«The Greek children are growing up in a war zone!»

 

Boštjan Videmšek

 

Two and a half years ago, Doli Sotiropolu, 36, lost her job in a foreign diagnostics company. Doli lives in Athens and is the mother of an eight year old daughter named Nikoleta. Overnight, the young family's life got turned upside down.

The loss of her job came as a severe shock. Doli, after all, had been working at the company for the past eighteen years. Yet after the initial panic – compounded by the fear that her husband, who worked as a technician with a medical-analysis firm, might lose his job as well – she slowly regained her composure. She devoted the sum of her energies to taking care of Nikoleta and finding another job. In the next two years, precisely one job opportunity presented itself to her - a badly paid secretarial post a two-hours' commute from Athens. The pay and the workload at that particular post were so horrendous it wasn't really much of a choice.

So she is still looking.

Every week, her situation grows a little worse. Doli claims she has never been one to complain: "I simply adapted and learned to cope, always working on lowering my expectations." The Sotiropolu family – very fortunate in that it doesn't have any outstanding debts – slowly accustomed itself to a life of extreme frugality. Again, its three members weren't exactly presented with a choice. Doli is well aware of the fact that many of her neighbours and friends are doing far worse. All the time, she keeps telling herself she needs to stay strong and focused, but the fear and the general uncertainty are still often overwhelming.

"The worst time was when my daughter said to me: "Mom, you're fired!" We were playing a game, and she wasn't doing very well at it, and all of a sudden her voice got so rough and commanding... I was absolutely speechless. I didn't know how to react. It was only then that I truly realised my position and what was happening to our country. The crisis has been the hardest on our children. And not only because of the increasing cuts to the family budget. The children are also traumatised on a much deeper psychological level. I believe they are sort of downloading the traumas from their parents. To get some sense of this, you only need to watch them at play," Doli explained. She also described how she keeps trying to tell her daughter (who keeps venting her anger on her mother) that the parents who lost their jobs are worth no less than those who still have them, at least for now.

In spite of Greece's staggering unemployment statistics, losing one's job is still often a cause for severe stigmatisation. "When I started taking Nikoleta to her school and to the playground, I soon figured out what was going on. In almost any game or sport, the loser gets yelled at: "You're fired!" This is now the ultimate insult, which has become an important part of our children's slang. In a sense, the children now never stop playing bosses and underlings, those who have the power to fire and those who get fired. It's just one of the little clues that tell us how deeply this crisis has cut into their very being," this unemployed mother went on. But she, for one, was not content to just sit and moan about it. With a number of like-minded people, she formed a help group for those parents who are doing even worse. There is certainly no shortage of those around. Many children now come to school hungry or severely ill; many families have had their electricity, water and/or heating turned off.

Here in Greece, destitution is still on the march. According to an official statistic, a third of the entire population is living on its edges, but unfortunately, we are talking about some very blurred edges. In modern Greece, few things are as relative as poverty.

"It is worst in those families where both parents have lost their jobs. I know of seven such cases. We do what we can to help - especially to help the children. Each month, we collect food, clothes and even a little money. This is the only way for the community to survive. But I repeat: my greatest fear is the damage all this has already caused our children," Doli Sotiropolu sighed in summation.

 

Not An Orphanage!

A few hundred meters from the giant port in Piraeus - Greece's largest economic window to the world, long taken over by a Chinese-Qatari corporation - stands an ancient orphanage. It is more than two hundred years old. The humungous white building, which belongs to the Hacikiriakio foundation, enjoys special legal status as a monument.

In the middle of a typical Mediterranean afternoon, the fierce sun was beating down on its aristocratic white walls. The legendary orphanage may be deserted, but that doesn't mean that its surrounding area isn't ringing with children's laughter. Following the earthquake of 1999, the Hacikiriakio foundation used the building's courtyard to set up a special asylum for children - "An asylum, not an orphanage!" the centre's managing director Anastasia Katsilieri is quick to point out since the structure's special legal status prevents it from being rebuilt and reopened as an orphanage.

The asylum provides care for some of the children whose parents had fallen on exceptionally hard times. But in the courtyard, one can only see girls aged from six to eighteen - mostly girls from Greece, but also some Roma and African girls and one hailing from Albania. Roughly a third of these girls are refugees and immigrants. Many of them have been left behind by their parents, who decided to brave their way deeper into Europe seeking a life worth living. The only thing these poor girls can still cling to is their parents' promise they would send for them 'soon'.

The girls seemed exceptionally quiet as they played. They also seemed heartwrenchingly composed and disciplined. They didn't show much interest for what went on outside their immediate circle of play.

