By Ioanna Fotiadi
Qatari government officials may make headlines every time they visit Greece, but are you aware of the unsung heroes behind the emirate’s economic boom, many of whom are Greek? Some 3,000 Greeks live in Qatar, making them a sizable community.
Civil engineers, mechanical engineers, chemical engineers, pilots, stewards, hotel workers, sports trainers, physical therapists and sports event planners have descended on Qatar in droves to join in the frenzied preparations for the 2022 World Cup – for which a Greek serves as managing director of the organizing committee.
The massive effort to get the emirate ready to host the world’s biggest soccer event also includes the construction of a metro system in Doha and a railway line linking Qatar to Oman, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.
Of course stadiums are also being built, along with extensions to the water and electricity networks, as well as new streets and residential buildings.
Four major construction firms from Greece and Cyprus are part of the push.
“The whole thing is a bit reminiscent of Greece before the 2004 Olympics,” 62-year-old engineer Matthaios Lygiaris, who moved to Qatar from Dubai in December 2011, told Kathimerini recently.
The engineer, a Greek from Egypt, has had jobs all over the world, particularly after working on the Athens metro gave him the credentials to work on its counterpart in Dubai and now that in Doha. He said that the company he is presently working for employs about 30 Greek engineers who are using their know-how to help Qatar build a modern transportation system, which it is currently sorely lacking.
“It’s a win-win relationship. Greece thirsts for Qatari investment and Qatar needs the expertise of Greek scientists, as well as the experience of those who worked for the Athens Olympic Games,” said Lygiaris.
Qatar appears eager to make a name for itself as a host for large sporting events and to this end it has made exemplary use of the facilities it built for the 2006 Asian Games.
“Athletic events ranging from equestrian to speedboat races take place almost every week,” said Lygiaris.
The royal family of Qatar, meanwhile, has aspirations to transform the emirate into a cultural destination as well, an effort that is being spearheaded by the artistically minded Sheikha Mayassa Al Thani, daughter of Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, and which may in the future generate job positions in new areas.
With Qatar growing as it is, many Greeks are heading east with their families in tow.
“There was a time when Greek women were reluctant to move to an Arab country,” said the head of the parent-teacher association of a Greek educational program in Qatar who asked not to be named. She said that the program currently has 100 students, mostly of elementary school age, and explained how Greek mothers – the majority aged around 35-45, well educated and who left careers behind in Greece – are throwing themselves into the task of keeping house and home as their husbands work demanding hours.
“The biggest concern when deciding whether or not to move here is whether the children will adapt to foreign schools,” she said. “Of course, the new generation has resoundingly refuted all of our fears.”
Back in 2007, Qatari workers were shocked to see a female engineer, especially one running the show.
“A woman on a construction site was a rarity,” said Penelope Kyriazi, who went to Doha for the Asian Games in 2006 – after working for the Athens Olympics and later for a firm in Scotland – and is still there.
“The secret is to be open to accepting the good and the bad in any new place,” she said, explaining that one of the most rewarding parts of such an experience is working with colleagues from all over the world, which is why she prefers to work for multinational companies.
“The restrictions imposed on women are well known, but we have other privileges here: We are always allowed first in a line and, for example, we don’t pay admission at bars,” she added.
What Kyriazi misses most from life in Europe is cultural activities and green spaces, though the ease of travel that Qatar affords makes up for these absences.
“I am very lucky, because I can get to hundreds of destinations from here,” she said.
Persa Hadzimike rides her motorcycle to work every day. She is a holistic therapist who specializes in Thai massage techniques and got a job at a physical rehabilitation center in Qatar through a job ad in a Greek newspaper. It is not the first time the 39-year-old former handball champion has emigrated. She has also lived and worked in Cyprus.
“I suddenly found myself having to choose between two places: Sweden and Qatar. I chose the latter because I can’t stand cold weather. It was tough for the first few weeks, especially because the bureaucracy here is torturous,” she said.
On the upside, Hadzimike said she was warmly welcomed by all of her colleagues, including the other 14 Greeks who work there.
“I’ve made new friends, started Arabic lessons and recently got cable TV so I can watch developments in Greece,” she said.
Zisis Vryzas is a 28-year-old engineer specializing in petroleum research who started his career in Scotland and then went on to work in Kuwait and Qatar.
“Qatar is far more cosmopolitan than Kuwait,” said Vryzas, a research associate at Texas A&M University’s local branch, which employs another 15 Greek scientists.
“I have a formal work schedule, but basically I follow the pace of my experiments. I had applied for jobs in the East from the start and I think I made the right decision,” he said, adding that he has met a lot of Greeks around his age and has been impressed by their qualifications.
Mechanical engineer Yiannis Spanos, 38, left London for a job as a project manager in Qatar, where the pay and his career prospects are much improved.
“Negotiating your contract is very important, while a strong resume and work experience abroad are seen as positive assets,” said Spanos, who is planning to stay in Qatar for five years.
“I miss being able to walk in a park after work; everything is done by car here, which is why I chose to live on the Pearl [an artificial island],” he said.
“The Qataris are very nice people. They are calm and patient; you can have good conversations with them and I admire them because even though they have money, they also live simply.”
J.D., aged 39, closed up her shop in Greece, packed her bags and boarded a plane to Qatar with her 4-year-old son a year-and-a-half after her husband moved out there for work.
Her son is now 7 and attends an international school, and J.D. says that he adjusted much better than she expected.
Greek wives living in Qatar with their children are big on networking and have started a Facebook page to keep in touch and organize events and get-togethers. The Greek school in Doha also provides ample opportunities for networking as mothers wait for their kids to come out of class. The school also hosts events that the mothers organize, such as traditional Greek dance lessons, book swaps and theatrical events.
“The playground here feels like home,” said Eleni Karoyianni, who moved to Doha with her family in September 2013. “It wasn’t so much for economic reasons; we were compelled to leave because of the feeling that we couldn’t make any kind of plans for the future in Greece,” said the 40-year-old lawyer, who also found a job in Qatar.
“I feel that I am leading a much more dynamic life,” said J.D., who like most expatriates in Qatar lives in a gated community that has its own swimming pool and supermarket.
While Qatar offers a lifestyle of much higher standards than would have been available to them back home, the Greeks in Qatar still face daily challenges such as incredibly high rents and of course the extreme heat.
Karoyianni, who wakes up at 5 a.m. every day to get the kids off to school and to get herself to work on time, argued that while she and her husband both work long hours, she feels more tranquil.
“The philosophy here can be summed up in the phrase ‘Insha’Allah,’ which means God willing. We have adopted this mantra and it makes us patient and optimistic that everything will be OK.”