MU students reflect on effects of Greece's economic turmoil

Tuesday, November 8, 2011 | 5:57 p.m. CST; updated 8:00 p.m. CST, Tuesday, November 8, 2011

COLUMBIA — Because studying and living in Greece has been more and more difficult for the past few months, Theodosios Diplas, 22, left his country and his family to get a better education in the U.S.

The pre-engineering student at MU came to Columbia six months ago from Patras in western Greece. He continues to follow the country's troubled economy and political system.

Events in Greece have been fast-moving in the past week as Europe and the rest of the world look for assurances the country can adequately deal with a deepening debt crisis. After canceling a popular vote on a debt deal, Prime Minister Georgios Papandreou agreed to leave office to make way for a coalition government that would abide by a European debt deal.

Reading the latest news Monday, Diplas remembered Papandreou's election in 2009 and said he felt betrayed by the prime minister.

"Our government made very bad decisions from the beginning, and everything they said was a lie," Diplas said. "They promised the people that there was enough money in Greece. But the fact was they were lying about our debt, which was actually getting worse and worse and worse."

Diplas said it was too late for Papandreou to take measures when the financial situation spiraled out of control a couple months ago and he turned to the International Monetary Fund for help.

"Quickly, the government started taxing almost everything," Diplas said. "For example, we had 18 percent tax on food and commodities, and it was increased to 23 percent. They also lowered pension and cut spending in the public sector."

Donald Schilling, a professor emeritus of economics at MU who specializes in international finance, said three southern members of the EU — Greece, Italy and Spain — "began to enthusiastically borrow in the Euro market" as soon as they became members. "Their ability to borrow abroad in their own currencies was very limited because they all had well-earned reputations for financial carelessness."

Diplas said he cannot accept what the Greek people are facing.

"Everyone is extremely angry and fed up with Papandreou's lack of dedication," he said.

Papandreou wasn't transparent about the country's debt, Diplas said.

"It's like when you have a very good friend and you trust him completely blindly and you found out that he did something behind your back," he said. "It’s a big slap in your face."

Greeks of all ages are riveted to the crisis, he said.

"Even on TV, everything is around that," Diplas said. "There is no other news except what is going on and what Papandreou is doing."  

Tightening one's belt

The economic crisis makes life difficult for young Greeks, Diplas said. 

"We had to minimize our outings," Diplas said.

Before the crisis, Diplas said, he didn't think twice about going out to clubs with his brother. Nor could he afford the daily Greek tradition of going out for coffee, which can cost upward of $6 a cup in U.S. currency.

Diplas belongs to a middle-class family, and he said he is conscious about the amount of financial juggling his parents have had to do in the past few months.

"At home, the whole family has to make more efforts than usual," including helping relatives who couldn't afford food, he said.

"I could understand the situation because it wasn’t hurting only my family, but it was hurting families around us," he said. "We had to support each other."

Diplas' father teaches elementary school, and he has seen his salary gradually cut.

"Since my father works in the public sector and pensions will be held for a year or two by the government, he won't receive anything once at the age of retirement," Diplas said. "So, my father has decided to work a couple more years."

Sixty-five percent of the country's population works in the public sector, Diplas said, and the crisis has had a greater effect on those workers compared to the private sector.

Reasons to leave

Before coming to the U.S., Diplas was a business major at the Technological Educational Institute of Patras.

"I was mad at how things were going on in my university," he said. "So, I quit everything."

Through the past three years, he said, students affiliated with an extreme left-wing party caused the closure of his university several times a month.

"They first protested against governmental decisions and then against austerity measures."

To reach his university, Diplas had to take a bus for an hour and a half — often to see that classes were canceled because of a student blockade.

He said young protesters' arguments were too extreme, though many people were convinced by them while the Greek financial situation was worsening.

"I didn't demonstrate with them because I did not agree with them," Diplas said. "They thought they could get the Marxist thing going on: having everything free, being paid by the government … And for that they went on the streets, broke businesses and threw rocks and Molotov cocktails to the police."

For now, Diplas keeps his focus on his studies and academic success, in part to make his parents proud.

Hope for a solution

Sophia Petenakis, a 21-year-old student at the Missouri School of Journalism, was born in Phoenix, but her mother immigrated from a suburb of Athens, and her father's parents were from the island of Crete. 

"This culture I am so proud of and (I) represent with so much dignity is failing miserably, so much that it's affecting the rest of the world's economy," Petenakis said.

To her, Greece signifies ancient times, the Greek language, historic architecture and the birthplace of the Olympics.

"Now they have plummeted so deeply into disaster mode that the rest of the world is having to pick up their slack and their mistake," she said.

Petenakis remains in contact with her family in Athens, whom she has visited six times. She said her cousin, Vivian Stasi, 24, always talks about insecurity in Athens.

"She says the news doesn't even portray half of the violence that goes on," Petenakis said. "Although, she says the violence is not erupting all over Athens at all times ... it's pretty contained, but in those areas that it's contained, it is constant."

Petenakis hopes for a solution between Greece and the EU.

"If Greece goes back to its currency and leaves the European Union, it may lead to worse blows," she said. "In that case, they will have much fewer countries willing to help them out, and I think it would just keep spiraling downward if they were to do that."

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Michael Williams November 8, 2011 | 8:11 p.m.

"Sixty-five percent of the country's population works in the public sector, Diplas said, and the crisis has had a greater effect on those workers compared to the private sector."

This is where the US is headed if we don't start paying attention.

I am aghast anyone would be surprised that such a public/private worker ratio would cause serious economic problems. This is financial and economic illiteracy at it's worst. Are Greek citizens REALLY in shock given this ratio?

The economic reset button is about to be pushed in Greece, Italy, and Spain. The only question is if it will be accompanied by a citizen attitudinal shift.

(Report Comment)
Corey Parks November 8, 2011 | 10:32 p.m.

I find it interesting that Diplas seems to be pushing the blame on to one man. When the entire country is to blame. Did not one person think it was wrong for over half the country to get a check from the govt or that their production was pretty much no existent?
I know when the US comes to the same fate pretty soon I will not be looking elsewhere for help or anger. This snowball has been rolling for 50 years now.

(Report Comment)

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