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Baltimore's Greek community watches economic turmoil with concern

Employees adjust a banner reading "No to blackmail and austerity" at the Finance Ministry in central Athens on July 1, 2015.
Employees adjust a banner reading "No to blackmail and austerity" at the Finance Ministry in central Athens on July 1, 2015. (Louisa Gouliamaki, AFP/Getty Images)

Georgia and Dimitrios Trikoulis worked multiple jobs at times, she as a teacher, he at Bethlehem Steel and now at the helm of his Greek Town Bakery on Eastern Avenue.

The money went toward rebuilding his father's old stone house in a seaside village near the fabled Greek city of Sparta, where the couple, both 72, long dreamed of retiring.

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"They were going to sit on the balcony and look into the deep blue," said their daughter, Joanne Trikoulis. "But now, everything they worked for and still haven't gotten to enjoy could be up in smoke on Monday."

Like others in Baltimore's large, tight-knit Greek-American community, the Trikoulis family has ties both familial and financial to the old country, where an economic crisis has closed the banks and left citizens largely in the dark over whether Greeks would vote in a referendum Sunday that could lead the country to leave the European Union and return to its drachma currency.

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Events Wednesday plunged the country into further chaos. Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras did an about-face, saying he would accept, with modifications, a previously rejected bailout after the country defaulted Tuesday on a $35 billion debt to the International Monetary Fund. Even as he said he would accept a modified bailout, Tsipras urged Greeks to vote against the bailout in a hastily called referendum scheduled for Sunday to strengthen his negotiating position, adding to the confusion.

European officials, meanwhile, ruled out any deal ahead of the vote on whether to accept further budget cuts in exchange for European loans.

"Things don't look pretty good. There's so many options, but everything is bad," said Nitsa Morekas, owner of the Kentrikon music shop on Eastern Avenue and president of the Greektown Business Alliance. "Greece is going to be owned by non-Greeks, and that's a shame."

Greece is in a financial limbo after a five-year-old eurozone bailout program expired, cutting the country off from vital financing and pushing it a step closer to leaving the euro. Greece became the first developed country to default on a debt to the IMF after failing to make a $1.7 billion payment.

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As a result, the country put limits on cash withdrawals to keep banks from collapsing. Greeks are limited to ATM withdrawals of 60 euros (about $66) a day and cannot send money abroad or make international payments without special permission.

Questions remained Wednesday about whether Tsipras would go ahead with Sunday's vote, which creditors fiercely oppose. Details of the referendum, as well as the consequences of a vote in either direction, remained unclear, including whether a vote against European aid would drive the country out of the eurozone and deeper into poverty.

Chaos appears certain to remain in the short term, said Aris Melissaratos, a former Maryland economic development secretary and interim dean of Stevenson University's Brown School of Business and Leadership.

"It's a shame it's come to this," said Melissaratos, whose parents were of Greek descent and who spent part of his childhood in Greece.

Greece's adoption of the euro in 2001 brought a flood of money into the country, which led to excessive borrowing, he said. But as the country's economy struggled with poor output, officials have been unable to respond by increasing the supply of money — as the Federal Reserve can in the United States — because that power resides with eurozone ministers.

"I think within the euro, the Greek economy is handicapped significantly," said Melissaratos, adding that it would nonetheless be best for the global economy if Greece remains on the euro.

Demonstrating the interconnectedness of the world's economy, stocks plummeted on Wall Street and around the world Monday over fears of the country's imminent default.

The turmoil has pained many Greek-Americans in Baltimore, driving Greek Orthodox churches to take collections for relief efforts and sparking debate at gathering places like Xenos Kohilas' Ikaros restaurant in Greektown.

"I'm sad and depressed," said Kohilas, who streams Greek news over his Apple TV and checks in with family members in Greece by phone. "I'm just praying; that's all I can do."

Peter Marudas, a former top aide to Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and Sen. Paul Sarbanes, spent a month in Greece in May and June on an annual visit to see family and said he has seen conditions worsening around Athens. At a soup kitchen where Towson-based International Orthodox Christian Charities is assisting with aid, lines that were once full of immigrants are now dominated by native Greeks, he said. More people are begging on the streets.

"Things are getting more difficult," Marudas said. "People are in coffee shops drinking and talking, apparently enjoying themselves. But underneath, people are hurting."

For Greek-Americans who still have strong ties to the old country, the uncertainty is unnerving.

Baltimore County resident Maria Giannakis said she has been "sick to her stomach" over the financial crisis in Greece. She owns commercial and residential properties on the island of Andros, given to her by her father, George Marmaras, who made his fortune opening restaurants, including one of the Double-T diners.

"If the banks are shut down, our tenants are not going to be able to pay the rent. And we have taxes to pay," she said.

Thomas Rafailides has watched from afar as the taxes on his condominium on the outskirts of Athens have crept up, and the Mays Chapel resident fears they will rise further after the crisis is resolved. He hasn't visited since 2012, and doesn't know when he will again.

"I couldn't see myself running around with American dollars strapped to my belly," Rafailides said.

Joanne Trikoulis, 42, already lives in Greece, having moved to Athens in 2000 in anticipation of her parents' eventual retirement there. She is back in Baltimore now, on one of her frequent trips to visit her parents in Greektown, unsure of when she can return to Athens and what she might find when she does.

"It's possible I'll have to pack up and move back here," Trikoulis said. "That alone breaks my heart."

But some are less daunted by the crisis. Jason Filippou, a Baltimore real estate agent and former executive director of the Greektown Community Development Corp., spent hours Tuesday driving his wife and two young daughters to Philadelphia International Airport for a flight to Athens, where he plans to join them next week.

Before they left, Filippou had to drive to Silver Spring to find a bank that could exchange dollars for euros, in case his family found cash scarce upon their arrival. Otherwise, he isn't concerned about traveling to Greece, as tourism remains a key engine for the Greek economy.

Debate over what path the country should take has been lively among Greek-Americans on Facebook, he said, with fierce arguments for both further European aid and a return to the drachma.

European officials and Greek opposition parties have stressed that a vote Sunday against aid would mean that Greece would leave the euro and possibly the European Union, but the government says that dismissing creditor demands would put the country in a better negotiating position.

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But as Greek-Americans watch what unfolds, there is common ground.

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"Everyone is very supportive of Greece, even if they have differing opinions," Filippou said. "Everyone is passionate about seeing what's best for the country."

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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