Helen’s Story – What Does Austerity Look Like? (Part One & Coda)

What does austerity look like? (Part One)

At first glance, not like much. If you’re a casual observer, just arrived in Athens and looking for a place to eat, austerity can look like this:

Or even this:

The streets are lively and verdant, and the Mediterranean sun still makes everything look just a bit better, especially if you’ve just arrived from 6 months of Portland rain.

In case you’re not sure what I mean by ‘austerity’, I’m referring to the economic stranglehold placed on Greece by the European Union. Essentially, Greece has been forced by the EU to declare bankruptcy. A large part of Greece’s national assets have been privatized and/or turned over to the EU, and severe economic controls have been imposed. Greece no longer makes its own economic policy: entire ministries are no longer even run by Greeks. A large contributing factor to the situation the Greeks are in was the 2008 real estate crash in the U.S. So, in a very real sense, the Greeks are being asked to pay for the sins of the American banksters who also brought the U.S. economy to the brink of ruin.

I’d done quite a bit of research on all this before coming. I knew a lot of facts and figures: unemployment numbers (astronomical), suicides among suddenly destitute pensioners (thousands), the vast amount of debt that the EU has imposed on the Greek people in order to keep Europe’s banking system afloat (and, not coincidentally, shake a warning finger at Italy, Spain and France). But for days I didn’t see those facts and figures as I looked around me. We’d pass tourist buses emptying their vacation-goers onto the sidewalks and I’d think how easily one could come here and not notice anything amiss. I, myself, was having trouble finding the cracks in the façade.


Then I met Kyria Eleni – Helen, as she introduced herself to me in South African English.

Helen sits on a wall beside the church, dressed as my old Swiss aunts used to dress, very dignified, very proper. On closer inspection, her clothes are threadbare. They were bought in another era, when she could afford quality. She holds a plastic cup, but she keeps it half covered. She could easily be resting and having a cool drink by the church. She speaks to passers-by, but in such a quiet, timorous voice that most pass by in the bustle and never notice.

I’ve spent some time getting to know Helen. Her perfect English has made the task much easier. In getting to know her, I’ve found a window into what austerity has done to Greece.

Helen was born and spent her childhood on one of the Greek islands. From her description, her family was upper middle class. In her youth, the entire family emigrated to the thriving Greek community in Cape Town, South Africa, where she lived for another three decades. In South Africa, the family owned a string of shops, and prospered. Over the years, they sent money back to family members in Greece to establish shops in the Athens area. Helen finished her schooling in Cape Town, married and had a son.

In the mid-eighties, she and her husband returned to Greece, where they took over the family businesses that had been set up with the money sent from South Africa. For about 15 years, things went well. Again, the busineses prospered and the family lived a secure, predictable life.

Not all of their subsequent problems were the result of austerity. It would be fairer to say that austerity sealed their fate, pushed them over the final cliff. A few years before the austerity regime was imposed on Greece, Helen and husband began to experience competition from larger supermarket chains that were moving into Athens neighborhoods. They were forced to close several of their shops, and tighten their belts economically. At the same time, their customers were also falling on hard times. They started allowing long-time customers to buy on account, but were in turn forced to take loans as their revenues sagged.

Then Helen’s husband passed away suddenly. In Helen’s view, the stress of business was what killed him. Helen and her son were left to try to save the family business, and they might have succeeded, were it not for the EU and austerity. When austerity came, suddenly no one had any money. Pensions were cut drastically, bank withdrawal controls were imposed, credit was impossible to find, and shops and businesses began to fail by the thousands. Almost overnight, all their options disappeared, all their loans came due, everything that had been put aside vanished, and in short order they lost their business and their home and found themselves on the street.

Kyria Eleni from Bill Megalos on Vimeo.

John went through a divorce at about the same time, and now he and his mother share a small apartment with no furniture, no water and no electricity. He explained to us how his education, his business experience and, above all, his age, made his prospects for finding a job even worse.

Yianni from Bill Megalos on Vimeo.

