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A Greek Tragedy

Greece confronts a looming humanitarian crisis

There are times when Maria Nichopoulou, a 39-year-old Greek mother of two, wakes up — still dizzy from sleep — thinking she has died.

“I wonder if I have done what I wanted to do for my children, if I have done enough for them while I was alive,” she says, sitting on the sofa of her family’s apartment in the southern Athens neighborhood of Ano Glifada.

Since the Greek economic crisis — Europe’s deepest — began in 2008, day-to-day existence has often been a matter of life and death for Mrs. Nichopoulou, her husband Aris, 43, and their children Angie, 9, and Dimitrios, 2.

The couple’s fall from grace has been as spectacular as that of Greece itself. In 2010, they were earning a combined income of €200,000 (about $270,000 at current exchange rates) as executives at the same state-owned enterprise. But they both lost their jobs in November 2010, when the government folded the company in a bid to save money. After a year, their unemployment benefits expired and Mrs. Nichopoulou had to enter survival mode, selling their cars, her jewelry and eventually turning to charity.

“I have children to take care of, so what can I do? It would be simpler if it was just my husband and me, but with the two children, I have to fight to maintain a quality of life for them,” she says.

This fight has led her to discover charities and nongovernmental organizations she never knew existed, such as Praxis, Caritas and Apostoli, as well as soup kitchens, free medical clinics and even a circle of Greek mothers who have organized on Facebook to help one another.

“Our church helps us as well, with food and meat for the children,” she says of her local Orthodox parish.

“My husband goes to them and they send him to the supermarket and pay the cost of the food.”

Stories such as the Nichopoulous’ can be found all over Greece. There are few people whose lives have not been affected by the cataclysmic depression that still shakes the country.

Triggered by the global financial crisis of October 2008, the Greek recession saw Greek government debt downgraded to junk-bond status in April 2010 that created alarm in financial markets. In May 2010 and again in October 2011, Greece received bailouts from the Eurozone countries and the International Monetary Fund (I.M.F.) for a combined total of €240 billion (about $324 billion). The conditions of the bailout required Greece to make severe cuts to its public spending and to privatize significant government assets in an effort to reduce its deficit. The implementation of these austerity measures are a key factor in the change in the quality of life now faced by most Greeks.

Currently, the economy is shrinking 3.8 percent annually and unemployment is at 26.8 percent — and as high as 65 percent among those between 15 and 24 years of age. To meet the bailout conditions, the government has cut its safety net programs and services. As the years of crisis roll on, more people are falling into poverty.

“What people should understand,” says Kostis Dimtsas, head of Apostoli (“mission”), the charity arm of the Orthodox Church of Greece, “is that this country is on the verge of a humanitarian crisis.”

With its annual budget of €120 million (about $168 million), Apostoli is the largest church-related charity attempting to fill the void left by the shrinking presence of the Greek state. Together with a host of other church-related charities, such as the charity of the Catholic Church in Greece, Caritas, and the Missionaries of Charity, as well as secular organizations, it forms an informal complex of welfare services trying to pick up the pieces — from health care to housing, food and employment.

When Apostoli began its food drives in 2010, it was distributing some 1,500 servings of food every day in its soup kitchens in Athens alone. Today, that number has increased to 10,000 per day, and it continues to grow. Apostoli also distributes 8,500 large, 30-pound food packages to households across the city each month. Some 45 percent of the distributed food comes from donations by shops and individuals. The rest is bought by the charity at a current annual cost of €6 million (about $8.1 million).

Kostas Patitsas, 59, who lives in the working-class Athens neighborhood of Kipseli, regularly takes advantage of his local parish’s food aid. Mr. Patitsas’s case is a classic example of Greek recession misfortune: In February 2012, his position was made redundant before he reached retirement age. Now he finds himself without a pension in an anemic job market that has become increasingly discriminatory against mature applicants as the recession deepens. He depends on his brother and other family members to pay the property tax on his small apartment and his electricity bills. He needs about $135 a month for cigarettes and tea. For food, he lives on the fare from his local parish, Hagia Zoni Church.

“I am quite optimistic by nature,” he says in the yard of the church as he lines up for food. “And I believe growth will return in 2014.” All the people lined up around him burst into laughter. He is quoting the much-maligned Greek Finance Minister Yannis Stournaras, who uses this phrase as a boilerplate response to any interrogation regarding the future. It becomes clear that for Kostas Patitsas, and for many others, humor is a coping mechanism.

Some 300 people have come to the soup kitchen at Hagia Zoni. They joke and laugh, but it is a heavy, trudging humor. Before long, they have all departed with their food to eat at home alone.

Mr. Patitsas eats his food on a small table in a communal garden outside the back door of his ground-floor apartment, which is dark, damp and shabby.

Along with humor, he says, his other big coping mechanism is his faith.

“I go to church every Sunday,” he says, “and when I feel low and hopeless, it fills my soul.”

However, others in Greece go without such bulwarks, and depression is rife, according to medical professionals. The suicide rate has skyrocketed. According to official Greek government figures, incidences of suicide and attempted suicide in Greece have doubled since 2009.

Doctors, nurses and other medical practitioners are seeing the medical and psychological consequences of the economic crisis in hospitals, clinics and improvised health service provisions across the country. The privatization and the pressure to reduce the size of the government have led to a radical reduction in social security coverage and the public health care infrastructure.

“Health, education, electricity and water are not for sale!” yelled a crowd of protestors as they marched down Vassilisis Sofias Street to the parliament building in Athens on a recent Friday morning. The 500 or so nurses, doctors and paramedics were gathered to protest the closing of seven public hospitals.

