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:
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.
ASYLUM, RE-UNIFICATION AND RELOCATION
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.
ENCOUNTER WITH THE SYSTEM
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.
At this point, with our journey half over (but barely a quarter so in the blog, at this point, we have yet to report on the profound experience we had in Rovies) we are taking stock, figuring out what we still need, and massaging our schedule to make room for new stories and opportunities as they come rushing at us.
It’s a good time to assess how we’re working together and to fine tune our process. In short, I cannot be happier with the quality of the work we are getting or with how we are interacting with each other and with the people we meet.
In The Republic, Plato says that “The beginning is the most important part of the work” and certainly decisions we made early on have proven to be the right ones and have carried us along with fair weather and helpful winds.
First off, none of us would be here if it weren’t for my wife Judy, whose idea this was. Her support throughout the project, as well as through our long marriage is humbling. Judy knew how important this subject is to me and pointed out that Zaphiris and I are in a unique position to tell these stories. In addition to having a long and fruitful working relationship covering three continents, we are the closest of friends and there is no one better for this project. His attention to detail and his commitment to making the greatest images counteract my tendency to go with the flow. His empathy for all people comes through at all times and without exception, he has managed to create trust with the people we are working with.
In case it hasn’t been clear, our project thus far is entirely self-funded. That has happily forced us into making early decisions that turned out to be very good ones. I’ve filmed many documentaries, under many different circumstances and have learned that especially when travel is involved, less is more. The smaller the crew, the more intimate the relationship with our subjects and less of a circus atmosphere. Three is the perfect number. We don’t overwhelm our subjects and become the main event, with three sympathetic witnesses, the focus remains on them.
With three comes another possibility, that of traveling in one vehicle (leaving room for our gear.) Adding another vehicle adds so much more confusion and communication issues. A number of worthy people offered to come and work with us for free as we told friends about the project, but right from the start we had to say no as a larger crew would add headaches in every area.
So, who would be the lucky third member of our team? Only one person came to mind, and that was Michel. We knew that we wanted to be able to speak with refugees in their native tongue and for Syrians and Iraqis, that is Arabic. Michel’s experience of living in Lebanon and teaching in Arabic as well as his years as a journalist specializing in the Middle East made him the obvious choice.
Long before I met Michel 30 years ago, I had heard of him. A young lady I was seeing back in the 70s kept telling me about her REAL boyfriend, this larger than life guy named Michel, who was living in Greece and Lebanon. When I finally met him and in the years since, he has certainly lived up to the hype. Capable in so many areas, even-tempered and eternally curious, he has been a pleasure to be with evevry moment. His day job for years has been as an IT specialist and computer consultant. If you like the functionality and layout of the blog, as well as some of its content, all glory goes to him. He spent hours wrangling it into the shape it is in.
It goes without saying that his contributions in terms of understanding of the culture of the refugees have been invaluable.
Back in the states, I had substantial pre-production support from Alan Barker and Scott B in terms of getting the most out of our primary cameras. Johhny Ahdout was very generous in guiding me in the VR world. Simon Fanthorpe graciously lent us a camera as our B camera and Alex Naufel lent us a GoPro.
To all, thank you for making this such a wonderful experience!
Evia is Greece’s second largest island, after Crete. Because it lies just east of the Greek mainland, many people don’t even realize that it’s an island. After filming in Thermopyles, our next destination was Hotel Rovies, on Evia.
We left Athens in the afternoon, driving 150km north on the main highway to Arkitsa to take the 45-minute ferry that crosses Evoiko bay to the harbor at Aidipso. From there, Rovies is a 20 minute drive. Waiting for the ferry, a rainstorm broke out, proving my decision to use this way instead of the winding mountainous road through Evia.
When we arrived at Hotel Rovies at ten o’clock at night, we were welcomed by Andrea and Antoni. I was happy to meet Andrea Vasiliou again, the owner of the hotel who responded to a call by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, for Greek hotels to host refugees as part of an accommodation program funded by the European Commission.
Hotel Rovies is a special place. It’s in the village of Rovies, a seaside resort with a population of about 1000 during the winter.
Andreas’ hotel has become a temporary home for asylum-seekers, largely from Syria, about half of whom are children who make noise all the time. The racket is a sign that these kids feel safe and happy.
Vasiliou and his staff, along with Antoni Grigorako and his team of 10 locals that are hired by SolidarityNow, a Greek NGO, help the refugees to rest on their long journey in a safe and friendly environment. Andreas and Antonis both live in the hotel and they are available on a 24 hour basis, creating a collective environment where refugees can eat, work and live all together – and learn from each other.
Most refugees staying here are among those who may eventually find new homes elsewhere in Europe under the reunification and relocation program. Two groups have already left and the ones remaining wait for their departure, as the accommodation program in hotels is about to end and the UNHCR is oriented towards renting apartments. However, not all have permission to leave Greece and I wonder what will happen to them.
In the morning, Manar, a Syrian refugee herself, has created three classes teaching English to the little ones in the reception hall. Children attend classes in German, English and French, taught by the Solidarity Now teachers in a nearby shop that has been turned into a classroom. On my initial research into this place I found some reports of big opposition by the locals to the presence of the refugees. Whatever the case, it seems resistance was smoothed out when the refugee children cleaned the 1 kilometer of beach in front of the village, along with creating mural paintings on the wall of the local school and other activities.
We spent four days at Hotel Rovies, getting to know the residents and the staff, and letting them get to know us.
We met Salam, a 10 year old girl, who takes care of her 25 year old blind brother and her 23 year old developmentally disabled sister, on their long journey to reunite with their mother in Sweden.
