Cold, hungry, jobless: The Greeks begging for bread

Cold, hungry, jobless: The Greeks begging for bread
When Iliodoros Filios first ventured to a soup kitchen in 2012, he was consumed with shame. He waited idly outside while his wife and children went in to gather their portions. With time, he says, their needs eclipsed grief. Within a year, the 52-year-old jobless painter was making the rounds each evening at bakeries, begging for stale leftovers: meat pies, pastries and an occasional loaf of bread.

Later, Filios and his 48-year-old wife, Ioanna, found help in vegetable markets, where they were able to get a handful of tomatoes, onions and cucumbers twice a week. Without these handouts, the family wouldn't be able to bear the crushing weight of Greece's austerity-ravaged economy. 

"Lately, they say they don't have any more to give," Ioanna explains. "They say they already gave to the orphanage or the church. But the rubbish cans are full of food at the end of the day."

With two daughters, the couple struggles to make ends meet each month on a 466-euro welfare cheque. The family's hardships are common. They were among the 20 percent of Greeks who were without work in December.

Although joblessness is down from the nearly 28 percent it hit in 2014, it still towers over the EU's 8.7 percent unemployment recorded by Eurostat at the end of last year. Inside their two-bedroom flat, where a local church organisation has set them up, books, suitcases and stuffed animals cramp the living room. A photo of the Last Supper, which depicts a host of robed disciples flanking Jesus Christ at a long dinner table, is fastened on the wall.

After they received a larger welfare cheque for the holiday season, Filios bought a small plastic Christmas tree. Weeks later, the multi-coloured lights still blink in the living room corner as he speaks. Christina, his 15-year-old daughter, sits on a small wooden box next to her father and listens, an austere expression on her face. Wrapped in blankets, she rubs her gloved hands on her legs. They cannot afford heating, even in winter.

"We've never even turned on that heater," says Ioanna, pointing to an electricity-powered radiator.

While the church pays their rent, the family is responsible for utilities, food and other expenses.

"We only have enough money for the basics," says Filios.

They could not survive on welfare cheques alone, without the help of friends, neighbours and the church, he explains. For the Filios family, promises of politicians and policymakers ring hollow.

In January 2015, Syriza, a left-wing party, came to power after vowing to support the downtrodden and poor. Yet, with Greece teetering under the weight of debt, austerity only deepened. Over the last three years, the once defiant leftist government has largely accepted creditors' demands, including budget cuts and economic reforms.

The initially fierce disputes with Germany, which has overseen Greece's bailout, have given way to quiet acquiescence in Athens. Crisis has led to turbulence on the streets, with strikes, protests and riots taking place to resist austerity.

In January, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras addressed the Hellenic Parliament after legislators approved new austerity measures. Outside, tens of thousands protested. Just days before the 1,500-page bill was passed, riot police fired tear gas at angry demonstrators in Athens, the capital.

He proclaimed that Greece was "a breath away from the end of the programme", adding: "This gives hope and courage to millions of our citizens, who all these years have made large sacrifices and now finally see light and a way out."

Filios says he has yet to catch a glimpse of that light.

"Despite the fact that Tsipras has almost destroyed the country, the government has helped people in need," he argues, "but the structure is still falling."

Against this backdrop, his days are dotted with what feel like pointless job applications and cold calls. When he tells potential employers his age, they respond that the vacancies have been filled. He is far from alone. More than half of Greeks endured financial hardship in December 2017, according to a study published by the University of Macedonia in Thessaloniki.

That study found that less than seven percent of the respondents had experienced "no financial problems" that month. Giorgos Kiritsis, a parliamentarian and Syriza member, defended the austerity measures, such as home auctions.

"It was crucial for keeping the banks afloat," he tells Al Jazeera, insisting that the government has done its best to protect workers and the poor. 

Meanwhile, frustration over the government's policies has come from across the political spectrum.  From the right, parties such as New Democracy have accused the Syriza-led coalition of worsening poverty.

Last month, New Democracy chief Kyriakos Mitsotakis said Greeks no longer "trust the prime minister to solve the financial problems we face". 

"He promised to put an end to austerity and the old [establishment]," he said in a video message. "Instead he brought more poverty, the dissolution of the middle class and heavy taxation. He cut wages and pensions."

On the left, parties and critics have blasted the government for what they see as capitulating to the EU at the expense of Greece's struggling workers and pensioners, among other charges. 

Greece's ongoing economic crisis has seeped into every crevice of society, penetrated every sector of the economy and affected almost every field of work.

Although economic growth has ticked up, high unemployment, crippling austerity measures and a lack of hope continue to stymy any benefits of that growth for most Greeks. The country's bailout programme is slated to conclude in 2018. Source...

James Koroma

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