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Begging for bread: A Greek family under austerity

Like 20 percent of Greeks, Iliodoros and Ioanna Filios cannot find work in the country’s austerity-ravaged economy.

Originally appeared on Al jazeera

Piraeus, Greece – When Iliodoros Filios first ventured to a soup kitchen in 2012, he was consumed with shame. He waited idly outside while his wife and children went in to gather their portions.

With time, he says, their needs eclipsed grief. Within a year, the 52-year-old jobless painter was making the rounds each evening at bakeries, begging for stale leftovers: meat pies, pastries and an occasional loaf of bread.

Later, Filios and his 48-year-old wife, Ioanna, found help in vegetable markets, where they were able to get a handful of tomatoes, onions and cucumbers twice a week.

Without these handouts, the family wouldn’t be able to bear the crushing weight of Greece’s austerity-ravaged economy.

“Lately, they say they don’t have any more to give,” Ioanna explains. “They say they already gave to the orphanage or the church. But the rubbish cans are full of food at the end of the day.”

With two daughters, the couple struggles to make ends meet each month on a 466-euro welfare cheque.

The family’s hardships are common. They were among the 20 percent of Greeks who were without work in December.

Although joblessness is down from the nearly 28 percent it hit in 2014, it still towers over the EU’s 8.7 percent unemployment recorded by Eurostat at the end of last year.

‘Only enough for the basics’

Inside their two-bedroom flat, where a local church organisation has set them up, books, suitcases and stuffed animals cramp the living room.

A photo of the Last Supper, which depicts a host of robed disciples flanking Jesus Christ at a long dinner table, is fastened on the wall.

After they received a larger welfare cheque for the holiday season, Filios bought a small plastic Christmas tree. Weeks later, the multi-coloured lights still blink in the living room corner as he speaks.

Christina, his 15-year-old daughter, sits on a small wooden box next to her father and listens, an austere expression on her face.

Wrapped in blankets, she rubs her gloved hands on her legs. They cannot afford heating, even in winter.

“We’ve never even turned on that heater,” says Ioanna, pointing to an electricity-powered radiator.

While the church pays their rent, the family is responsible for utilities, food and other expenses.

“We only have enough money for the basics,” says Filios.

They could not survive on welfare cheques alone, without the help of friends, neighbours and the church, he explains.

‘The structure is still falling’

For the Filios family, promises of politicians and policymakers ring hollow.

In January 2015, Syriza, a left-wing party, came to power after vowing to support the downtrodden and poor. Yet, with Greece teetering under the weight of debt, austerity only deepened.

Over the last three years, the once defiant leftist government has largely accepted creditors’ demands, including budget cuts and economic reforms.

The initially fierce disputes with Germany, which has overseen Greece’s bailout, have given way to quiet acquiescence in Athens.

Crisis has led to turbulence on the streets, with strikes, protests and riots taking place to resist austerity.

In January, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras addressed the Hellenic Parliament after legislators approved new austerity measures.

Outside, tens of thousands protested. Just days before the 1,500-page bill was passed, riot police fired tear gas at angry demonstrators in Athens, the capital.

He proclaimed that Greece was “a breath away from the end of the programme”, adding: “This gives hope and courage to millions of our citizens, who all these years have made large sacrifices and now finally see light and a way out.”

Filios says he has yet to catch a glimpse of that light.

“Despite the fact that Tsipras has almost destroyed the country, the government has helped people in need,” he argues, “but the structure is still falling.”

Against this backdrop, his days are dotted with what feel like pointless job applications and cold calls.

When he tells potential employers his age, they respond that the vacancies have been filled.

He is far from alone.

More than half of Greeks endured financial hardship in December 2017, according to a study published by the University of Macedonia in Thessaloniki.

That study found that less than seven percent of the respondents had experienced “no financial problems” that month.

Giorgos Kiritsis, a parliamentarian and Syriza member, defended the austerity measures, such as home auctions.

“It was crucial for keeping the banks afloat,” he tells Al Jazeera, insisting that the government has done its best to protect workers and the poor.

Meanwhile, frustration over the government’s policies has come from across the political spectrum.

From the right, parties such as New Democracy have accused the Syriza-led coalition of worsening poverty.

Last month, New Democracy chief Kyriakos Mitsotakis said Greeks no longer “trust the prime minister to solve the financial problems we face”.

“He promised to put an end to austerity and the old [establishment],” he said in a video message. “Instead he brought more poverty, the dissolution of the middle class and heavy taxation. He cut wages and pensions.”

On the left, parties and critics have blasted the government for what they see as capitulating to the EU at the expense of Greece’s struggling workers and pensioners, among other charges.

Greece’s ongoing economic crisis has seeped into every crevice of society, penetrated every sector of the economy and affected almost every field of work.

Although economic growth has ticked up, high unemployment, crippling austerity measures and a lack of hope continue to stymy any benefits of that growth for most Greeks. The country’s bailout programme is slated to conclude in 2018.

‘Panic attacks’

The Filios family’s journey has been a long one, sprinkled along the way with bursts of hope and periods of distress, temporary moments of improvement giving way to what feels like epochs of stress.

Work has never been stable for the married couple.

However, back in Gargaliani, the southern town where they met and wed after Filios put out a “love wanted” ad in a local newspaper, they were able to get by with freelance jobs and short-term contracts.

Things took a turn for the worse in 2008, when jobs dried up as the global economic crisis loomed. With fewer people renovating and making repairs to their homes, Filios couldn’t find painting gigs.

In 2009, unable to afford renovations to their crumbling home, they sold the property, which Ioanna had inherited from her family.

With no options left, they packed their bags in their sedan and headed for Kalamata, the second-most populous city in Greece’s Peloponnese region.

For Filios, the new home’s spacious balcony was symbolic of the hope the family harboured for the move.

“We had only had a very small balcony in Gargaliani,” he recalls.

“I looked forward to us all spending time on the new balcony, which was much bigger.”

But the years that followed were especially trying, as Filios realised he was the victim of a long-term crisis.

“That’s when the panic attacks started,” he recalls.

“That’s when I realised it; we didn’t have food, we didn’t have food and I didn’t know what to do. If you don’t have a stable job to know you’ll make money every month. I realised that going to a bigger city and not finding a job meant there was a big problem.”

Once more unable to afford the repairs to their home, they were forced to move out and search for another alternative.

In the years that followed came a failed attempt at launching a mini-market business, eviction from one home to the next, and hundreds of unanswered job applications.

They eventually landed in Piraeus, the port city next to Athens, where the local Greek Orthodox church put them up in a flat.

Stung by luckless attempts to land a job, Ioanna has enrolled in night courses at the same school her daughter attends.

“When we first got married, we had big dreams and hopes for our family and our future. We still have dreams, but …” says Ioanna, trailing off.

Filios picks up where she left off.

“But in the three years we’ve been here [in Piraeus], nothing has changed in Greece’s reality. You’re not able to find a job. As more time passes, I am still trying; but I just can’t find work.”

Ioanna wraps herself tightly in a blanket.

“We never imagined it would be long term,” she says.

“We didn’t want to still be begging at bakeries and markets all these years later.”

By Patrick Strickland

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