Manar and Andreas discuss Salam’s papers from Bill Megalos on Vimeo.
Malak is Syrian Kurd who fled his home with his wife and his six children. A non-citizen in Syria due to his Kurdish origins, he was “offered” an ID in return for joining the Syrian Army and Assad’s war against the rebels. He refused, which meant almost certain retribution, making it impossible for him and his family to stay in Syria. He is a handyman who, in the course of a difficult life has acquired many skills, and works every day in various jobs in the hotel and the village. On several occasions he baked delicious Middle Eastern pastries.
Manar and her family were rejected for asylum by France and she and her husband and their three children are now stuck in Greece, probably for good. According to the refugees, when somebody is rejected by any country they no longer have the right to apply to another country and are dropped from the asylum program. They then are officially blocked in Greece and normally have to move to a refugee camp. In talking to the refugees, we realized that we need to explore and better understand the details of these procedures, which we will be doing now that we are back in Athens. In the case of Manar’s family, Andreas stepped in and helped them find work and housed them. Manar is working as a translator and teacher for SolidarityNow and her husband works as a doctor, while their children attend the village public school. Amazingly, the children already speak fluent Greek. In some ways, their story is a success story, despite the upheaval, the danger and the disappointments, and in our interview with her Manar spoke eloquently about the importance of acceptance.
On our last day in Rovies we met two brothers, Khalid, 19 years old and Ali, who is 17 years old. Their family is scattered in four countries. The father is still in Syria, due to age and infirmity, while their mother and a younger sibling are stuck in a Turkish refugee camp because the family didn’t have enough money to pay smugglers for all of them to pass. At the other end, in Germany they have an older brother and an uncle, and the plan was to reunite the family in Germany. However, Ali, the younger one, was rejected by Germany, and Khalid won’t leave without him, so they are now faced with the possibility of never being reunited with any of the rest of their family. They spoke to us in their humble room as the light was fading, Khalid recounting their story in a soft shy voice, made the Arabic sound like a prayer.
Later we played clips from our Rovies footage on the TV in the reception hall, including footage of the refugee women cooking their traditional meals in the bustling collective kitchen and it was a big success.
There is a saying that if the head of a fish stinks, the entire fish stinks. The other side applies, as well. The goodness that exists in Rovies begins with Andrea.
Andreas from Bill Megalos on Vimeo.
We returned to City Plaza for a few hours shooting. Here are some scenes from the kitchen.
After that, we went for an in-depth interview with George Moschos, Greek Ombudsman for Children’s Rights. He was one of the first people Zaphiris contacted at the beginning of the project and we had been looking forward to meeting with him.
He proved to be all we had hoped for and more. We discussed the special needs of unaccompanied minors, the responsibilities of the state towards children and how his office independently reviews the conditions and measures taken and advocates for the rights of all children, Greek and refugees. He will be featured prominently in the final film. In this short clip you can see what a warm and caring advocate he is.
In the next few days we will see him in action as he visits refugee facilities.
Right after our interview, we left for Rovies in Northern Evia where in our contact with many people, we gained a broader and deeper understanding of our endeavor.
It was a pleasure to return to Thermopyles after my initial scout, this time for four days of shooting.
In 2016, when there was a mad rush to the northern border as it was closing, Giorgos Palamiotis, a journalist, managed to set up the Thermopyles camp in 48 hours, with the approval of the prefecture of Central Greece.
Aris, co-adminstrator with Giorgo of the camp gave us an interview. Aris thought he had seen in a lot in his life, but he admitted he learned a lot more being at Thermopyles: primarily that the refugees are people just like us who since leaving their homes are carrying their own painful stories. He also told us how the local community embraced the refugees the first six months, before the international aid came in.
Aris is grateful to be able to help in what he considers a historical moment and takes pleasure in the thought that some day one of the children might return to visit and think of him and the others working there. He especially remembers Patata, who always asked for potato chips, who became the camp mascot and has sent him a photo and voice message from Finland, s’agapo poli, I love you. He will also never forget when one family, mourning a death back home, invited him to take part in their memorial.
Natasha, a civil engineer who was out of work because of the Greek financial crisis, was asked to supervise the restoration of the two abandoned buildings and decided to stay there after she finished her job. Among her many tasks is to ensure the children make it on to the buses that take them to school. On their first day of school she followed them into class to help them overcome their fears.
It is the humanity that these people show in their daily work that impressed me the most, that even when they yell, as Greeks do often, they do it with love.The refugees we talked with had only good words to say about them.
Kosta Bakoyanni, the head of the region of central Greece in our interview with him explained that Greeks are familiar with immigration as nearly every family has members abroad or their grandparents were refugees themselves.
In the sulfur hot springs that are near by, children were having fun jumping and playing in the water. The locals believe that it’s only safe to stay in for 15 minutes, either because of the chemicals, or the heat. When the kids stay in longer, out of concern, the adults yell at them to get out, but the children don’t leave, as they don’t understand the language and the source of the concern.
Happy Caravan, an NGO from Holland founded by a Syrian who left early in the war and now is a Dutch citizen, has turned the old restaurant into school giving English lessons to 25 scarfed woman who pride themselves for being able to use English in the local market. They also teach men and children.
The most striking moment was meeting Hiyam, who greeted us with a beautifully decorated cake that she had amazingly made in her room. She had been a baker, pastry chef and hairdresser in Iraq when a missile hit her home and killed her husband, brother and parents. Though she was willing to share her story with us, it was very hard emotionally on her and her 17 year-old son Laeth to revisit the past. Hearing her story and seeing their pictures of charred bodies brought home to me the magnitude of pain these people carry.