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:
It has taken me over a week to write this post, as I was so moved my our time in Rovies. Rovies broke my heart. By that I mean it grew several sizes in sensitivity and empathy. Rovies is a wonderful place, as perfect as could be imagined. It is run by dedicated, smart, compassionate people. It’s a warm and loving environment, set in a small, lovely and welcoming community, sea on one side and mountains behind. And yet, in its very existence, it cannot succeed and cannot truly nourish people. It simply should not exist. It’s just not natural to have a holding place for people. Everyone is in limbo. No one wants to be there, they want to be on to the next step in their lives. Much better than any camp, whether a camp of tents or containers, the hotel is safe and welcoming, with numerous programs and services, yet it is still just a stop along the journey for its tenants.
The refugees who are in Greece at this moment fall into three categories:
1- People who are part of a reunification program. These are refugees who have relatives in other European countries and that is their ticket to a new home. They must apply for acceptance and the process can take up to several years (they can also be refused, there is no guarantee of acceptance.) These refugees have no interest in staying in Greece, in learning the language, even in having their children in school in Greece. Aside from food and medical services, they are only interested in English or German lessons.
2- People who are part of the relocation program. These people have applied for asylum in other European countries. Refugees from conflict areas are essentially the only ones eligible and if you’re not Syrian or Iraqi, you might as well forget it. This leaves out Afghans, Pakistanis, anyone from Africa.
3-Those who do not qualify for either of these categories are forced to take asylum in Greece or are deported. The asylum process takes a long time, as well.
The point I’m trying to make is that Rovies, as wonderful as it is (continue reading) is just a stop on the way for the refugees, a place to rest, a place to heal and to learn some of what they need, but they are they are paralyzed, unable to move back and uncertain about moving forward.
So, what’s so great about Rovies? First of all, Andreas, the owner of the hotel, who had to convince his family to allow the hotel to be filled with refugees, three meals a day and board for 17 euro/day (paid by the UN High Commission for Refugees through a Greek NGO called Solidarity Now that brings in services, like language teachers and administers the camp by hiring locals.) Zaphiris has a clip of Andreas at the end of his post that tells a lot about who he is.
Here Andreas tells why he thinks Rovies has worked as well as it has:
Andreas on Rovies location from Bill Megalos on Vimeo.
I would love to share some of the stories of the refugees whom we met, but it’s been a struggle to translate their Arabic, there just aren’t enough hours in the day, so those clips will have to wait until we are done filming. In the meantime, here is a clip from Manar, the mother in a refugee family who has actually made the transition to living in Greece with her husband and three boys. Her husband is working in Thessaloniki, Greece’s second largest city, she is working as a teacher and translator in the hotel and their boys are enrolled in the Greek school in the village. They were living in the hotel and now have their own home in Rovies. Michel talks about their story in detail in his blog Manar’s Story. You can hear her explain why they left Syria in this clip:
Manar on why they left from Bill Megalos on Vimeo.
You can’t talk about Hotel Rovies without mentioning the children. They are everywhere and they are having fun. Zaphiris mentions that they make a racket. He is being kind. Sometimes the noise is overwhelming and that is because they are comfortable and having fun. I would estimate that there are 50 or more children at the hotel including babies. We often struggled to find a place to interview our subjects because the lobby and the front courtyard (beautifully shaded by a canopy of mulberry trees) we so active and loud. The African saying of it takes a village to raise a child applies to Greece and to the countries where the refugees come from. The children are free to do as they will because everyone is always paying attention, including the hotel staff. Whenever the staff wasn’t elsewhere doing their jobs, they would be in the lobby and courtyard watching and interacting with the children. This clip of Antonis, manager of the hotel for Solidarity Now, the NGO funded by the UNHCR to provide services being greeted at the door by children. With him is Katerina, one of the locally hired teachers (she grew up and lives in Rovies.)
Antonis and Katerina with children from Bill Megalos on Vimeo.
Perhaps the greatest thing about Hotel Rovies is the staff. Every employee goes way beyond the duties of their job, especially in terms of taking care of the children. Throughout the day you see the staff playing with the children, minding them, comforting them and taking care of them as if they were their own. Whenever he’s not cooking in the kitchen below ground, Alexandros the chef is up in the lobby or in the front courtyard with the children, as is Athina, the chambermaid.
Of all the staff, Athina, the maid stood out to me and we did a long interview with her, down in the laundry room. She spoke openly and movingly of her life and how difficult the recent years have been for her, as she struggled to keep her family together in the economic crisis. She is the type of person who has been hit the most by the austerity measures and the lack of opportunity. A former police officer, she has had to scramble to take any job, all below her training and abilities. In order to keep her family in their hometown, where there are few jobs, she has taken seasonal work on faraway islands in hotels. She is grateful for this job that allows her to be home. When you see how hard she works and listening to how difficult her life has been, you realize that this is the life of most mothers throughout the world. She shared some of her thoughts in this clip.
Athina Voulgaropoulou from Bill Megalos on Vimeo.
