Hard times: Greece on the breadline


A week before the country holds a general election, charities are distributing meals to people who never imagined they would be in the same situation as the immigrants next to them in the queue, writes PETER MURTAGHin Athens

PIREOS IS A WIDE AVENUE in central Athens, running from Omonia Square southwest to a clutch of pottery museums in the heart of the ancient area known as Keramikos. No 37 is an unprepossessing two-storey stucco building painted in pastel shades of blue and grey. There is nothing much to indicate what goes on inside; from the outside it looks lifeless.

But behind this dull facade, three times a day, are scenes of human misery and sorrow involving people who never expected this to happen to them. Walk around the rear of the building, via the narrow traffic-filled Sofokelous street, and you can peer through the railings of what initially seems like a school playground.

This is where they are fed, the destitute of Athens, the new poor who are bewildered at the state in which they find themselves, and the refugees and asylum seekers, a flotsam of human misery from central Asia that has turned much of this part of the city into what many Athenians call a ghetto, a no-go area they avoid, especially at night.

From about 11.30am on Thursday, about 600 people, most of them middle-aged, begin to shuffle into the sun-dappled courtyard from the surrounding streets for the lunchtime distribution of food. Some look as if they are sleeping rough. Others are managing to hold it together a little better.

A well-turned-out man in the queue, probably in his late 60s, has neat hair and is wearing a shirt and tie, a V-neck sweater and a tweed jacket. He looks like a retired clerk.

“Yanni”, the man beside him, who is too embarassed to give his name, nods towards the large holdall at his neighbour’s feet. “That,” says Yanni. “That’s his home.”

The man with the holdall looks at me with a watery smile.

MANY PEOPLE HERE – very many it seems to me – are ashamed and embarrassed at being where they are. There is not much eye contact; there are a lot of blank faces; there’s a lot of looking away. Yanni is 75 but looks like a man in his early 60s. He wears a baseball cap and outsized aviator sunglasses. At first he doesn’t want to talk much, but gradually his confidence grows and he opens up.

Yanni left Greece in the 1950s when he was 13. “The government here could not look after all the people after the war and the civil war, and so I went to Australia and to England and to Canada. The Commonwealth countries, you know,” he says.

In England, he joined the police and worked in Scotland Yard. After he settled in Melbourne, he joined the police there as well. He married and had two children, a boy and a girl, and he now has three grandchildren.

Between 1998 and 2008, Australia had a property bubble. Yanni borrowed money to invest in property for his old age, but he got caught in the collapse. He lost almost everything, including his savings. When he could not make the repayments on his loans, the bank seized the properties.

When his wife died of breast cancer, Yanni thought he would make a clean break and come home to Greece for his declining years. “I came here in the hope that I could forget all my problems in Australia. Now I’ve lost all my dignity, almost everything I have.” It’s a low-key statement of fact. There is no self-pity.

Yanni lives in a one-bedroom flat in Piraeus, the port of Athens. He still has his house in Melbourne. His police pension pays for that, with the remainder going on his €400-a-month flat in Piraeus. What’s left after that is no longer enough to live on.

“After that, it is here. Here is where I come for my food,” he says.

When the queue moves forward, Yanni eventually gets his white plastic bowl of chicken and rice, a slice of bread and a litre of milk. He’s going back to Australia in about two months. He is in regular contact with his son, but he doesn’t let on how bad things are in Athens. He hasn’t told him where he gets his food.

A tough-looking woman with a weathered face who is 45 and gives her name as Mary was working in a biscuit factory but lost her job three years ago and has been sinking ever since. Soon, the only work she could get was handing out leaflets for a noodle bar.

“They say they gonna pay you and then they never pay you,” she says wearily. “They don’t give you nothing. It’s difficult in Greece right now.” Mary was born in Belgium to a Greek father and a Belgian mother. They went to New York when she was a child, and she grew up in Brooklyn. She came to Greece 27 years ago; she has been married twice and has an eight-year-old daughter. She gets €44 a month child support, but nothing else from the state. Her apartment costs €250 a month.

