Orphans of the Greek meltdown
Published in The Mail on Sunday (June 23rd, 2013)
Laughing children play in a pine-scented courtyard on a warm summer’s evening. Excitement rises to fever pitch as a creamy chocolate gateau is sliced. It appears a timeless, idyllic scene – but in reality it is a very modern Greek tragedy.
For this cloistered red-brick building in a wealthy suburb of Athens is a children’s home. Yet many of those youngsters are not orphans or the products of dysfunctional families. Instead, they are forgotten victims of the Eurozone crisis, handed over by parents who can no longer afford to feed them.
The financial meltdown in Greece has caused pain and suffering throughout the country. But in a nation where the idea of family is central to everyday life, its youngest citizens are bearing some of the heaviest burdens of the crisis.
Scores of children have been put in orphanages and care homes for economic reasons; one charity said 80 of the 100 children in its residential centres were there because their families can no longer provide for them.
Ten per cent of Greek children are said to be at risk of hunger. Teachers talk of cancelling PE lessons because children are underfed and of seeing pupils pick through bins for food.
At the Zanneio Child Care Institution, I was proffered a piece of cake by nine-year-old Nicolas Eleftheriadou. When I asked him how he was, he replied with a shy grin: ‘I’m as tough as a walnut.’
His parents, Olga and Alexandros, had arrived to take their three oldest children home for the weekend; the children attend the unit from Monday to Friday. The friendly couple both lost jobs in catering two years ago; he delivered pizzas, she worked in a sandwich shop.
With five children, they struggled to survive on social security of £400 a month, boosted by odd jobs in the black economy. They want proper work, but there are few jobs.
Olga’s widowed mother tried to protect the family, providing food and funds from her own meagre benefits as a cancer patient. Sadly, it was not enough – and so for more than a year Nicolas, his eight-year-old brother and seven-year-old sister have been sent to Zanneio, an hour from their home on the other side of Athens.
The couple admitted it was incredibly painful. ‘It was so hard, incredibly hard, especially at the start,’ Olga says. ‘I could hardly bear it. The children have got used to it. The one consolation is they seem happier now and their teachers are very kind and caring.’
The Eleftheriadous’ story highlights the harshness of life in modern Greece, where the economy is in freefall – it is still shrinking at five per cent a year – and the unemployment rate is the highest in Europe.
Almost a third of adults are jobless, along with two-thirds of under-25s. But even those in work struggle. Private sector wages have fallen by 30 per cent in four years and painful new taxes have been imposed as the country is crucified by its adherence to the euro.
In the few days I was in Athens, Greece was demoted by the financial markets from ‘developed nation’ to ‘emerging market’ status, a human rights group condemned the appalling scapegoating of migrants and the state broadcaster ERT was switched off by the government to cut costs.
The closure of ERT shocked Greeks and reminded outsiders of the scale of the country’s crisis. The move shattered the fragile three-party governing coalition with the smallest pulling out – and could force the third general election in just over a year.
Under the EU-imposed austerity programme, Greece must lose 150,000 of its 800,000 public sector jobs, many the product of political patronage and a key cause – alongside rampant tax evasion – of the huge debts dragging down this nation of 11 million.
Such is the scale of the crisis that Greece’s economic contraction is already twice as deep as Britain’s during the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Little wonder staff at Zanneio – which sits amid the beautiful villas of film stars, financiers and even a former prime minister – have seen so many heartbreaking cases.
One family was forced to put four children aged between six and 14 in the home after the father’s restaurant went bust with such big debts he was jailed under hardline new laws and their mother was unable to cope.
An angelic-looking 11-year-old girl told me how much she looked forward to seeing her mother each Friday. Her father was dead, her mother unemployed and unable to afford her upkeep; she had been there two years already.
Such cases upset those involved in childcare. ‘It is not in the Greek culture for families to split up,’ said Menelaos Tsaoussis, 45, the foundation’s former director. ‘These situations are so traumatic for the families.’
Another charity last year reported four children, including a newborn baby, dumped on its doorstep. One toddler was found holding a note saying: ‘I will not be coming to pick up Anna today because I cannot afford to look after her. Please take good care of her. Sorry.’
The Child’s Smile, a Greek charity for families in crisis, said it helped 10,927 children last year with emergency supplies of food, clothes, shoes, school books and psychological support. The previous year, the number was 4,465.
‘We used to have people only from the lowest economic level but now we are seeing people from upper middle levels when they lose their jobs and have nowhere to go,’ said Tania Schiza, a social worker with the group.
Often these ‘new poor’ are reluctant to seek support, worsening their plight.‘We have some cases where families who used to donate money have become victims of the crisis. Now they come to us for help,’ said Schiza.
