Jobless Greeks Resolved to Work Clean Toilets in Sweden
As a pharmaceutical salesman in Greece for 17 years, Tilemachos Karachalios wore a suit, drove a company car and had an expense account. He now mops schools in Sweden, forced from his home by Greece’s economic crisis.
“It was a very good job,” said Karachalios, 40, of his former life. “Now I clean Swedish s---.”
Karachalios, who left behind his 6-year-old daughter to be raised by his parents, is one of thousands fleeing Greece’s record 24 percent unemployment and austerity measures that threaten to undermine growth. The number of Greeks seeking permission to settle in Sweden, where there are more jobs and a stable economy, almost doubled to 1,093 last year from 2010, and is on pace to increase again this year.
“I’m trying to survive,” Karachalios said in an interview in Stockholm. “It’s difficult here, very difficult. I would prefer to stay in Greece. But we don’t have jobs.”
Greece is in its fifth year of recession, with the economy expected to contract 6.9 percent this year, the same as in 2011, according to the Athens-based Foundation for Economic and Industrial Research. Since 2008, the number of jobless has more than tripled to a record 1.22 million as of June, out of a total population of 10.8 million.
“In Greece, there was no future,” said Ourania Michtopoulou, who moved with her husband to Sweden in 2010 after both lost textile industry jobs in Thessaloniki, where they had a comfortable life with a house and car. “Here, I can hope for something good to happen. Maybe not for me -- I’m 48 -- but maybe for my children.”
Their family now crams into a small apartment, while her husband, Nikos, works for a landscaper and her teenage children struggle with Swedish lessons.
“It was not easy for them,” she said. “My daughter said lots of times, ‘I hate Sweden -- I want to go home.’”
Karachalios began his career in pharmaceutical sales after his mandatory military service, working at three different companies in the southern city of Patras. He married a Chinese woman he met at the 2004 Athens Olympics, had a daughter, and divorced.
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“You can plan, you can organize, you can make plans for 10 years, 20 years, but you don’t know what life brings,” he said.
An intense man with flecks of gray in his thinning black hair, Karachalios said he has lost 20 to 30 pounds since moving to Sweden. His hands are stained with grime. Instead of the suits and ties he once wore, he now dresses in jeans and work boots. His suits remain in Greece.
In Homer’s Odyssey, Telemachus is the son of Odysseus, a Greek hero who spent 10 years struggling to return home from the Trojan War. Karachalios was named after a great-uncle who was a favorite of his parents.
Karachalios’s troubles began in early 2010 when the Greek government, which provides health care, forced drugmakers to cut their prices by as much as 27 percent. To reduce costs, his then-employer PharmaSwiss fired him and two other salesmen, leaving his former supervisor to manage the accounts, he said. Karachalios searched for jobs and eventually spent two months in 2011 as a telemarketer in Athens. He quit after not being paid. An ill-fated attempt to start a retirement home cost him months of work and most of his savings.
Determined to move, Karachalios considered Australia before rejecting the immigration process as too expensive. He had a friend in Sweden, had visited before and knew its reputation.
“I knew they were very organized,” he said. “Everyone pays their taxes and it’s fair. There is no cheating.”
Karachalios arrived in March. His friend helped him find a room to rent and he pays 4,500 Swedish krona ($670) a month for a room in a quiet apartment complex that houses other immigrants, many from the Middle East.
His studio has no stove or oven, just a hot plate and microwave. He has a single dish, and when he has a guest, he eats out of a plastic container that used to hold feta cheese. A tiny Greek flag is taped to the wall. The room came with a television though Karachalios said he never watches. In the evenings, if he has the energy, he studies Swedish.
Because of his background in health care, Karachalios at first applied for jobs caring for the elderly. He was rejected without an interview because he didn’t speak Swedish.
To find a job, he began knocking on doors of restaurants and janitorial companies, and eventually found a position cleaning rental houses. It was hard, lonely work that didn’t allow a break for lunch, he said. His first week wasn’t paid because he was told he was being trained. After his second week, when he was paid for only 32 hours instead of the 40 he said he worked, he wasn’t called back.
In July, he found work with a cleaning contractor run by another Greek. Although the hours are long and the work difficult, Karachalios said he is at least treated fairly.
In Greece, Karachalios was paid between 2,500 and 3,000 euros ($3,143-$3,772) a month, after taxes. In Stockholm, he makes 80 krona an hour. Based on a 40-hour work week, that equals about $1,907 a month.
“I was doing something more glamorous but I don’t mind this work,” he said. “I feel alive again. When you are unemployed too long, it’s very hard. I was angry all the time.”
Karachalios wasn’t paid until mid-August for work he did in July. In the meanwhile, he lives frugally, saving half-smoked cigarettes while he waits for his parents to wire money. He also worries about finding another job, which will be necessary once school resumes and the cleaning contract ends. If he can’t find a permanent job in Stockholm, he said he may move with his daughter to Shanghai, where his ex-wife lives.
“I don’t have anywhere else to go and work, and it would be helpful for my daughter,” he said.
There are now 1.4 million foreign-born people in Sweden, or 15 percent of the population, an increase from virtually none at the end of World War II. While Sweden prides itself on being a tolerant and progressive nation, an anti-immigration party drew 5.7 percent of the vote in 2010, the most ever, said Klas Borell, a Swedish professor of sociology.
At the schools Karachalios cleans, he has little contact with Swedes. The principal of one school in Uppsala, Andreas Kembler, said that while he doesn’t know the janitors by name, he makes a point to say hello to them in the hall. The students have been learning about the crisis in Greece, and about the implications of unemployment, Kembler said.