“My mother and father are workers,” says Nikos Chronbropoulos, 23, a protesting medical student in the crowd. &lduo;They have paid a lot of money in taxes all these years, and now they don’t even get a pension. According to the government’s current strategy, they don’t deserve to have complete health care, regardless of what happens to them.”

Along with unemployment, health care is a major issue for more and more Greeks as the financial crisis continues into its fifth year. Today, 1.2 million Greeks have no health insurance coverage. As the extent of a once-expansive public health care system recedes under austerity measures and cuts, an informal, charity-based network of free clinics and health services has emerged to provide some kind of primary care to needy Greeks.

“Because of the crisis, people [fail] to see doctors about their health issues. By the time they come here, they often have very advanced conditions,” says Dr. Grigorious Pesmatzoglou, a physician who volunteers one afternoon a week in an improvised medical clinic organized by Apostoli and the Medical Council of Athens.

The clinic conducts 200-300 consultations per day, working with 270 doctors who volunteer a few hours of their time every week. Beyond Apostoli, church groups, church-led charities, secular groups and collectives of medics offer similar free medical services to Greece’s numerous inhabitants in need.

“Four years ago, community clinics like this didn’t exist at all in Greece,” says Mr. Dimtsas of Apostoli, which has opened six other such clinics in Greece since 2010. “All these problems show that there is a crisis that is getting worse.”

Caritas, the official charity of the tiny Catholic Church in Greece, has a general aid program similar to Apostoli, though on a smaller scale, with an annual budget of about €200,000 ($270,000) for the Athens area.

From its social services center in downtown Athens, it helps people in need through its social worker, its soup kitchen and through general assistance locating medical, housing, legal and career services.

On a recent weekday morning, dozens of people waited in a line leading up the stairs of the Caritas center, waiting for its soup kitchen to open. Inside, the staff of volunteers was busy preparing the food for the approximately 200 people they feed daily.

Once the soup kitchen opens, Malak Sleiman, 42, a refugee who fled the war in her native Syria a month earlier, settles into a table with two of her children — Majed, 5, and Sima, 4. Her other two children, who are older, are still in Syria with her husband, waiting for the right moment to join them. The aspect of immigration is another core factor of the Greek crisis. Due to its proximity to Asia and Africa, as well as its extensive maritime border, Greece is the gateway of choice for many migrants fleeing to countries in the European Union. Caritas estimates that today Greece, a country of 11 million, has over a half a million undocumented migrants.

Whereas most of them have not obtained legal residency, Greece’s migrants can often be found side by side with Greek citizens at clothing depots, soup kitchens and free medical clinics.

Most of them, Mrs. Sleiman included, have no intention of staying. She spends her days looking for ways to secure a visa elsewhere. She has contacted the Dutch, Swedish, U.S. and Canadian embassies in Athens to see if any of them will give her family asylum. So far, her request has not been granted. Until she figures out a means to resettle legally somewhere, she has no choice but to stay put in recession-plagued Greece, in a small basement apartment she rents for about $135 a month. Still, Mrs. Sleiman says, they are much better off in Greece than in the danger and insecurity that reigns now in Syria.

The only element of urgency is that Mrs. Sleiman is pregnant.

“I am worried because I have no one in Greece and giving birth alone and with two children to take care of as well,” she says. “I need help. I have no money and no insurance, and that scares me.”

As long as she remains physically capable of it, Mrs. Sleiman is scouring the complex of charitable services to see how she can have her baby delivered safely and for free. She has found some leads, but her search continues.

Regardless of the outcome of her applications with the embassies, due to the processing times of asylum requests, it is almost certain that Mrs. Sleiman will deliver and begin to rear her baby in Greece.

Children also struggle with the recent change in Greece’s fortune.

“With the lack of money come other problems, such as parents becoming depressed over their situation. We need to support children and parents psychologically,” says Stergios Sifnios, director of social work and research at S.O.S. Children’s Villages, an international organization that provides social and material care for children and families in need. “A lot of children feel guilt because of this.”

Until 2010, S.O.S. Children’s Villages ran only two social centers in Greece, where families in financial need could come for help. Prior to the crisis, its main focus was on its residential centers for children from dysfunctional environments. Now, the main growth in its activity has been in its social centers.

“From 2011 to 2012, the cases coming to us for financial help doubled,” says Mr. Sifnios. The group now assists 900 such families across Greece and its roster of social centers has grown threefold in the last four years.

For their part, churches have built programs for children into their general aid responses — mostly free tutoring or extra classes to help children perform well in their schooling, regardless of what is happening at home.

“Some children are dropping out of school because their parents can’t afford the necessary school materials,” says Kostis Dimtsas of Apostoli. “So we help with that and we have free classes to help the children advance in their studies.”

But the problems facing Greek’s new generations are not just at school. The country will be dealing with debt repayment for generations to come. This has changed the outlook of many Greeks concerning their own children.

Angie, Maria Nichopoulou’s 9-year-old daughter, is preparing to leave the family’s apartment to go play with her father. After he helps her put on her jacket, she grabs her sports bag and slings it on her back, saying goodbye to her mother.

Mrs. Nichopoulou’s daily mission is to provide for Angie and her brother and to keep the ugly realities of the Greek crisis as far from them as possible. Still, she and many parents like her have come to the same conclusion: Greece, at least for now, is not a place for the next generation.

“We don’t have a future, but she must have a future,” Maria Nichopoulou says of her daughter. “So I tell her to study and then to emigrate. Learn English now and don’t stay here.”

Don Duncan has covered the Middle East and Africa for The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, The New York Times and Agence France Presse.

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