PUBLISHED: 17:32 EST, 11 May 2012 | UPDATED: 07:55 EST, 12 May 2012
The economic crisis across Europe has perhaps been most keenly felt in Greece, where people have taken to the streets in violent and emotional protests against the austeriy measures imposed on the nation.
In this heartbreaking dispatch from the streets of Athens, SUE REID finds mothers who have been forced to sell their own children in the battle for survival.
Once a month, usually on a Saturday, Kasiani Papadopoulou packs a bag with children’s presents and takes the bus from her one-bedroom flat in a dusty suburb of Athens up into the cool hills outside the Greek capital that overlook the sea.
The 20-mile journey is an emotional one for her, but she would not stop making it for anything in the world.
A young widow of 30, she travels to see her two daughters and son — aged 14, 13 and 12. Kasiani was forced to give them away a year ago when her money ran out and she was unable to pay for their food, her rent or send them to school with shoes or books.
At the charity home where the three are now cared for, the children excitedly shout ‘Mama’ as they run down the steps to greet her. Her eldest daughter, Ianthe, hugs her tightly and gives her a kiss.
When, a few hours later, it is time to say goodbye, Kasiani is always close to tears. The youngest, Melissa and Markos, cling to her before she leaves to go home alone.
‘It is not easy for a mother to leave her kids,’ she says to me, her voice cracking with emotion when I spoke to her this week in Athens.
‘At Christmas, at Easter, on their birthdays, I am always so sad because I do not see them. Some people judge me over what I’ve done — even my own family and neighbours — but they do not understand the truth. I’ve done what is best for my children.
‘I cannot count the number of doorbells I have rung of government departments, asking officials to help me and my family. They make promises but do nothing. They have no money either. Our country is in crisis.’
Kasiani’s children were born in a country which has been brought to its knees by crushing debt. This was built up by Greece’s huge profligacy after joining the European Union and then milking the system for everything it could get.
The public sector wage bill doubled in the past decade as perks and fiddles reminiscent of Britain in the union controlled 1970s flourished. Paying taxes became optional for the middle and upper classes and corruption was rife.
Until two years ago, the big fat Greek gravy train carried on racing towards the buffers. Even pastry chefs and hairdressers were listed among the 600 ‘professions’ allowed to retire at 50 (with a state pension of 95 per cent of their final year’s earnings) on account of the ‘arduous and perilous’ nature of their work.
Now drastic austerity measures imposed by Eurozone finance leaders mean that benefits, state pensions and pay rates have been pared to the bone as taxes are hiked heavenwards in a last ditch attempt to balance the books and stop the country going bankrupt.
For example, the threshold at which personal tax has to be paid has been reduced to £3,000 a year, while Vat has soared to 23 per cent. There is a new annual levy on private property which costs the average homeowner £1,000 a year.
Even charities, including the one running the complex for 55 children where Kasiani Papadopoulou’s three now live, have been forced to hand over some of their donations to the empty Greek state coffers.
The price of such austerity, say many here in Greece, is too high to pay, because whatever tough measures are introduced, they will never cover the massive national debt of £366 billion, even with the help of the two bailout packages worth a combined £184 billion coughed up by other EU countries, including Britain.
A sign of the Greeks’ belligerent refusal to face up to reality is the rise of a grassroots movement called ‘We Won’t Pay’ that encourages the middle classes to break the law by taking public transport without validating their ticket or driving through tolls without paying. ‘We have already paid through our taxes so we should be able to travel for nothing,’ claims Konstantinos Thimianos, a 36-year-old activist protesting on the streets of Athens.
He wears a yellow vest with ‘total disobedience’ emblazoned on his back and, with other activists, chants: ‘We won’t pay for their crisis.’
Such opposition to the austerity measures is growing. In this week’s parliamentary elections, Greeks rejected the moderate parties that support the hard-line policies imposed by the EU.
Already, one in five adults is out of work, a fifth of Greek firms have closed, the standard of living has fallen by 20 per cent in two years, and the country which created the Olympic Games in 700 BC can only afford to send half of its athletic team to compete in the London Games.
In the leafy suburbs of Athens this week, I watched two smartly dressed elderly men rifling through rubbish bins at the side of a busy road.
One, who said his name was Georges, told me that their state pensions had been cut to £220 a month. He said: ‘We are looking for anything we can sell.’
He walked away sheepishly with a dented silver picture frame he had found in the bin.
Meanwhile, Government health spending has been slashed by a third. This means that medical care is no longer free for those who have not paid full national insurance contributions. Half of routine prescription drugs are in short supply.
No wonder that the queues at the Social Mission, a charity clinic set up this year by volunteer doctors and the Archbishop of Athens in the centre of the city, lengthen each day. In three months, 650 uninsured patients, many of them children, have come for treatment.
One regular visitor is Maria Tsivra, 37, a divorcee and mother of a five-year-old girl called Juliana who needs routine vaccinations and fortnightly doctor’s appointments to treat a throat infection.
Maria is the daughter of an Athenian shopkeeper and used to work in a bakery. She comes from a hard-working family but lost her job more than a year ago, as the crisis started, and she took time off to care for her ill daughter.
‘The financial crisis was just an excuse to sack me. The bakery was facing more taxes and had less customers.
‘I was a victim like thousands of others in other jobs,’ she says in a solemn voice.