"Our foundation's statute is two hundred years old and very strict," Mrs. Katsilieri explained: "In all this time, it hasn't changed a bit, and our job is to stick to it as closely as possible. That is why we can only accept girls between the ages of six and ten. Those we accept can stay with us until they turn eighteen. We may only accept them if they are in perfect health - both physically and psychologically." To compound my bafflement, Mrs. Katsilieri added that the parents may come and take their children home for the weekends. "These girls," added a social worker named Leta Driva: "they're all attending school. We provide them with food, a bed and some much-needed psychological care."

The asylum came into being long before the economic collapse which has transformed Greece into a third-world country. But at no time have its services been in such demand as right now. "It used to be we mostly took in the children from the bottom," Leta Driva told me: "This meant we mostly dealt with children who were pretty used to poverty and all it brings. Now things are different. We get more and more children from what used to be the middle class, which has been hit hardest by the crisis. These kids... Well, they're just not used to the hardship and the deprivation, so let's just say it is getting to be quite an ordeal for us social workers, too. Indeed, in the recent past the social map of poverty in Greece has been given a savage shake - just like our entire society, I suppose."

The Hacikiriakio foundation is a private institution. Its aim is to keep helping its protégées even after they reach maturity. In the last few years, it helped many of them to enlist in colleges - both in Greece and abroad.

Yet not everything in the process is that simple. Since many of the children are referred here by the court or the social services, their destitute parents are often stripped of much say in the matter. Does this mean that the foundation also strips these people, caught in a negative spiral of debt and unemployment, of their right to bring up their children in accordance with their wishes and basic beliefs? "Look here," Mrs. Katsilieri was quick to protest: "We are very much against the sort of separation you're talking about. We make every effort to include the parents, to include the entire family! It would be much too traumatic for these poor children if they couldn't spent a great deal of time with their parents. We do what we can to help. We feel it is absolutely crucial that they go to school and that they feel included in the social life here."

The managing director admitted there were problems. Many of the changes over the past few years haven't been for the good. The centre's three social workers - and a single psychologist - are more overworked than ever. It is a rare day when all of them spend less than ten hours at their post. They are working more and earning less: for them as well the pressures of the 'new economy' are getting hard to bear.

 

The Fallen Myth

"Poverty is on the rise, worse than it's ever been. But it is still not being discussed openly - at least not nearly as much as it should be! There is still a huge stigma attached to being poor. This is especially true of the middle-class children. They need lots and lots of special attention. At school, it is still impossible for most of them to admit they're living with us, away from their parents. You know what? It is a heavy, traumatic mess. In these last few years, we started forging ties with the teachers at the local schools our wards are enrolled in. We try to ease the transition for them, but the first few years are always rough. Then they slowly start to cheer up, since I can promise you that over here they get to live in a positive environment. And most of them can take comfort from the fact that their parents are always somewhere close by. It is often more of a shock for the parents than for the girls. But what can they do? The welfare system all over the country is falling apart. And we're not only talking about the health and the schooling system! There is trouble everywhere you look. The state opted to transfer its social responsibilities to the family and to the humanitarian organisations. It is a huge, huge burden, and I don't think we can hold out much longer," Mrs. Katsilieri concluded our conversation before joining her girls for lunch. "Our work here is taking place at the front-line of a horrendous social upheaval. Every day we are facing the consequences of severe and deep-seated traumatisation, both of the children and of the parents. But I repeat, we are not an orphanage. We are more of a social asylum."

Over the past few years, the government officials have had much to say on the invaluable role of 'the traditional Greek family'. It is this structure that is now supposed to mend the holes caused by the erosion of the welfare state and the general helter-skelter plunge into poverty. Grandparents are supposed to take care of their grandchildren. Uncles are supposed to take care of their nieces. Ever greater social contributions are expected from relatives abroad.

But in the opinion of Katerina Poutou, the managing director of the non-governmental organisation Arsis, this is mere empty rhetoric. "It is a false myth, exploited by politicians so they can transfer their responsibilities onto the family unit. We've done several surveys, and the statistics are painfully clear. Over the past twenty years, the 'traditional Greek family' has lost the greater part of its function as a social corrective. What with their low pensions, the grandparents can barely cope themselves. If anything, it is they who need aid, not the other way around!"

