This video is called On the Breadline – Greece.
Greek Tragedy, 2013
By Alexandra Politaki, August 2013 Issue
I’d like to introduce you to Athina K., whom I met at a soup kitchen set up by a parish church in the center of Athens. Three years ago, she had her own accounting firm with several companies as customers. She had a beautiful house and two children, plenty of time for hobbies, and a lively social circle. She had graduated from one of the three best business schools in the country and invested greatly over the years in her professional development. After thirty years of hard work, she had accomplished a lot of the usual goals of a capitalist society. But no one had talked to her about systemic capitalist crises that tend to be indiscriminately destructive.
“At the beginning of the crisis, the work shrunk quite a lot,” she tells me. “As time passed by, my clients grew fewer steadily and rather rapidly. They closed their businesses, leaving behind debts, some of them, of course, to me. Even the few who remained active could not pay. So I began to lay off my staff. After about a year, I had to close my company, having already used up my personal savings.”
Athina struggled with how to go on. “Just to close my company was a disaster to me,” she says. “What would be the new source of income for me in the future? What would be my new job? What could I do for my two children who were studying at university?”
Unable to sleep at night, she mulled over her options.
“For a while, I remained optimistic,” she recalls. “I thought that my personal worth, my knowledge and experience through so many years at work would not be wasted. It took me a long time to see the truth. I was fifty-two years old, female, a single parent with two children, in a country where unemployment rocketed. For the first time in my life, I realized that I belonged to a ‘vulnerable social group.’ I sent lots of CVs out. No answer came back. Soon all my money ran out, and I could not sustain myself. I moved in with my children. Today, two years later, I still live with my children and receive the help of some of my friends. I eat at soup kitchens because we don’t have always money to cook at home. You ask me what I am going to do? There is nothing else to do.”
Her situation is dire.
“We can’t remember anymore what it was like to have cheese and meat” at home, she says. “At least we can get pasta and bread from food distribution by the church. But I am here to eat a little bit of meat and vegetables.”
Athina’s story is typical of what so many people in Greece are facing: a catastrophe brought on by “the Troika” of the European Union, the International Monetary Fund, and the European Central Bank, a catastrophe that has no European precedent apart from the disaster of the Second World War.
Provision of public services has become utterly dysfunctional, unemployment has reached 27 percent and continues to rise, and a huge number of people are permanently fed in soup kitchens. Meanwhile, the Greek political leadership peddles a “success story” that convinces no one, instead of demanding an apology from the Troika for the destruction it has wrought on the country.
Helen P. is thirty-eight years old, with two girls, five and eight. “I’m coming to the soup kitchen because it’s the only way for me and my children to eat,” she says. “My husband is a builder; he is forty-two years old and has had no work for three years. Nobody builds houses anymore; day work does not exist. He does not come to the soup kitchen with us; he is ashamed.”
We are at a local parish soup kitchen in a working class area of Athens. “I worked in a large department store, but I was fired last year,” says Helen. “The money I took was not much, but the weakening of unions and the introduction of new labor laws meant that I received no compensation. We were working so hard for a few things, just for our children, our home, nothing more. We were happy. I don’t know how, why, our lives have turned upside down.”
She stops her narrative, and her eyes cloud over. “I do not know what to do,” she says, after a while in despair. “I am sorry for this. I do not know for how long we will have our home. We haven’t paid the bank. We cannot pay the taxes. We have no other home.”
As she says that, she bursts into tears. The children look at their mother with regret but no surprise.
“Mummy is crying,” says the little one.
The statistics are grim. More than 31 percent of the population of Greece lives in serious poverty. A large proportion live in “material deprivation,” and a staggering number—more than 11 percent—live in a state of “extreme material deprivation,” which means households cannot even meet basic needs such as heating and electricity for their homes, or use either a car or a telephone. It further means having a poor diet, devoid of meat or fish on a weekly basis. Not least, households have a total or partial inability to pay their rent and home bills. The percentage of child poverty has also risen dramatically to 16 percent, as half a million children live below the poverty line.
Staggeringly, unemployment is well above 60 percent for young people below the age of twenty. To these indicators should be added the percentage of the unregistered unemployed, which is far from negligible.
The state has been forced to recognize the homeless as “a vulnerable social group,” but without taking any further action. As for access to food, there are no official records of people forced to rely on soup kitchens and general food distribution, but there are estimates by the Church of Greece, nonprofits, and municipalities, which have borne the brunt of such provision. They put the numbers at 300,000 portions a day. By a recent government decree, rations provided by municipal authorities will be expanded further, as will the light meals provided to young pupils at school to deal with the rising incidence of children fainting due to low calorie intake.
This is Greece in 2013, Greece of the EU. It is a country hit hard by the systemic crisis of global capitalism, by the bailouts and other decisions taken by neoliberal governments and the leadership of the Eurozone. It is a country that unfortunately leads the way for other members of the European periphery, including Portugal, Spain, and Italy.
“People who today make use of the soup kitchens provided by local parishes and municipalities are not people from the margins of life, perhaps with previous or continuing criminal behavior,” says Father Vasilios Havatzas, who has been in charge of soup kitchens run by the Archbishopric of Athens since 2010. “Rather, they are householders, who only yesterday had normal jobs.”
A recent study by IME-GSEVEE, a respected think tank of small and medium businesses, confirmed Father Vasilios’s opinion in the most undeniable way.
During the second half of 2011, 42.1 percent of small unincorporated businesses (representing 99.6 percent of Greek businesses) reported losses. Early in the first half of 2012, 180,000 of these companies stated that they were at risk of closing during the next twelve months.
In this depression, with the established parties failing to come to grips with the situation and offering only the most fatuous pronouncements, the fascist Golden Dawn is becoming more popular, providing a narrative that makes more sense to ordinary people.
A common practice for the Golden Dawn is to announce emergency soup kitchens and food distribution and then to insist that these are “for Greeks only,” scapegoating immigrants. For the moment, most Greeks aren’t going along.
“The people do not respond to the call of the Golden Dawn,” says Petros Constantinou, an Athens city council member and one of the most prominent activists against the fascist threat.
Yet how long is this reluctance to accept the gifts of the fascists going to last? How long, when the pressure of austerity and deprivation continues unabated?
“I do not know what will happen,” says Athina K. “I still believe that something will happen. A miracle maybe.”
We part silently and with forced smiles.
Alexandra Politaki is a Greek journalist.