When told about Karachalios, Kembler says he is troubled that Greeks are forced from their homes in pursuit of work.
“I can see, now that our economy is strong and theirs is weak, that it may be natural to move somewhere where there are still jobs,” Kembler said. “I also feel that the move should be for the right reasons, positive reasons, and that in his case there must have been a certain amount of duress that he was under, which of course isn’t an appealing thought that he was forced to move away from his family.”
Karachalios wakes at 5 a.m. with the sun already up because of the long Swedish summer days. He checks Facebook on his phone for news from Greece and takes the subway one stop to Rinkeby, a gritty working-class neighborhood. Near the station is a parking lot where people without homes sleep in their cars, leaving their shoes and bottles of water outside the doors.
At a litter-strewn gas station just off the highway, Karachalios waits for a van to pick him up. Other migrant workers, headed for other destinations, wait nearby. He smiles with anticipation: once he’s in the van he’ll borrow a co-worker’s iPhone to talk with his daughter, Katerina, on Skype.
When they talk, it’s about her day in Greece: her trip to the beach with her grandparents, what she’ll have for breakfast. He wants to bring her to Stockholm but won’t until he has a stable job and living situation.
Talking with Katerina is a highlight of his day and he was crushed when his laptop stopped working and he couldn’t Skype with her on her birthday. Now, he checks in with his parents by calling on his mobile phone and hanging up, and they do the same, so they don’t have to pay for the call.
After a cigarette with his co-workers -- all immigrants from Greece -- Karachalios piles into the van for the 45-minute drive to the outskirts of Uppsala, a small city north of Stockholm. Today’s job is to finish cleaning the elementary school they began working on yesterday. They start at 7:30 a.m. and work 2 1/2 hours before breaking. For lunch, they share their food, with Karachalios bringing fried meatballs for the group.
Karachalios is charged with cleaning the dozens of double-paned windows, which takes its toll on his back and shoulders. On other days, he cleans floors. In his pocket, he carries a razor blade for scraping the gum off linoleum.
His decision to leave Greece has been hard on his family back home, sister Nikki Karachalios said. Just one year older, she and her husband lived in the same apartment complex as Karachalios and their daughters are the same age.
“As a family, we have always been very close and now it’s difficult,” she said in a phone interview.
Their father, who had been hospitalized with a respiratory condition, is particularly distressed, Nikki Karachalios said. Still, they all understand why he left, she said.
“He was very unhappy,” she said. “He had no money, he was completely broke, he had loans for the house he couldn’t pay. There was nothing for him here, he was staying home for days because he had no place to go.”
Two years ago, Nikki Karachalios lost her own job working for a French construction company when a planned highway from Patras to Athens was canceled. Her husband, a commercial sailor, is also without work and does odd jobs for his brother.
The family is supported by her father’s 700 euro-a-month social security check, which buys groceries and little else. She expects that payment to be reduced as the government makes a new round of cuts. She is considering moving to Stockholm, as well.
“By the end of the year I will have to make a serious decision about the future of my family,” she said.
In Sweden, struggling to make sense of Greece’s decline, Tilemachos Karachalios suggests a conspiracy by Germany and France to economically cripple the country in order to seize its Aegean oil reserves. He’s also bitter about comments made by former Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou, who said in interviews abroad in 2009 that corruption and tax evasion were to blame for Greece’s problems.
“Who, me?” Karachalios said. “I’m not lazy. I didn’t steal from the government. I was honest and they made me like this, to come here.”
What gnaws at him is the uncertainty that comes from not having a stable job or predictable future.
“I’m tired of all this,” he said. “I want to close my eyes and wake up in 10 years and not have to worry.”
Migrants to Sweden from within the European Union are free to look for work and can settle if they can provide for themselves or have family there. Although the unemployment rate is 7 percent, finding work can be difficult if new arrivals don’t speak Swedish, said Arto Moksunen, director of Crossroads, a nonprofit group in Stockholm that has provided assistance to 3,000 migrants since March 2011.
Konstantinos Fraggidis, who is the president of a Greek cultural association in Stockholm, said he fields 10 to 15 e-mails a day from Greeks asking about working and living conditions in Sweden.
“You can read how desperate these young people are,” Fraggidis said. “Here suddenly, you see them by themselves trying to leave Greece, not only their village but to leave the country. They have taken the big step and it is very traumatic.”
As his day ends, Karachalios returns to his room, cooks a simple meal and goes to bed. After five months in Stockholm, his life has settled into a routine. On weekends, he cleans his apartment, does his laundry and sleeps. He is almost always tired and has few people to talk to. He contrasts that to his life in Greece, where he spent weekends chatting with his parents over coffee and taking his daughter to the playground.
Even with his contempt of Greek politicians, Karachalios is proud of his country. The Stockholm subway isn’t as good as Athens’s metro, he says. Swedes aren’t as tidy as Greeks.
“I want to die in Greece,” Karachalios said. “I want to leave my bones in Greece.”
The resumption of school this month means the end of the cleaning company’s contract. Karachalios found another temporary cleaning job and also lined up part-time work delivering newspapers that will pay 7,000 krona ($1,038) a month. That job requires a car, and he spent what little money he had -- about 3,000 krona -- buying one. Two miles after getting behind the wheel, the car broke down, leaving Karachalios despondent and considering a return to Greece.
“To get to be 40 years old, it’s very hard to accept that your life is going to be like this,” Karachalios said.
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