“My landlord’s a bastard,” she says, sitting in the shade waiting for the food queue to start moving. “I think he’s the only person in Greece who doesn’t listen to the news and know what is happening to us.” Mary’s husband is out of work; she pays the rent from whatever she can scrape together.

“I come here and I wait till they give me food and then I go home. And in the afternoon, I come back . . . I don’t want my daughter to grow up here and end up like the kids here.”

Sitting in the shade nearby, eating a piece of fruit, is a man in his 30s. Communication is difficult, but we both try. He was a butcher and lost his job in 2008 and has not worked since. “No job, no money. Nothing,” he says, looking blankly into the middle distance. He lives in a hostel. I ask him about the future. He thinks for a while, trying hard to find the English words.

“We hope this government [after the election] gives us something. Work. Money perhaps. A good life.”

The few words with this shy young man are by far the most upsetting. He seems so lost, so utterly abandoned, so without hope.

Greeks go to the polls on May 6th, at a time of unprecedented economic and political crisis. Unemployment is more than 20 per cent, and an austerity programme agreed with the EU and IMF for a second bailout has seen sharp tax hikes and deep wage cuts.

The two major political parties – the right-of-centre New Democracy and left-of-centre Pasok – are both supporting the bailout, but both are floundering in the polls and may not between them be able to make up a majority in the 300-seat parliament. When opinion polling ceased, on April 20th, support for New Democracy stood at 23 per cent and for Pasok at 14.5 per cent. At 37.5 per cent, this might just be enough to form a coalition.

Support for anti-bailout parties on the far right and far left is at 46 per cent, however. These would be incapable of uniting to form a government but could make stable rule by anyone else extremely difficult. This could make implementing the bailout, thereby helping to stabilise the euro, extremely hard.

The municipal centre for homeless people, which is run by 40 city employees and volunteers, hands out between 1,500 and 1,700 meals a day; that has increased from about 700 when it opened, in 2005. It has 120 homeless people billeted in two nearby hotels. The twice-daily meals, served at noon and 5pm, are cooked in schools and ferried to the centre. Businesses make donations – pallets of milk, cartons of liquid soap and so on – while individuals donate bags of unwanted clothes.

After lunch, some people rummage through municipal wheelie bins in the hope of finding something useful.

The meal distributed at the centre at 3pm is provided to foreigners by an organisation that calls itself the Church of the Street, a charity run by the Orthodox church, the Anglican church and the African churches.

At about 2.30pm they start to gather: the men, mostly in their 20s or 30s, in one queue corralled behind a crude stockade of wooden pallets strung together; the women, mostly of the same ages, and children in another line.

Soon their numbers swell to about 700. Most are asylum seekers from Afghanistan.

The church people hand out bread and containers of lentil soup that are gratefully received.

Not everyone I speak to is sure where the Afghans sleep (any I approach do not wish to talk), but it appears that there is multiple occupancy of any rooms obtained nearby and that some sleep rough.

“If this [were] not here,” Shan Sali, an Iranian living in Athens for 18 months, says as he observes the food distribution, “those people will all [be hungry] and die.”

Around the corner in Sapfous Street is the Greek office of Doctors of the World. This charity used to send Greek medics to Africa but now concentrates on matters closer to home. “We have had to change our goals,” says one of the staff, Christine Samartzi.

Directly opposite the food distribution centre is the ministry of labour. For a while on Thursday afternoon, police seal the street so that a few hundred staff from the Hellenic Shipyard can vent their anger at the government. They have been placed on a one-day-a-week work rota, a new way the troika devised for companies to weather the recession without closing. A man from the yard’s IT department tells me he won’t be able to survive on the pay from just one day a week.

As Europe now looks nervously at Spain, all eyes will shortly return to Athens, where ordinary people are suffering.