Meeting Helen had an interesting effect on my ability to see things around me. Where before I hardly noticed them, now I see the beggars in every square and neighborhood. Mostly old people and often, like Helen, in clothes that used to advertise their solid, normal lives and now, worn and threadbare, illustrate their complete destitution.

Coda – 3 July 2017

On my last day in Athens I walked up to the Xalandri square to say my goodbyes to Helen – and John, as he happened to be there with his Mom. We chatted for a few moments about my plans to bike in the Alps with my son, Kiran, and to spend some time in Italy. Then Helen suddenly exclaimed, ‘I was forgetting, I brought something to show you.’ She reached into a pocket and brought out a photograph and handed it to me, saying, ‘this is me back before all this happened. This is how we were, how we lived. This is how far we’ve fallen.’ Here’s the photo she showed me:

Manar’s Story

WARNING: This may be the longest and most convoluted blog post you will ever encounter. It talks about a particular family’s journey from Syria to Europe, but it also lays out the complex and opaque rules and procedures that govern their lives after they land on European soil. Because of its length, I’ve decided to try to bring some order by using sub headings from time to time.


In Rovies last week we met Manar. Meeting her, we discovered that being well-educated, multi-lingual and cosmopolitan is no guarantee of success when you’re a refugee knocking on Europe’s doors. Manar, her husband and her three children are from Syria. I’m going to leave out many personal details because of their fears for family members still in Syria. What I can talk about is what they faced when they arrived in Greece and how the clumsy system that has been put in place and tasked with integrating the refugees into Europe has enormous consequences for thousands of lives. What happened to Manar’s family after they fell within the purview of that system is just one example.

Manar teaching the morning English class at Hotel Rovies

Manar and her husband are both university-educated professionals. Their life in Syria was comfortable and quiet, until they ran afoul of the Assad government. I can’t go into details, but I can say that the reasons behind this were both principled and courageous. Any country, learning their story, should have seen in them ideal candidates to become future citizens.

When things turned dangerous for them, it happened very quickly, and they had to pack up their children and flee immediately with what they could carry. To avoid detection, they split up on their journey out of Syria. Until they met again in Turkey, they had no news of each other’s fate.

In the months after their departure they learned that their house had been destroyed by government shelling, after which everything of any value had been pillaged by rival militia groups. They literally have nothing left to return to in the country that was their home.

They arrived in Greece after a difficult and dangerous journey and discovered, as have so many refugees, that the northern border had been closed with barbed wire and that leaving Greece was now, in practical terms, impossible. They now had three options available to them.


Under the current regulations adopted by the EU as a result of a continuing and rancorous debate over how to deal with the refugees, all refugees must apply for asylum in the first EU country they arrive in. Of course, even now many don’t. Refugees arriving in Greece, in particular, quickly discover – if they didn’t already know – that the austerity regime imposed on Greece by the EU has plunged the country into a 7-year economic depression by many measures worse than the Great Depression of the 1930s. Unemployment is at record levels, economic activity has been decimated, pensions have been cut, and old people are reduced to begging while the young flee the country – economic refugees themselves. Many refugees, particularly young men, find ways to leave Greece illegally, over the northern hills or clinging to the undersides of trucks leaving the port of Patras for Italy.

The EU has established two programs under which refugees can apply to move elsewhere from their country of arrival: relocation and family reunification. One of us will be discussing family reunification in another post. Since Manar and her family didn’t have close family members in Europe, their only option to leave Greece became the relocation program.

Under this program, refugees can apply to emigrate from their country of arrival to another EU country. In practice, this process is completely opaque to the applicants. First, a refugee – or family – must apply to enter the relocation program. If accepted, their file will be forwarded to one of the participating EU countries, generally without the applicants being informed of which country has been chosen for them. The chosen country then vets the application and makes a decision, with little or no input from the applicants. If the country refuses, grounds for refusal are not disclosed to the applicants, and they have no opportunity to address any deficiencies or concerns that may have led to their refusal. Finally, and most importantly, there is no provision to allow them to apply to other countries; a refusal by any country is considered a refusal by all.


