Fighting unemployment in Pogoni, Epirus

Far up in the northwestern reaches of the mountains of Epirus, almost right on the border with Albania, lies a group of 32 villages over a 499-square-kilometer area, all falling within two municipalities (Delvinaki and Ano Pogoni) and the communities of Pogoniani and Lavdani. Pogoniani, the home village of Greece’s current president, Karolos Papoulias, is also a place where Albanians and Greeks coexist harmoniously in its schools and cafes, and where the younger members of the population are in the majority. Eleni Protopapa, a 27-year-old ethnic Greek from Albania, opened a cafe last August, where now both old and young drink coffee, smoke and watch TV together on the huge screen. Alexis, a 70-year-old pensioner is discussing business with two young builders, 18-year-old Manolis and 25-year-old Yiovanis. At the next table, another pensioner, Spyros is talking to a group of youths about old times, when Pogoniani rivaled the Epirote capital of Ioannina in trade. «The decline began with the civil war (which followed World War II); this area was held by the guerrillas and many people left for Ioannina, Athens or Thessaloniki. Many came back after 1950 but a second wave of emigration began in 1960, when many left for Germany to find work,» he explained. «That’s what really ruined the village. I am very sad to see it abandoned. To be honest, all governments have been to blame. Unfortunately, the young people don’t want to stay in the villages anymore. They want an education, to have fun. Progress is all very well, but it has emptied Epirus of its people.» The Vocational Training Center (KEE), set up by the Foundation for the Rehabilitation of Ethnic Greeks from Albania in 1991 with a donation from Yiannis Latsis, is a day and boarding school with a two-year curriculum. Courses are held according to demand. This year, the 92 pupils are being trained in plumbing, heating installations, vehicle refinishing, cooking and hairdressing. «The foundation is a great opportunity for children from ‘inside’ (i.e. Albania),» says Irena Tsinga from Gjirokaster in Albania. «If I weren’t here, I’d most likely be married with children, shut up at home. If I were rich, I could go to university and learn foreign languages but I chose the foundation because I want to help my family financially.» Sixteen-year-old Telemachos Tsavidis, also from Gjirokaster, has been in Greece for two years. He completed junior high school and is now finishing a hairdressing course. The vehicle refinishing department is fully equipped with the latest machines, as are all the foundation’s departments; methods are taught using actual damaged vehicles from the surrounding areas. When they have finished their training, the foundation gives its pupils the equipment to open their own businesses in Albania, but not in Greece. Places for young people to have fun are scarce in Pogoniani – apart from the cafe, there are only board games or else a trip into Ioannina for pupils with relatives there. In the summer there is basketball and soccer. More children from Albania find both a home and an education at the state-run Pogoniani Boys’ Welfare Center, founded in 1923 to provide refuge to orphans and poor children from Epirus and refugee children both from Albania and Asia Minor. Most of the children there now are from poor families from Albania. «Most have come to Greece because their parents think they will get a good education here, learn Greek and therefore secure a future here,» said the director Theodoros Diamantis. He explained that the biggest problems were faced by the ethnic Greek pupils as they are regarded here as Albanians and in Albania as Greeks. Kefalovryso and the Vlachs Kefalovryso is the only Vlach village in the district of Pogoni; two-thirds of its population is living in Germany. Local residents at one of the cafes talk about their pride in their Vlach heritage, their polyphonic music – which the old timers say was inspired by the bleating of the sheep and the sound of their bells – and the difficulties they face. Vassilis, a 68-year-old pensioner, talks about his life in Germany. «We were looking for a better life… the Germans helped us to assimilate quickly into their society and never discriminated against us,» he said. Stergios, who lives in Germany and has come to visit his father, says that his people all call each other «aunt» and «uncle.» The Vlachs married within their own tribes in order to maintain traditions. Until 1960, family patriarchs did not allow boys to marry girls from outside their village. These days, things aren’t that much easier. «It’s hard to have a relationship here. If people find out, they consider you engaged,» said one young man. «I know lots of girls that I hang out with in Ioannina, but if I see them on the street here they don’t even say hello if they are with their mother or aunt. I don’t blame them though, because if they do greet us their relatives accuse them of encouraging us.» There is a movement of returning to the villages, however. Christos, 30, followed his parents, who moved back to the village a year ago, and is looking for work. «We always dreamed of living our lives in the country. I lived in Athens until I was 30. I think that is enough. The city has nothing else to offer me apart from hardship.» Marianthi Bouba, 33, came from Athens to open a taverna in the nearby village of Kato Meropi. «A woman opening a business on her own has to be 10 times more careful than a man. But I’m going to keep going ahead in the Vlach way, but freed from the taboos and bans that existed in the past.» Unemployment is a problem for many young people, even those who do have jobs. They are worried that young people recently arrived from the cities will want to leave; they used to play together as children, but now are closer than ever, thanks to the efforts of their new mayor, Yiannis Dondis. «If both new and old inhabitants are united, they can achieve a lot,» says Dondis, who plans to set up a council of young people and a youth center, hostel, agrotourism unit and a women’s cooperative. «We have to exploit our mountain, Nemertsika, which is huge, with large gorges and great natural beauty. If a road is built and lighting installed, we can set up various types of tourism,» he explained. This is the first in a series of articles on Greece’s outlying areas that appeared in the April 7-8 issue of K, Kathimerini’s Sunday magazine, and which were the result of months of research by its staff and associates.

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