A Greek Tragedy

In a deepening economic crisis, churches and charities help

by Don Duncan

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There are times when Maria Nichopoulou, a 39-year-old Greek mother of two, wakes up — still dizzy from sleep — thinking she has died.

“I wonder if I have done what I wanted to do for my children, if I have done enough for them while I was alive,” she says, sitting on the sofa of her family’s apartment in the southern Athens neighborhood of Ano Glifada.

Since the Greek economic crisis — Europe’s deepest — began in 2008, day-to-day existence has often been a matter of life and death for Mrs. Nichopoulou, her husband Aris, 43, and their children Angie, 9, and Dimitrios, 2.

The couple’s fall from grace has been as spectacular as that of Greece itself. In 2010, they were earning a combined income of €200,000 (about $270,000 at current exchange rates) as executives at the same state-owned enterprise. But they both lost their jobs in November 2010, when the government folded the company in a bid to save money. After a year, their unemployment benefits expired and Mrs. Nichopoulou had to enter survival mode, selling their cars, her jewelry and eventually turning to charity.

“I have children to take care of, so what can I do? It would be simpler if it was just my husband and me, but with the two children, I have to fight to maintain a quality of life for them,” she says.

This fight has led her to discover charities and nongovernmental organizations she never knew existed, such as Praxis, Caritas and Apostoli, as well as soup kitchens, free medical clinics and even a circle of Greek mothers who have organized on Facebook to help one another.

“Our church helps us as well, with food and meat for the children,” she says of her local Orthodox parish.

“My husband goes to them and they send him to the supermarket and pay the cost of the food.”

Stories such as the Nichopoulous’ can be found all over Greece. There are few people whose lives have not been affected by the cataclysmic depression that still shakes the country.

Triggered by the global financial crisis of October 2008, the Greek recession saw Greek government debt downgraded to junk-bond status in April 2010 that created alarm in financial markets. In May 2010 and again in October 2011, Greece received bailouts from the Eurozone countries and the International Monetary Fund (I.M.F.) for a combined total of €240 billion (about $324 billion). The conditions of the bailout required Greece to make severe cuts to its public spending and to privatize significant government assets in an effort to reduce its deficit. The implementation of these austerity measures are a key factor in the change in the quality of life now faced by most Greeks.

Currently, the economy is shrinking 3.8 percent annually and unemployment is at 26.8 percent — and as high as 65 percent among those between 15 and 24 years of age. To meet the bailout conditions, the government has cut its safety net programs and services. As the years of crisis roll on, more people are falling into poverty.

“What people should understand,” says Kostis Dimtsas, head of Apostoli (“mission”), the charity arm of the Orthodox Church of Greece, “is that this country is on the verge of a humanitarian crisis.”

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