At the Arsis headquarters, Katerina, who has been in the business of social relief for the past thirty-two years, told me things had never been worse. Especially for the children. "Currently, all social and human rights are being redefined. Every standard you can think of has plummeted. It is all happening frightfully fast and has taken the greatest toll on the young. The children are absorbing an unprecedented number of negative messages. Domestic violence is on the rise, as is the general level of violence in our society. Many children are coming to school hungry. The social differences have widened drastically. In this sort of conditions, it is extremely hard to forge a stable identity. The schools are growing more and more understaffed, and those teachers who get to remain are paid less and less. This is awful news for the future of Greece. We are producing a generation of children whose values will be irreparably alien to ours. Make no mistake: we are talking about children who are growing up in a war zone, so to speak."

These sentiments were echoed by Stergios Sifinos, the managing director of the Greek branch of the global humanitarian organization SOS Villages. Its aim is to provide relief for poverty-stricken families, especially for the children. In Greece, this organisation now has outposts in almost every major city.

"The crisis has struck in earnest in the middle of 2011. Since then, everything has been going rapidly downhill. There isn't a single indication things are looking up. On the contrary, the social problems are getting worse. At one of our regional centres on the island of Crete, we used to provide material relief for 80 destitute families. Now this number has grown to 160, which has stretched our resources to the limit... But the need for aid is ever so much greater than that, and it is constantly on the rise. Athens, of course, has had the worst of it - in part because of the immense number of immigrants living there in appalling conditions."

I met Mr. Sifinos in the modern-looking headquarters of his organisation's regional headquarters in Athens. In recent times, he has gained a certain amount of notoriety in Greek society because of some of his uncompromising public statements. These days, he told me, he prefers to hold back. He was quick to learn that the Greek politicians and their servants in the media are very happy to latch on to some nuance in such statements and exploit it for their own promotion. But he is adamant in insisting that the crisis' most dire consequences have been caused by political decisions. The politicians are to blame for the devastation wreaked by the austerity memorandums. The politicians are to blame for following the siren song of the international financial institutions. It was the politicians who decided to dismantle the welfare state. It was, ultimately, the politicians who forced the country into becoming a part of the third world.

"Never have we had so many people needing help, and never have we had so few who can provide it. The social services are badly underfunded. The entire welfare network has collapsed. The Greek family has been weakened as well. The poverty has been eroding our population's well-being on so many levels. We are now at the stage where some parents are pulling their children out of schools because they can no longer afford the cost of transport, school meals, books and clothes. There is immense danger that these children will be lost to drugs and crime. They have no one to protect them. It is a jungle out there. We're bringing up a generation whose defining trait will be anger and frustration," I was told by the managing director of SOS Villages, an organisation which is required to pay taxes on the relief it provides.

According to Greek law, aid can only be given to those who ask for it. But this is not always an easy thing to do. "The people here are proud. Poverty is still something of a taboo. It is incredibly hard for many parents to admit to their children that they are poor. When people lose their job, they know it will be next to impossible to find another one. Almost a third of those who come to see us are single mothers, and many of them are extremely young. Many parents need time to adjust to the horror of their new situation, and as for us... Well, we are preparing for things only getting worse."

 

The Three Waves

During the first wave of the crisis, the Greek society has seen a steep increase in the level of domestic violence. The instinctive response to the escalating social devastation has been aggression. The second wave brought depression - a debilitating medical condition claiming entire families. The third wave, the effects of which we are observing today, is all about apathy. On every step, one can see people simply giving up. They are coming to define both their personal situation and the situation of the entire society as defeat or even fate. Thus silence is becoming their only response. Silence, and a huge rise in suicides.

But this is far from the worst of it. As always, the crisis has also become a breeding ground for vultures of the worst kind. There is as of yet no official statistic, but numerous anonymous sources from all walks of life have confirmed to me that, in the past few years, human trafficking has become a booming industry. The international markets have been developing quite a taste for Greece-born children. Over here, this surge in human trafficking has long become an open secret.

A valuable insight into the state of things has been provided last autumn, when the Greek police, raiding a Roma settlement in central Greece, found a blonde-haired little girl whose real parents, it turned out, were Bulgarian. The parents claimed they got rid of little Maria because they could no longer care for her, and they wanted to give her to someone who could. Of course, no one believed that their little girl was simply a gift. Over here, the people know all too well how the Greek trafficking system has come to operate.

"The poverty-stricken families are getting cut off from the rule of law. They are unable to afford a lawyer. There is nowhere for them to turn to. In such cases, some parents have already decided to sell their children. Horrible things are happening," claims Andreas Qupis. Mr. Qupis is a specialist for family law who has been representing destitute Greek families in court for the past thirty years. At first, he was reluctant to tackle the subject of human trafficking - "Some things," he was quick to let on: "are hard to prove." But I was slowly able to convince him to tell me more.

