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Greeks struggle to get by despite economic 'recovery'

Joanna Kakissis, Athens
November 26, 2014

Greece's economy has begun outpacing the rest of the eurozone. Even so, with one in four Greeks unemployed, many find the news that the economy is recovering laughable. Joanna Kakissis reports from Athens.

A homeless woman lays on an Athens sidewalk
Image: picture alliance/Robert Geiss

Thanos Kosmidis says he feels like his country is finally turning a corner.

After six years of recession - including four years in an austerity-fueled depression - the Greek economy grew at a faster rate than all eurozone countries, including Germany. The European Commission forecasts the Greek economy to grow by 2.9 percent next year.

"We have been at the bottom for such a long time, I feel like it's time we finally got better," says Kosmidis, a 35-year-old entrepreneur who launched CareAcross, a start-up focusing on informing and supporting cancer patients, last year. "As someone starting a business in a time like this, I have to be optimistic and focus on what change I can effect, rather than waiting for changes to come from the outside."

The number of startups in Greece has gone up nine-fold since 2010, according to data from Endeavor Greece, an organization that supports entrepreneurs. But overall, the picture for Greece remains grim: The unemployment rate dropped, but it is still at more than 25 percent, which translates into nearly 1.3 million unemployed Greeks.

More than 70 percent of those Greeks have been out of work for more than a year. The number of Greeks at risk of poverty has more than doubled in the last five years - from about 20 percent in 2008 to 44 percent in 2013, according to a report by the International Labor Organization.

"The strategy so far, while it has helped restore public finances, has not achieved the expected results in terms of sustainable economic and employment recovery," said Raymond Torres, the ILO's research director, in a press release.

Eleni Triadi, a 48-year-old mother of two sons in college, knows exactly what Torres means. She lost her job as a school guard a year and a half ago, as part of public sector reforms ordered by Greece's lenders. Her husband, who works at a retirement home, hasn't been paid in a year-and-a-half. She and some of her fellow former school guards, as well as the cleaning staff laid off by the Finance Ministry last year, have occupied the sidewalk near the ministry in central Athens for the last five-and-a-half months.

"Before I got laid off, I was at least paying the bills," Triadi told DW, as she sat at a table with a few colleagues, warmed by an electric space heater. "Now my elderly parents are paying for my sons to go school. My mother-in-law is sharing her 700-euro-a-month ($870) pension with us so we can buy groceries."

Eleni Triadi, Yiannis Goulis and Yiannis Karargyris
School guards Triadi, Goulis and Karargyris were laid off because of public sector reforms demanded by Greece's lendersImage: DW/J. Kakissis

"When we hear about recovery, we laugh," says Stavros Nikolaou, another former school guard. He's 42 and struggling to support his three-year-old son and unemployed wife on 350-euro-a-month unemployment benefits.

Loss of faith

There's also impatience with the fragile governing coalition that has run Greece since two nail-biting elections in 2012. Most Greeks believe that that its political class continues to squeeze pensioners, working families and even the unemployed for cash to pay creditors, while letting the well-connected and wealthy off the hook.

"In this crisis, the rich have gotten richer, the poor have gotten poorer, and the middle class has been destroyed," Nikolaou says.

This loss of faith in the political parties who have run Greece for four decades - the conservative New Democracy party and the now-shriveled center-left PASOK - has propelled the rise of the leftist, anti-austerity Syriza party, led by 40-year-old Alexis Tsipras. Public opinion polls show Syriza in a firm lead over New Democracy, the party of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, and there are signs that snap elections could be held as early as next year.

Protest signs from the school guards
The school guards, and others who were layed off, have occupied a sidewalk outside the Finance Ministry in AthensImage: DW/J. Kakissis

Kosmidis, the entrepreneur, says he worries that early elections will hurt, rather than help, the country. "We are still feeling the tremors of the earthquake of the debt crisis," he says. "Stability is missing, and we can't get stability by having another round of inconclusive elections."

'Lack of humanity in politics'

In the meantime, many Greeks are looking to local politicians, many of whom are not formally aligned with a political party, for help. Consider the Andravida-Kyllini municipality in the Peloponnese. The area elected Greece's first immigrant mayor, a Syrian-born physician named Nabil Morant, earlier this year in part because Morant promised to bring jobs to the depressed region.

"We have so many people, especially young people, who cannot find work," Morant said in a recent interview in Lehaina, the small town where he lives. "So we are looking into investments that would bring create more jobs in tourism and agriculture, our two main industries here. Even short-term job contracts would be helpful until we can create something long-term and more stable."

Nabil Morant
Morant became Greece's first immigrant mayor in part by promising to bring jobs to his depressed regionImage: DW/J. Kakissis

Tzeni Kekatou, a teacher in Lehaina, says Greeks need to know that their politicians are actually making an effort to take care of their citizens, rather than just the institutions who have lent Greece billions in bailout loans.

"Most politicians don't offer any specific solutions to our very real problems," she said. "We have to pay our bills and feed our families. We can't do that if our salaries keep getting cut to nothing, and our taxes keep tripling. There is a lack of humanity in politics these days."

Morant, a native of Homs, moved to Greece 25 years ago, after studying medicine in Bulgaria and Belgium and marrying a Greek, who is also a physician. "It was a promising country back then," he says.

That's not how his fellow Syrians feel today. Fleeing war, they have been arriving by the thousands to Greece from Turkey on overcrowded smugglers' boats. Since November 19, at least 200 Syrian refugees have held a sit-in protest on Syntagma Square, where numerous anti-austerity protests have been held since 2010.

A 29-year-old former contractor, Abu Odai, who uses a nickname to protect his family in Damascus, says he organized the protest in part to force the Greek government to provide shelter, food and social welfare to refugees.

"But the Greek government said they could not do it," said Abu Odai, bundled up in a wool coat and scarf as night chilled the protesters, who huddled in the square, sleeping on blankets and sleeping bags. "They said Greece is poor and cannot help its own people."

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