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Local Greek-Americans respond with anxiety, hope over news of wildfires

A house burns in the deadliest wildfires Greece has experienced since 2007. More than 50 people have died since Monday. | AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis

As she continues to hear updates about raging wildfires in Greece, Laura Calamos has “a certain amount of anxiety” as she recalls the country’s past disasters.

“You wake up in the morning and suddenly there’s more news and more death and more fires,” said Calamos, president of the National Hellenic Museum in Greektown. “It’s very stressful to think something’s happening and you can’t just reach out and immediately fix it.”

Calamos was one of many locals of Greek descent who had the natural disaster on their minds on Tuesday.

The wildfires, which have ravaged homes and cars and killed more than 50 people since Monday, are the deadliest Greece has experienced since the summer of 2007.

Spurred by winds and hot, dry weather conditions, the two biggest fires — one west and the other east of the capital — have resulted in more than 700 evacuations.

Greece, which has already sought assistance from the European Union, cannot afford any setbacks.

The country is already juggling a years-long financial crisis, with an unemployment rate higher than 20 percent. There has also been tension between Greeks and thousands of refugees who have entered the country within the last two years.  Now, with wildfires affecting an already low water supply, Greece faces new threats to its agriculture and tourist industries.

Just last year, Katerina Mantis’ great uncle lost all of his olive trees to fires.

“Now the government doesn’t have money to offer subsidies to farmers,” Mantis said while at work at the Chicago Parthenon Hostel.

“That’s just gonna further impact already poor farming communities and people who make their bread and butter just basically off of tourists that are coming to the beach.”

The problems don’t end there, Mantis said. With “nothing to hold the water,” Greece can expect heavy flooding when it experiences rainfall in later months, said Mantis, adding that all is “so far, so good” for her loved ones in the Athens area.

Alex Alexopoulos, general manager of Athena Greek Restaurant, said when he came to work “of course Greeks and non-Greeks were talking about it.”

“Many people were very, very upset and sad,” Alexopoulos said.

News that some people have jumped into the ocean in attempts to swim away from danger is “heartbreaking,” said Kristi Athas, the National Hellenic Museum’s director of operations and human resources.

Still, she remains hopeful.

Gesturing toward the museum’s new exhibit highlighting Greece’s welcoming of refugees despite internal tension, Athas said that she is “proud of our heritage.”

“One of the things we know is that in 2007, the wildfires devastated them and they rebuilt after that,” Athas said.

“We absolutely believe that they’ll come back from this as well. … We believe our home country will be strong again.”