By Benet Koleka & Renee Maltezou
TIRANA/ATHENS -- Artur Metaj made his first drachmas in 1991 selling Bermuda shorts to US soldiers stationed in the Greek capital, Athens. Greece offered Albanians like Metaj their first taste of capitalism after the collapse of four decades of Communist rule.
Metaj opened a hair salon, hired 14 people and was joined in Greece by an estimated 500,000 or more Albanians sending money home from Albania's southern neighbor in the form of remittances - long a staple of the Albanian economy. But after the Greek debt crisis broke in 2009, Metaj's generous tips started to dry up, and his regular clients asked for credit.
As the world watches Greeks try to cope with rising unemployment, tax hikes and plummeting salaries, a silent community of hundreds of thousands of Albanians - 60 percent of the migrant workforce in Greece - is weighing up its future.
Many face a stark choice: return to the impoverished country they left behind and try to start anew, or stick it out and face the threat of drifting into illegality in the crisis-hit country they made home.
When a thief put a sledgehammer through Metaj's shop window, he resolved to leave. He returned to Albania in December, with his wife and young daughter, and just enough savings to open a modest new salon in the capital, Tirana.
"It looks like there's no money left,» he said of Greece. «It all dried up."
Many thousands of Albanians have made the journey home, seeking the security of family networks but bringing with them children born and raised abroad for whom Albania is a strange land.
With the crisis in Greece and Italy - another hotspot for Albanian migrants - showing no sign of abating soon, questions are being asked about the wisdom of Albania relying so much on remittances to support growth, and whether a wave of returning migrants could be a boon or a burden.
"The (Greek) crisis has hit hardest the economic sectors where migrants are largely employed,» said Anna Triandafyllidou, a senior research fellow at the ELIAMEP think tank in Athens, who has studied the impact of the crisis on migrants.
The construction sector, where many Albanians make their start, has culled almost half its workforce, down to just 240,000 last year from around 400,000 in 2008.
The number of migrant residence permits issued has fallen by 20 percent annually since the crisis began, Triandafyllidou said.
Migrants can lose their legal status if they are jobless for long periods. Many are forced to accept work for lower pay or without social security benefits.
"What many migrants suffer from now is 'de-legalisation', which is tragic,» said Triandafyllidou.
"People who have been here for more than 10 years, just because their stay was interrupted or they didn't manage to get their 10-year permit in time are left high and dry,» she said.
On Thursday, Greek police said a 38-year-old Albanian man killed himself when he jumped from the roof of a building in the southern island of Crete.
The motive was not known, but a police official who declined to be named said the Albanian father of two had been living in Greece for 15 years, and had recently been looking for work in Albania, without success.
It came a day after a Greek pensioner shot himself in the head outside parliament, leaving hand-written notes saying he would rather die than scavenge for food.
With an official unemployment rate of around 13.4 percent, Albania is poorly placed to absorb returning migrants looking for work.
The country is one of Europe's poorest, suffering from the ripple effect of the sovereign debt crisis in the eurozone and particularly its main trading partners and investors, Greece and Italy.
Remittances from Albanians working abroad have halved since 2007, when 951 million euros ($1.27 billion) accounted for 10 percent of Albania's gross domestic product (GDP).
Reliable figures are hard to come by, but Albanian officials estimate that some 15 percent of the legal Albanian migrant community in Greece and the estimated 250,000 illegal migrants has returned to Albania.
Bank deposits in Albania rose 717 million euros between January 2011 and January 2012. A large part of that money is believed to be from migrants bringing their savings home.
"They were smart - they moved deposits first, then other property, and now are coming themselves for a new life,» said former Albanian deputy finance minister Florian Mima.
But they face an uncertain future.
"Here I get 800 Leks per day (about 5 euros), which is what I was paid per hour in Greece,» said Florenca Sulollari, who found work on a textile factory line in her native Korce last year after losing a similar job in Greece.
Greece's troubles followed her. The textile industry once boomed thanks to orders from Greece but is now struggling to stay afloat.
Greek companies account for more than 40 percent of foreign investment in Albania, but the Greit Sh.p.k company that Sulollari works for has cut back its workforce to 67 from 350 in 2006 as orders from Greece evaporate.
"Under stress,» replied the company's Greek owner, Panajotis Kaglatzis, when asked how he was faring. «I'm fighting here, and I'm not sure I'll get the money."
At the Kapshtica border crossing on a warm day in March, customs chief Artan Zaimi said 57 families had left Greece through his crossing since January, after 170 in 2011. «Since July 2011, the numbers have doubled,» he said.
Some had brought pizza or bread ovens, tractors and tools with them to start businesses, Zaimi told Reuters.
"Most of the equipment has been donated by their Greek employers,» he said. «Some bring their business first, and their family later."
Thirty-three-year-old Bledjan Lime had all his family's belongings in the back of a white minivan, returning to Albania after 20 years in Greece.
Tired, sweating and groping for words, Lime said he did not know what he would do for work. He was hopeful for his four-year-old daughter, Kemili, whom he and his wife had raised to speak Albanian unlike many Albanian children born in Greece.
"The children also felt the stress, and the racism,» said Elda Uzhuri.
Uzhuri returned when her husband could no longer find construction work and Greeks started cutting back on household help, such as babysitters or carers for the elderly.
"There they were Albanians,» she said of her 13 and 11-year-old boys, «here they are seen as Greeks. Until they stabilise, they will feel like foreigners in both places."
Albanian politicians have played down the impact of the wave of returning migrants on the Albanian economy.
"I am absolutely convinced that Albania can hold all the migrants if they decide to return,» said Mima, the former deputy finance minister who sits on parliament's economy committee.
"To return to Albania with a full bank account and your head full of ideas? The land is there!» he told Reuters. «Agriculture will absorb this labour."
But relatively low wages and high prices will deter others, said Fatmir Memaj, deputy dean of the Tirana Economics Faculty who has studied migrant issues.
He said the drop in remittances and strain on the economy could well force Albania to rethink its economic model away from reliance on the huge diaspora working abroad.
Putting the finishing touches to his new Tirana salon, Arthuros Styling, Metaj is realistic about the future.
"Here you can't earn as much money as over there, but there are fewer expenses,» he said. «Both there and here, hard work is not appreciated. Everyone tells you to take it easy.» [Reuters]