This sequence of events played out almost exactly in Manar and her family’s case. First, the family had to apply for relocation via Skype. This involved waiting for days with the whole family in front of a cellphone in their tent until someone was available at the other end. They were then photographed remotely and told their file would be forwarded to a participating country. (Not all members of the EU participate. Most of the former Soviet bloc countries, in fact, are currently refusing to accept refugees.)

Some time later, Manar’s family received a notice to travel to the French embassy for an interview. The family took a 6-hour bus ride from northern Greece to Athens, where they waited several more hours due to a scheduling mistake at the embassy. The interview finally took place and they were told to expect a reply within a month. A month and a half later they were contacted and told to report to the Greek asylum authorities to hear the decision. There, they were told that France had refused them, that the grounds for refusal were secret and that – to their bewilderment – they had no option to apply to another country. Here’s Manar reflecting on the moment when they received the decision.

Manar on relocation rejection from Bill Megalos on Vimeo.

When I first heard Manar’s account I was sure that something was wrong – that they’d been given incorrect information, that someone had taken a dislike to them, or that they’d misunderstood the options available to them. In fact, Manar’s experience sounded so Kafkaesque that we decided to do more research before blogging about it. Since then, we’ve verified Manar’s description with a variety of sources, including people doing legal support for refugees, the office of the Greek Ombudsman for Children, and even the head of UNHCR in Greece. This completely opaque and top-down system is being encountered by thousands of refugees every year; people who have already lost their former lives, their possessions and their loved ones arrive in Europe to be confronted with a bureaucracy that disempowers them and determines their future at the stroke of a pen.

Ironically, this system, largely designed for security, seems to fail even at that task: numerous refugees have recounted to us watching North Africans with fake Syrian passports and even self-declared IS members pass through the system and leave for other countries.

At the end of our interview we asked Manar to reflect upon her family’s journey, upon the upheaval and danger they have been through, and upon the disappointments that have accompanied their arrival in Europe. I listened to her words with mounting respect for her ability to accept and surmount adversity.

Manar on acceptance from Bill Megalos on Vimeo.

Hiyam’s Story

The first thing we saw when we entered the room was the cake, sitting on the floor. A beautifully decorated cake, worthy of a pastry shop display….sitting on the floor of a tiny, disheveled room with bunk beds, a tiny sink and a small dresser. This is how we met Hiyam and her son, Laeth.


Last week’s shooting schedule began in Athens, but ended at the Refugee Center in Thermopyles, in Central Greece. Thermopyles is located about 15 kilometers outside the city of Lamia, and is the site of the historic battle between the allied Greek tribes and the Persian army under Xerxes.


Hallway at Thermopyles Refugee Center

The refugees are housed in an abandoned resort, re-purposed just over a year ago as refugee housing, as Zaphiri explains in one of his posts. From the looks of it, some light touch-up was done, small convection ovens and other equipment were brought in for the communal kitchen and bunk beds were placed in the small rooms. Other than that, the general state of dilapidation Is still quite evident.

It’s in these conditions that the refugees live, often 5 or 6 to a single small room. Certainly better than tents – but for many, only just.


Hallway at Thermopyles Refugee Center


We were walking these hallways, looking for someone willing to be interviewed, and having little luck. One of the biggest reasons for this is that many refugees still have family back where they came from and are trying to protect them from retribution. This is particularly true of people from Syria, several people asked directly if their faces would be seen back home and there was no way we could promise otherwise. So we lost a few interviews simply because people are afraid of being discovered and of the consequences to their loved ones.

After several refusals we encountered a woman standing in her doorway who immediately invited us in. This was Hiyam. Here’s a picture of Hiyam and Laeth in the room they share.



Hiyam and her son, Laeth

Hiyam and Laeth told us they had come from Adla, in Iraq, via Idlib, across the northern mountains to Turkey, then across Turkey – largely on foot – into Greece. From the Greek-Turkish border they headed north towards Germany, again on foot, where they have family. They made it as far as Serbia before being deported back to Greece, and have been here ever since. After about 6 months in Athens, they were relocated north to Thermopyles,
Hiyam is a baker and a hairdresser. Laeth was going to school and also working as a barber. When the war came to their hometown, Adla, it exacted a terrible toll on her family – her parents, her husband, and four brothers were all killed. She showed us their pictures; then she showed me a picture of her husband’s body after the attack that killed him. It’s not a picture one gets over easily.

