Sitting across the table in the basement of the Saskatoon Greek Orthodox Church, George reflects on the past four years.
Hailing from Piraeus, Greece, George came to Canada in January 2014, following three years of unemployment back home. He didn’t want to use his last name for fear it might affect his latest work visa application.
“It was my only escape and I felt very bad,” George said through a translator.
Leaving behind his wife and twin 18-year-old sons, he came to work as a welder for a company in Yorkton, but after six months, the entire staff were laid off. His restricted visa left him unable to get another job but he hasn’t given up.
One of his sons now attends high school in Saskatoon, but George hopes to one day bring his entire family to Canada.
“The future is here, not in Greece. Greeks don’t have a future,” he said.
George is one of around 20 Greek immigrants who have come to Saskatoon in the last two and a half years to escape the financial collapse in their homeland, according to officials with the Greek Orthodox Community of Saskatoon (GOC).
GOC president George Katselis said as a professor at the University of Saskatchewan, he’s received dozens of emails from Greeks looking for work abroad. He’s even seen emails from Greek athletes who want to compete for Canada, just to get out of Greece.
“They have found that Saskatoon is a very nice place to raise a family, it’s quiet and it’s not as big as Toronto or Calgary so they like it here,” Katselis said.
However, any immigrants who do make it to Canada find the road to prosperity long and hard. Katselis said some immigrants like George were scammed by companies who said they would find work. Of the 20 men who have come to support their families, only five found work right away and many lived together in small apartments with few possessions and just the shirts on their backs.
The GOC tries to provide services like airport pick ups, apartment hunting, clothing and furniture but their resources are limited. Saskatoon’s Greek community is only around 300 strong and the charitable organization runS off donations and volunteers.
Former GOC president Tony Antonopoulos said restricting work visas are a big problem for immigrants. The visas restrict who immigrants can work for, but employers may not be bound to honour contracts.
George signed a two-year contract in Yorkton but was let go after just six months.
“By restricting them to having to work with these companies and then when these companies let go of them, and the government says ‘there’s nothing we can do.’ I don’t think that’s right,” Antonopoulos said. “I think the government has to take some responsibility here.”
Antonopoulos said he would like to see the visa restrictions lifted so all immigrants could look for work to support their families and bring them to Canada.
“These people are not coming here for a handout. They’re coming here because they see a future in Canada,” he said.
George said he last visited his family in Greece over Easter. Speaking with them today, he said the country is completely different from just three months ago.
He said people stay at home because they have no access to money. The government has restricted withdrawals to 60 Euros a day. George said many people don’t have enough for food and have given up paying bills or buying other goods and services. Meanwhile many employers have put their employees on unpaid vacation.
Katselis said he wants to send money to relatives but they’ve told him not to because of the restrictions.
Meanwhile, Antonopoulos tears up as he thinks about senior relatives in Greece.
“They say to me ‘We are okay. Our generation is okay,’ but they’re concerned about their kids, because they see no future,” he said.
Youth unemployment in Greece has reached 51 per cent.
On Thursday, Greece offered sweeping sales tax hikes and pension cuts in its new proposals to creditors.
Eurogroup finance ministers will meet Saturday to discuss the proposals and prepare a Sunday summit of European Union leaders.
George said no matter what happens Sunday, it will be a difficult road ahead for the citizens.
“Whether Greece exits the Eurogroup or even if they stay, it’s going to be the same thing,” George said. “A new deal, good for government, bad for the people.”
He said Greece should leave the European Union, and should have left years ago.
“It’s once step before the Grexit, one step.”
Follow on Twitter: @lkretzel