The saddest thing about Hotel Rovies is that this loving, safe haven might be at the end of its time. The UNHCR is moving away from housing refugees in hotels and transitioning people into apartments. The contract is ending soon and it looks as if it won’t be renewed. The staff will be let go and there will be one less safe place.
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!
After a bit of a regroup on Sunday in Athens, when we finally met Vicky Leontou (a journalist who has opened so many doors for us and is our Associate Producer) at a wonderful dinner at her home, we were back at it on Monday, at Hotel City Plaza. We will be going into much more detail about Hotel City Plaza, one of our primary locations in the coming days, as we continue to film there and speak to more of the residents. This was our second visit, our first one filming there. (Zaphiri had visited a number of times before we arrived.)
We filmed one interview with a 16 year-old Afghan refugee living there, who goes by the name Abbas. Although he gave us his permission to film him, we seeking to get permission from his mother, as he is underage. Once we have that, we will talk more about him and show some video.
We also spoke with several volunteers, here Maria Karagouni, who works in the storeroom where residents can come for food, coffee, pampers, etc. tells us about why she volunteers and what is different about City Plaza.
We filmed in the kitchen as refugees and volunteers (many of whom live at the hotel, along with the refugees) prepared meals. We also filmed at lunchtime the following day and to say that it was lively is a great understatement. We are hoping to post videos of the common spaces, but are still in discussion with everyone at City Plaza as to what they are comfortable for us to show. Many residents are in legal limbo, they also have fears about retributions to their families back home. We are walking a fine line to show their lives while still protecting them.
As moving as our first day’s shoot was at Tavros, it was just a foreshadowing of the amazing time we spent in Thermopyles, our first camp visit. Thermopyles is outside the city of Lamia, several hours north of Athens. It was well known as a hot spring resort, but had fallen into disrepair several years back and had been shut down. When the crisis hit, the borders were closed and it was clear that many refugees would be staying in Greece for longer periods. Journalist Yiorgos Palamiotis proposed that it be turned into a camp and within 48 hours, Yiorgos Bakoyiannis, head of the local prefecture had approved it and refugees were headed there. Here is a clip from our interview with Mr. Bakoyannis where he describes the local response to the influx of refugees.
I have visited refugee camps in many countries and this is the first one I would ever have wanted to stay in. The natural setting is stunning, under an almost mystical mountain. It’s very easy to imagine the Spartans there in their immortal battle against the forces of Xerxes. The camp itself is filled with pine trees and it’s green and cool, a healing environment. Beyond that there are no fences anywhere! Here, Aris Sohos, co-administrator of the camp, tells how it is different from other camps.
Our time at Thermopyles brought home for me yet again a basic rule of documentary filmmaking and journalism in general: Don’t rush and don’t push too hard. Take your time to get to know people and to let them find their comfort with you. No matter how ambitious your schedule or how pressed for time you might be, just to rush in with your cameras and start shooting will only alienate people. Fortunately, Zaphiri had been to the camp on a scouting trip and spent time to get to know most of the staff, so there was already trust there. As the days went on, more and more refugees came up to us to tell their stories.
Here are short clips from two of our people, Saddam and Omar, both from Syria.
The last morning we were in Thermopyles, I managed to spend an hour alone, as the camp was sleeping. With so much time on their hands and no work outside their contributions to keeping the camp clean and to cooking and cleaning their own rooms, the refugees tend to stay up late and sleep late. At the entrance to the camp is an abandoned and derelict gas station and snack bar.
Built in the early sixties, it took me back to my first trip to Greece with my family, when I was 9 years old. How alien and wonderful Greece and Europe was to me then, how many times I’ve visited it since and the people I’ve known. Standing under that timeless mountain, breathing the gentle pines, thinking of the ancient Greeks, and how time moves on, reflecting on the loss the refugees have suffered in our time, I was very much in the present moment while feeling history rolling out before me. I felt my small but true place in this human unfolding.
Tavros is a working-class neighborhood of Athens that is home to many immigrants from different countries for the past twenty years. It was a natural choice for a school immersion program for refugee children living in the nearby Eleona camp. The program runs every afternoon after the Greek students finish their school day. Refugee children are bussed in from the camp to spend a year learning the Greek language to prepare them for mainstream schooling next year. For many of these children, it is their first school experience and love and hugs are the largest component of the program for these often traumatized children.
The principal is the wonderful Dimitris Fileles, who has been at Tavro for thirty years, most of them as a teacher. We interviewed him as well as a parent volunteer, Geli Vlahopoulou, who had been one of his students years ago. She told us of the efforts the local community has undertaken to make the children feel welcome. We spent time in several classrooms, as well as filming interviews with two teachers, the warm and remarkable Vanessa Livani and Adriana Gkota. We also watched Teti Nikopoulou, a dancer, lead the students in gymnastics.
A week before our shoot, Mr. Fileles sent permission forms home with the students and we filmed those students whose parents returned signed forms. Because we did’t want to take them from their classes, we did not interview any of the students. We are looking forward to our next shoot, when we will talk with refugees, as well as the Greeks who are working with them
We were moved by the special comfort given to all the children by the entire staff of the school.