Waiting for Greece in Chicago’s Greektown

by Katherine Hansen

Panos Varfy had a dream.

“I wanted to come to the United States,” Varfy said. “And I did it. It was a dream.”

Varfy, 29 and a restaurant manager in Chicago’s Greektown, came from Greece to the United States in 2006. Much like Varfy, the immigrants that established Greektown in the 1880s were convinced a better life awaited them here.

“People came here because they heard the rumors that the roads were paved with gold in the United States,”said Chelsea Trembly, Museum Educator at the new National Hellenic Museum. “They came here with this idea that they were going to pull themselves up, make a better life, and rise into the middle class. This is an idea that a lot of Greek Americans hope for still.”

Varfy is one of those.

And while perhaps not gold, he has found a living here. Yet Varfy, who came here alone, longs to return to his home in Athens. According to Varfy, only once a week in Greektown does he feel like he’s in Greece.

“Every Sunday night there’s a Greek bar,” Varfy said. “They play Greek music. And there’s a lot of people that speak Greek. So once a week, I feel like I’m in Greece.”

Greeks had the highest repatriation rate during the immigration surge of the 1800s, Trembly said.

“The vast majority of people that came from Greece to America had this idea that they were going to make enough money and then return to Greece,” Trembly said. “They came here, did what they had to do, and then returned home.”

Today, Varfy intends the same.

“I’m just working here because I have to, to make a living,” Varfy said. “I’d love to go back to Greece, but not now. The economy is very bad. No one can find jobs.”

As Greece’s economy continues to struggle, Varfy will continue to mirror the immigrants of the 1880s anticipation to return home. And warn others along the way.

“I try and tell [other Greeks] not to do the same thing,” Varfy said. “It’s easy to come, hard to stay.”

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