The Odyssey of a Greek in Search of Work
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 floors in Sweden. “It was a very good job,” says Karachalios, 40, of his former life. “Now I clean Swedish s- - -.”
Karachalios, who left his six-year-old daughter behind with his parents, is one of thousands fleeing Greece and its 24 percent unemployment. Last year, 1,093 Greeks sought permission to settle in prosperous Sweden, almost double the number in 2010. “I’m trying to survive,” Karachalios says. “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, according to the Athens-based Foundation for Economic and Industrial Research. Since 2008, the number of jobless in the country of 10.8 million has more than tripled, to a record 1.22 million as of June.
Karachalios began his career in pharmaceutical sales after his military service, then married a Chinese woman he met at the 2004 Athens Olympics, had a daughter, and divorced. “You can plan, you can organize, but you don’t know what life brings,” he says. An intense man with flecks of gray in his thinning black hair, Karachalios says he has lost 20 to 30 pounds since moving to Sweden. His hands are stained with grime. He dresses in jeans and work boots; his suits are back in Greece.
His 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. Karachalios searched for a job, spending 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, he considered Australia but eventually chose Sweden, which he had visited before. “Everyone pays their taxes and it’s fair,” he says. “There is no cheating.”
Karachalios arrived in March of this year. He pays 4,500 Swedish kronor ($670) a month for a room in a quiet apartment complex that houses other immigrants, many from the Middle East. His studio has just a hot plate and microwave. He has a single dish; 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. In the evenings, if he has the energy, he studies Swedish. Because of his background in health care, Karachalios first applied for jobs caring for the elderly. He was rejected without an interview because he didn’t speak the language.
He knocked on doors of restaurants and janitorial companies, and found a position cleaning rental houses. It was hard, lonely work that didn’t allow a break for lunch, he says. His first week wasn’t paid because he was told he was being trained. After his second week, for which he was paid for 32 hours instead of the 40 he worked, he wasn’t called back.
In July, he found work with a cleaning firm run by another Greek, who was doing an annual summer cleaning of Swedish public schools. The hours were long and the work hard, but Karachalios says he was at least treated fairly. In Greece, he was paid between €2,500 and €3,000 a month ($3,143 to $3,772) after taxes. In Sweden, working for the Greek contractor, he made 80 kronor an hour: Based on a 40-hour workweek, that came to about $1,907 a month. “I was doing something more glamorous, but I don’t mind this work,” he says. “I feel alive again. When you are unemployed too long, it’s very hard. I was angry all the time.”
Karachalios lives frugally, saving half-smoked cigarettes while he waits for his parents to wire money. He hasn’t been able to send funds home because he has yet to find steady work. He’s concerned about finding another job now that the cleaning contract has ended. If there’s no permanent work in Stockholm, he says he may move with his daughter to Shanghai, where his ex-wife lives.
When he was working with the Greek contractor, Karachalios would wake at 5 a.m., visit Facebook on his phone for news from Greece, and take 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.
At a litter-strewn gas station just off the highway, Karachalios would wait for a van to pick him up. Migrant workers headed for other destinations waited nearby. Once he was in the van he could 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. Talking with Katerina is a highlight of his day—he was crushed when his laptop stopped working and he couldn’t Skype with her on her birthday. Now, he checks in to see if everything is OK with his parents by calling on his mobile phone and hanging up. They do the same, so they don’t have to pay for the call.
After a cigarette with some of his co-workers—all immigrants from Greece—Karachalios would pile into the van for the 45-minute drive to the outskirts of Uppsala, north of Stockholm. They would start at 7:30 a.m. and work two and a half hours before breaking. For lunch, they shared their food, with Karachalios bringing fried meatballs for the group. He had to clean dozens of double-paned windows, which took a toll on his back and shoulders. On other days, he cleaned floors. In his pocket, he carried a razor blade for scraping the gum off linoleum.
His decision to leave Greece has been hard on his family, sister Nikki Karachalios says. 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,” she says in a phone interview. Their father, recently hospitalized with a respiratory condition, is particularly distressed. Still, they all understand why he left: “He was very unhappy,” she says. “He had no money. He was completely broke. He had loans for the house he couldn’t pay. There was nothing for him here.”
Two years ago, Nikki lost her own job at a French construction company when a planned highway from Patras to Athens was canceled. Her husband, a merchant seaman, is also without work and does odd jobs for his brother. The whole family is supported by her father’s €700-a-month social security check, which buys groceries and little else. She expects that payment to be reduced in a new round of cuts and is considering moving to Stockholm as well.
In Sweden, struggling to make sense of Greece’s decline, Karachalios suggests a possible conspiracy by Germany and France to cripple the country economically in order to seize its Aegean oil reserves. He’s also bitter about comments by former Prime Minister George Papandreou, who said in 2009 that corruption and tax evasion were to blame for Greece’s crisis. “Who, me?” Karachalios asks. “I’m not lazy. I didn’t steal from the government. I was honest, and they made me like this, to come here.”
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 jobless rate is a relatively low 7 percent, finding work can be difficult if new arrivals don’t speak Swedish, says Arto Moksunen, director of Crossroads, a nonprofit group in Stockholm that has provided assistance to 3,000 migrants since March 2011. Konstantinos Fraggidis, president of a Greek cultural association in Stockholm, says he fields 10 to 15 e-mails a day from Greeks asking about working conditions in Sweden. “You can read how desperate these young people are,” Fraggidis says. “Here suddenly, you see them by themselves trying to leave Greece, not only their village but to leave the country. It is very traumatic.”
Karachalios’s days have 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. In Greece he spent weekends chatting with his parents over coffee and taking his daughter to the playground. Despite his contempt for Greek politicians, Karachalios is proud of his country. The Stockholm subway isn’t as good as the metro in Athens, he says. Swedes aren’t as tidy as Greeks. “I want to die in Greece,” Karachalios says. “I want to leave my bones in Greece.”
In late August, shortly before school resumed, Karachalios renewed his search for work and found another temporary cleaning job: “I am cleaning when they call me.” He also lined up part-time work delivering newspapers that will pay 7,000 kronor ($1,038) a month. That job requires a car, and he spent what little money he had—about 3,000 kronor—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.”