What Greek-Americans Can Do to Help Greece

One of Greece’s most powerful weapons in the fight to get its economy back on track and avoid a potentially catastrophic crash out of the euro could be the millions of Greeks who live elsewhere.

Greece and U.S.
Greece and U.S.

There are 1.4 million Greek-Americans, according to the American Community Survey, and 400,000 people with Greek origins in the UK. Estimates of the size of the Greek diaspora vary between 3-7 million people worldwide.

The diaspora already plays an important role in financially backing Orthodox Church and secular efforts to aid those impoverished by the crisis – Greek Americans even donated to the training of the Greek Olympics team.

“A lot of people in the U.S. diaspora saw how the government had to be mobilized here in the crisis but they know that hasn’t happened in Greece,” Endy Zemenides, executive director of the Hellenic American Leadership Council, told CNBC. “We also think that austerity only doesn’t work, and that’s something we’ve seen in the U.S.”

Last week, HALC went to Washington to lobby the administration to encourage a “more balanced approach” by European leaders, and to use its influence with the International Monetary Fundto “loosen the reins a little bit.”

“Nobody here is lobbying for Greece to not pay anyone, but there’s a difference between two years and four years payback,” Zemenides said.

The Greek-American community maintained particularly close ties with its homeland, with some immigrants trying to replicate the closeness of their own villages in the U.S. The tiny village of Nestani in Arcadia, for example, has more people in Chicago than within the old town – there’s even a Nestani Professional Society in the Windy City.

Many are still eligible to vote in their homeland, because of dual citizenship or property ownership, and are taking up the opportunity to do so in Sunday's Greek elections. They’re also being encouraged by community groups to vacation in Greece and take longer there than usual to boost the country’s tourism industry.

With no postal voting system in Greece, you’ve got to be there to place your own envelope in the box. New Democracy, the right-wing party led by Antonis Samaras, which is competing with left-wing Syriza to win the biggest share of the vote, has been at the forefront of efforts to introduce reforms to allow Greeks to vote from abroad.

In the pre-crisis years, political parties would even pay to fly their supporters back to ensure a few extra votes.

The few Greek-Americans CNBC spoke to on board a British Airways flight from Heathrow to Athens were all planning to vote for New Democracy. This could be a reflection of decades spent in the avowedly pro-capitalist U.S., where politics are generally more centrist than the fractured and fractious Greek parliament.

There’s also an element of better-the-devil-you know with Pasok or New Democracy, who have dominated Greek politics for so long that many older emigrants voted for them before leaving the country, as Zemenides pointed out.

Stegros or Steve (the name he adopted in the U.S.) emigrated to Baltimore from his home on Rhodes in 1969, aged 26. After running a restaurant and liquor store for 25 years, he recently retired comfortably enough to travel back home for five months every year – and made sure he was coming back in time to exercise his right to vote this summer after May’s result, he told CNBC.

“The people want to vote for Communists for some reason. Yes, things aren’t very good and we’ve had bad governments before, but you let those guys in and who knows what happens?” he asked.

He shared with 67-year-old Alexis from New Jersey a great pride in Greek history and the many things Greek civilization brought to the world: early democracy; the foundations of Western philosophy and some of the world’s most famous landmarks.

There are also concerns that a new generation, facing youth unemployment of over 50 percent, will desert the country.

“Now, I think the young people will have to leave again like I did. What are you going to do if you can’t get a job?” Stegros said.

Written by Catherine Boyle, CNBC. Twitter: @catboyle01