"Our problems are immense. After the divorce, the court determines the amount of alimony which has to be paid - but so many parents prove unable to pay it, and there are hardly any mechanisms in place to make sure they do. The court decisions often have no practical weight, and the state has chosen to simply ignore the entire field. There is no law worthy of the name to protect the interests of children from poor families. The tensions are growing worse, and the children are being subjected to ever increasing psychological pressure. There are many children whom their parents have simply renounced; many have been forcefully taken away by the social services. This is our ultimate defeat as a society. And it is only growing worse."

According to Mr. Qupis, Greece as a whole has faced the crisis absolutely unprepared. Hardly anyone in the country has been taking the long-term view. Since no defences and safeguards have been put into place during the 'boom' times, the present bust resulted in a festering cesspit. Among many other things, the crisis washed up a number of social anomalies and pathologies that had since become commonplace, a perfectly acceptable part of everyday life.

What exactly do you mean, I asked Mr. Qupis. "Well," he replied:"for start, the fact that many parents are selling off their children abroad. Not putting them up for adoption, you see, but selling them off. We are talking full-blown illegal trafficking here, the exact sort of thriving industry so typical of third-world countries and other societies in the grip of profound systemic shock."

 

A Simple Business Transaction

Qupis was just one of many sources confirming the existence of a growing market for such trafficking. "This is how things work," I was told by one high-placed contact who preferred to remain anonymous: "A young girl, a student, maybe, or one of the unemployed, comes to a doctor who has been 'recommended' to her by someone. She tells him she had accidentally become pregnant and that she wants an abortion, since she is hardly in a position to become a mother. The doctors listens to her carefully and then suggests an alternative. The girls is offered to bring the pregnancy to full term in exchange for some money and free medical care. Many of the girls consent. The newborn babies are then immediately sold on the black market. The entire process - which includes doctors, lawyers and various intermediaries - is governed by the rule of omertà, the code of silence. By now, a well-oiled machine has been put into place, and everybody is paid their cut. There is even such a thing as an unofficial price list. At the moment, a Greek baby is worth somewhere around 10 000 euros. A Roma or an immigrant baby is worth between 1000 and 2000. The market - most of it is located within the bounds of the European Union - has its own rules and demands. It is a system within a system. No one sees the process as child-theft. It is simply... business."

According to our anonymous source, some agents of this sordid system have lately tried to increase the supply by trying to include the local orphanages. So far, they have met with very limited success, but the orphanages, too, have been put under mounting economic pressure. More and more Greek parents, after all, have been opting to simply leave their babies on the orphanages' steps at night and walking away.

"In the current situation, the parents who make the horrendous choice of selling off their children aren't really to be blamed," Andreas Qupis opined: "For most of them, it is highly probable that, sooner or later, the child would have been taken away from them by the state. By choosing what they choose, at least they get to make a little money. In our country, we have a long and depressing history of trade involving our children. After all, not so long ago the Greek children weren't even required to be registered before the age of five. This led to numerous manipulations, enabling the parents to sell their unwanted children without much of a hassle. Many children were also stolen. Under Greek law, all you needed to get the child a valid birth certificate was the statement of two witnesses. And in our thoroughly corrupt system, the credibility of those witnesses was hardly ever verified. In a few hours, the child was thus given a completely new identity, and there wasn't much its real parents could do. Often, it was a matter of a simple business transaction between two families. After the story of the blonde-haired Maria shocked the European public, things have gotten a little better. The authorities decided to crack down on some of the most blatant offenders. But only after the media got involved."

Dismayed at what I was hearing, I explicitly warned Mr. Qupis he was on the record, that his words would appear in a newspaper... But he just waved me off and said he was talking about things everyone in Greece knew were taking place. "And if they don't know about it, well, then they should! Of course, such things only hit the newsstands when something goes wrong. The trafficking in children is on the rise, and the current economic crisis has given it an enormous boost. What we are facing now is an utter collapse of the state and of its social institutions. I am beginning to wonder... Does the state even want to stop the chaos and impose at least some semblance of an order? I'm afraid too many people are profiting from the way things are. I'm afraid we are only going to see more of these sort of crimes. The children are the real victims. That is something that needs to be pointed out again and again and again. But you know what? I shouldn't be too pessimistic. In these last couple of months, some things have started to turn for the better, however slightly! The courts have started to pay attention. It just may be that the truth will finally come out!"

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  ΧΡΟΝΟΣ 14 (06.2014)