Thousands leave Kalymnos to start new lives on foreign shores

“Fifty years ago they would dive deep to collect sponges, today they climb as high as possible to paint bridges,” Chris Alahouzos, vice mayor of Tarpon Springs, a city in Florida founded by Greek sponge divers and immigrants from the islands of Kalymnos, Halki and Symi, told Kathimerini recently.

Alahouzos moved from Kalymnos to US when he was 12 years old and for the past three years has witnessed a new surge of migration from his homeland. “They choose dangerous but profitable jobs. That is what we Kalymniots are like – daring.”

The remote southeast Aegean island has seen its population plummet from 17,000 in 2011 (when the last census was conducted) to an estimated 11,000 as residents seek their fortunes abroad, mainly in areas with large Kalymniot communities, such as Tarpon Springs, Darwin in Australia and Port-de-Bouc and Pont Saint-Louis in southern France.

“Around 70 percent of the migrants are people who worked in construction, now decimated by the crisis,” said Giorgos Mavros, a municipal councilor in Kalymnos. “But we have also seen the departure of scientists, doctors and civil engineers, professionals who are sought after in Australia.”

“In 2014 I issued around 400 tickets to Australia, about the same as in 2013,” Manolis Mangos, a travel agent on the island, told Kathimerini. “Many had passports as they were born in Australia and had come back when times were good, but others got travel visas and will be taken in by members of the large Kalymniot community once they arrive.” These migrants often have a compatriot guaranteeing them work and are able to extend their visas to three or six months after arriving in Australia, Mangos explained.

The average Kalymniot migrant is 35 years old, in an age bracket that is experiencing 50 percent joblessness. Others are fathers or mothers in their 40s and 50s. Other than Australia and the US, some opt for Belgium, Germany, Sweden and Norway.

“They come to my office desperate, squeezed by banks and completely broke. We have sent about 10 people to South Africa and another 40 to Congo, places where the Kalymniot community once thrived,” Mangos explained. “I estimate that around half the population has left, or more than 8,000. Thankfully they return for their summer holidays.”

For those left behind on the island, life has not been easy.

“There are closed shops and locked-up houses all over the place,” said Dionysis Trikilis, a local physics teacher. “Families are packing up and leaving, even in the middle of the school year,” he added, saying that the number of students at the local high school has shrunk from 270 five years ago to 160 today.

The teacher attributes the huge exodus from Kalymnos not just to unemployment but also to the reduction in subsidies for large families – for which the Kalymniots are renowned – as well as to the reduction in salaries and the drop in construction activity.

The dire situation in which many people on the island find themselves is also attested to by the rise in the number of people asking for assistance.

Amfilochios Sakalleros is a cleric and one of the founders of the Love Bank program. “When we first started the Love Bank in 2006 we provided meals to 60 people,” he told Kathimerini. “Today we feed 200 adults and around 50 schoolchildren who were brought to us by their teachers. Our program survives thanks to the support of Kalymniots living abroad.”

The island’s metropolitan church also runs a free grocery store that provides food to 40 residents, as well as a free pharmacy.

“I hope we can muster up the courage to weather the storm once more,” the priest added.

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