After this, she and Laeth fled to Idlib for safety. However, there was nothing for them in Idlib, so they decided to try to make it to Europe, where Hiyam has relatives in Germany. They hiked over the mountains into Turkey, crossed Turkey into Greece – largely on foot – and made it all the way to Serbia before being caught. After some months back in Greece they gave up trying to get to Germany and applied to stay in Greece. However, with no jobs in Greece, with no resources of their own, and  without significant help to start their new lives, the road in front of them is uncertain, to say the least. Hiyam said several things that I will remember long after this month is Greece is over: among them, she said, ‘we’ve seen everything there is to see. We’ve seen hunger, cold, misery. We’ve been ill-treated and abused. Things you can’t imagine – we’ve lived through them. After all that, all I want is to start a new life. A house, a job, and somewhere for my son to finish his education, that’s all we’re looking for.’

We’ve seen hunger, cold, misery. We’ve been ill-treated and abused. Things you can’t imagine – we’ve lived through them.

After our interview, once the cameras had stopped rolling, Hiyam and Laeth cut each of us an enormous piece of their cake, which turned out as delicious as it was decorative.

A few more personal reflections

For me this journey began back in February of 2017, when I was down in LA with my wife, visiting my in-laws. Bill and I have known each other for a very long time, since long before either of us had our now-fully-grown children. When I pass through LA, it’s a normal part of the routine to see if Bill is around, and maybe take a bike ride or grab a coffee together. We’re both a whole lot older than we were all those years ago, and there’s always plenty to reflect on.

During our February visit, our talk turned to the refugee situation in Greece, which I’d been following pretty closely for some time. Both of us have a long-standing interest in Greek affairs. Bill’s is proprietary; his last name betrays his Greek parentage. Mine is less direct but strong, nevertheless. I lived in Greece for quite a while many years ago and embarked upon a lifelong exploration of Greek culture, music, poetry – you name it. I’d also reported from Greece during the tumultuous period when the first socialist government, PASOK, took the reins of power.

I mentioned to Bill that I had been mulling over the idea of volunteering with one of the NGOs working with refugees in Greece. It was at this point that Bill mentioned his idea for this film. He sketched out the details and I immediately saw in it another way to engage with the same people I’d been thinking about. Bill mentioned somebody named Zaphiri and said a third collaborator might seal the deal. There was some discussion of my utterly insufficient Arabic and my better-than-average knowledge of Greece and the Middle East and then I stared out at the Pacific for a moment and said absolutely, yes, I’m in.

That began two months of prep work that, compared to my normal life in Portland, already represented a frenzy of activity. Zaphiri started providing updates, articles and other documentation – often in Greek – one or two times a day. I engaged nearly all my Arabic-speaking friends in a communal attempt to dredge my Arabic out of the ditch of oblivion into which it had fallen over more than 30 years. It really did seem like things had reached a fever-pitch, but, in fact, I had no idea. For all intents and purposes, I was still in the slow lane.

The fast lane came when I landed in Greece. Almost instantly we entered a maelstrom of activity, running out the door on 3 minutes notice for an unexpected shooting opportunity, bouncing around Greece between locations, going to sleep just before dawn and getting up just after – it’s been about as different from my life in Portland as one could conceive of. A week in, it’s already been a great learning experience, and one of the things it’s taught me is just how quiet my life back home had become. There’s a lot going on in the big world we live in, and a lot that can be done about it, if we’re willing to push ourselves. That’s one of the many things I’ve always admired about Bill – he lives that life. Now, after this first exhausting week, I’m thinking that working with Bill and Zaphiri, and getting to know the refugees – most of whom have endured unbelievable hardship just to try to find some peace, some quiet and some safety – will be a way for me to pay back the debt of the many years of peace and safety I’ve been blessed with while I brought up my children in our happy home in quiet Portland when so much of the world outside isn’t like that.