‘All of these families are deeply disappointed. They feel whatever they do, nothing can be done to change their circumstances in the crisis.’
Other charities told similar stories. SOS Children’s Villages helped 47 families five years ago; today it is helping 900 and opening new centres across Greece to stave off family breakdown amid soaring poverty.
Many turning to them are from formerly prosperous middle-class families; among the restaurant owners, shopkeepers and businessmen was one senior executive with a major company who had lost his job.
Like all such groups, it strives to keep families together. Despite this, with financial pressures growing more intense by the day as savings dwindle and firms collapse, a handful of children in its homes have been given up by impoverished parents.
‘This is a major shift in Greek society over the past three years,’ said Pavlos Salihos, a teacher and trained psychologist at the children’s village in Vari. ‘We never had cases like this before; it was just social problems such as drug abuse.’
Another official with SOS Children’s Villages said some youngsters were in such bad shape they could barely talk. One school said one in six of its students suffered malnutrition. In others teachers have started handing out fruit, sandwiches and milk.
A public health body believes food security levels in Greece have fallen to those of some African countries. Social workers said they look out for children who simply give up on school work, the first sign of mental trauma caused by the crisis.
Suicide rates and mental health problems across all ages have risen sharply over the past three years; on my previous visit, I came across a woman who had lost her job and was threatening to jump from her office. One newspaper has said Greece was a ‘society on the verge of a nervous breakdown’.
Ironically, the image has grown of Greeks as feckless and lazy, although studies have found more entrepreneurs per head and longer working hours than elsewhere in Europe.
But to make matters worse, as demand soars from desperate parents, the maelstrom that has engulfed Greece is making it harder for cash-strapped charities to keep such centres open.
On Friday, the day I visited, the foundation that runs Zanneio was marking its closure and merger with another group; the buildings have been bought by the church for training priests.
Although its 19th Century founders endowed it with dozens of properties, the foundation’s rental income fell in the financial crisis from £1.3 million to £850,000, while new taxes imposed by a government scrabbling around for funds took an extra £300,000 a year.
The centre has been taken over by Hatzikonsta – the oldest children’s welfare organisation in Greece, founded by a family of wealthy traders 160 years ago. Hatzikonsta has already seen the number of children it is supporting rise more than four-fold since the crisis began – and four-fifths of children in its residential care are there for economic reasons.
Yet it, too, is struggling to survive. It is owed more than £850,000 from property rentals; already its 72 staff have taken substantial salary cuts. ‘I feel I must have been Genghis Khan in a previous life for such punishment,’ joked Leonidas Dragoumanos, the director trying to juggle the finances.
Metaxia Georgitsi, 40, a single mother of three, put her oldest child – a 14-year-old boy – in full-time care after seeing her income from cleaning work fall by nearly two-thirds, then losing her job and trying to survive on benefits of £300 a month.
‘We both cried every day to begin with,’ she said. ‘I tried to visit him every day, which made it a bit better, but it was hard. Without a husband, what else could I do – we had no option.
‘It was very difficult – I had loans to pay and did not have enough money for food. But at least they helped him with his homework there and he ate properly.’
After one year, the family was reunited last autumn when the boy came home. But now her unemployment benefits are due to stop after a year without work and she may have to rent out her home, which she retains only because her elderly parents pay the mortgage.
‘I just don’t know what I can do in the future,’ said Metaxia, who believes single-parent families have been hit especially hard. ‘The crisis has undone us.
‘I fear I may have to put my boy back in the orphanage, send my girls to live with my mother and I will stay with a friend. Then the family will be completely split up. It’s the worst possible scenario.’
Amid the soup kitchens, shut-down shops and scavengers on the streets, there is one sliver of good to emerge from this Greek catastrophe: the rediscovery of self-help and communal values as the welfare state is gutted and people pull together.
In Marousi, a suburb of Athens that has had a 70 per cent cut in state funding, mayor Giorgos Patoulis has led a drive to open a health centre treating 6,000 uninsured patients, food kitchens, clothing banks and even a pharmacy staffed by volunteers and stocked with donations.
‘The mentality had to change and there are signs of a new solidarity,’ he said. ‘But if this crisis extends much further, how will we be able to take care of all our people?’
It is a question many more Greeks are asking, especially those thousands of parents teetering on the edge of the abyss. Most would echo the words of Amalia Ntougia, 46, a widowed mother of three from Marousi whose shop closed in the crisis. Although living off handouts and crumbs from her disabled father’s small pension, when asked if she would give up her children to a care home, she replied indignantly: ‘No, I am a Greek mother.’
Tragically, for many Greek parents, even such intense family pride is no longer enough.