She and Juliana are staying for free in a friend’s house. She has no national insurance and no money to pay £40 for an appointment with a private doctor. ‘I cannot afford for Juliana to see the doctor or get her medicines. That’s why I’ve come to the Social Mission.’
More dramatically, she says: ‘I need help, but not as much as some who are even selling their children on the streets.’
She tells of a friend, a single mother who lived in a charity shelter with her baby daughter because she had no money and the State would not help.
‘She could not afford to keep her own child and gave her away to a couple who did not have a family of their own.
‘These kinds of things are happening now in Greece. There are many who are suffering and I wonder what the future holds for children of my daughter’s generation.’
The fate of once-booming Greece is changing fast. Soup kitchens are commonplace. The destitute wander the streets.
At three in the afternoon, on the sizzling Wednesday this week, I watched Father John, a 34-year-old priest from the Greek Orthodox Church, presiding over a long queue of Athenians, mixed with African and Arab migrants, in a square off Sophocles’ Street.
They were each waiting for charity workers to give them a bowl of lentils and a piece of bread. This area of Athens was, until a few years ago, a thriving financial sector. It is now home to cheap take-away food stalls and shabby shops offering to buy impoverished Athenian’s gold trinkets and jewellery.
Father John says he has never witnessed such poverty. ‘Only today I was helping a young couple, both 24, who are having their first baby. It is due any time now,’ he explains.
‘They went to the hospital this morning and the doctors said they had to pay a fee for the birth of their child. But they have no money, and can barely pay their rent at a small flat they share with friends.
‘The father used to be a professional footballer, the mother an office clerk. Now they are jobless. The mother suggested to doctors that she had a Caesarean.’
Such operations are considered emergencies (because they are done to save a baby’s life) and are therefore carried out without charge. So their request for a Caesarean was a way of getting round the rules. However, the doctors refused.
‘They said the Caesarean was unnecessary and she should have a normal birth and pay for it herself. They also warned that she would have to leave the hospital in labour if she did not find the cash to pay.
‘She rang our church in horror and distress. We sent money to the hospital so she can have her baby.’
Church charity workers hand out 2,500 free meals a day in central Athens. Among the throng waiting for Father John’s hand-outs last week was Maria Sissmani, a beautifully dressed 82-year-old wearing designer glasses and with tinted hair.
She worked in Germany as a seamstress in the fashion industry for years and her only income is 208 euros (£172) a month, a pension paid by the Government there.
She gets nothing from her native Greece. Yet she counts her blessings. Her father, who ran a carpentry business, left her an office in a building near Sophocles’ Street where she sleeps on a mattress next to the empty desks. ‘I want to rent the office out, but because of the crisis that is difficult.
No one is doing business so no one needs an office. I have nothing, only debts, and the church told me not to be too proud to join the food queue. I do not feel so bad about it, for I am not alone,’ she says with a sad smile as she looks at the Greek men, women and children, hungrily waiting too.
Across the city, a shelter run by a charity called Klimaka provides meals and an occasional bed to the homeless. Many here are middle-aged and middle class like George Barkouris, a former radio producer and computer engineer.
A divorcee, George worked all his life until the Greek troubles began. When he lost his job because of the cutbacks, he soon ran out of money to pay his rent on a flat in Patissia, a middle-class neighbourhood of Athens. He was reluctant to ask his daughter, a doctor, for help.
‘I walked out of the flat with nothing. For the first week I slept in the park on a bench. It was a terrible shock. Like many Greeks, I felt angry, then depressed. I am 60, and need to work for another five years before I qualify for even a small State pension,’ he says.
‘When I plucked up courage and came here for help I got a big surprise. I found doctors, scientists, all the professional classes, were here, too.
‘Now this charity gives me a bed, and in return, I run their website. But there are plenty like me still sleeping in the park. They are called the ‘new homeless’ who once had money, a lifestyle, a career. Now they are ruined.’
Just what will happen next is anyone’s guess. At the SOS Children’s Villages, a worldwide charity with a network of homes and social centres in Greece, which cares for Kasiani Papadopoulou’s three children, they believe things will get worse.
Over the past year, 1,000 Greek families have turned to SOS for help, two-thirds with huge money problems.
The numbers are way up and the families from every walk of life. One toddler attending a nursery school where the fees had always been paid by her mother, was recently abandoned in with a note saying: ‘I will not return to get Anna. I don’t have any money. I can’t bring her up. Sorry.’
It is the sort of case where SOS picks up the pieces. The national director of SOS, George Protopapas, predicts: ‘Next year I fear that more middle class families will fall into poverty here. I think this is just the beginning and we will have many knocks on our door.’
As for widow and mother Kasiani, she prays that one day she will be able to afford to get her children back. Her decorator husband, Angelo, died at the age of 47 of pneumonia — at exactly the same time as Greece’s economic problems began.
She took two jobs to make ends meet, one in the local Town Hall and another in a shop owned by a middle-class family in the town. She was cleaning all hours God sent.
Then the work ran out. Cleaners became a luxury.
‘I had to tell my children that I could not afford to keep them. I buy them those little things that only a mother knows they want. I do my best for them when I see them, although I have next to nothing.
‘But my life has no meaning without my children. I blame the Greek government for the catastrophe that has struck our family.’