followed.

“That was when the crisis destroyed our business. I felt like I needed to offer a future to my kids, give them an education, and that I couldn’t do it there anymore,” Giannopoulos remembers. “I arrived to that country as a young man and, almost 20 years later, in my 40s, I had to leave and start again.”

Giannopoulos is now a lecturer at Queens College and makes some additional income from working at a restaurant owned by an uncle, where he deals with a lot of Greek people.

Greek Americans, he says, agree the country is doing the right thing negotiating, and negotiating hard – but disagree about everything else.

“People are split. Some say we should go back to the drachma; others think that would be a disaster and that we have to accept the agreement and hold on to the euro. It’s a very complex situation,” he says.

Nicholas Alexiou wishes this younger generation, the newcomers, were more politically active, more like he and the other immigrants of the 1970s were – even though many of those radicals have now prospered, become conservative and started to vote for the Republican Party, something he always teases them about.

Still, at the rally on Wednesday night, many young people came. Moms held their babies in one arm and waved Greek flags with the other. Some of the oldest, the ones Alexiou teases, who hadn’t been present at the previous events, also showed up.

Alexiou says the record-breaking participation has a reason: People believe Greece is teaching an important lesson to European leaders.

“Democracy has been excluded from the decision-making process in the European Union. We are bringing democracy back,” the sociologist says. “This crisis has never been an economic problem. It is, 100 percent, a political issue. They tried to convince us otherwise for a long time, saying there were no alternatives, but there are always alternatives. That’s called democracy – we invented it.”

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