(Photos: Myrto Papadopoulos)

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Faces of Austerity: How Four Greeks Are Surviving a Continuing Crisis

Economic conditions imposed by lenders have led to real drama in the lives of thousands.
Jan 22, 2016· 11 MIN READ
Dimitris Theodoropoulos is editor-in-chief of BHmagazino, a part of the Greek newspaper BHMA.

Basanizomai. It means “I am tormented.” It’s mellifluous yet heavy-sounding in Greek, with letters that seem to weep on the page. The word held something attractive, in a twisted kind of way, when it began to appear as stenciled graffiti in the dirty streets of Athens around 2009. The person responsible, it was later revealed, was a lovestruck teenager who, repeating the word like an incantation, was distraught by unrequited love. Unwittingly, though, he excelled at semiology. After a while, people stopped paying attention, and the writer stopped writing it, apparently over his disappointment. But the graffiti remained, integrating with the city’s architecture, and took on new meaning.

As the effects of the financial crisis began rippling across the globe in 2009, Greece admitted it had been understating its deficit figures. Soon, the country was shut out from borrowing in the financial markets, and by spring 2010, it was heading toward bankruptcy. Then–Prime Minister George Papandreou asked for help from the troika—the International Monetary Fund, the European Commission, and the European Central Bank—and received the first of three bailouts, which would total more than $340 billion.

But there was a catch. Budgetary austerity was imposed—deep budget cuts and tax increases. Bonuses, pensions, and the salaries of public and private workers were slashed, the national sales tax was hiked almost 10 percent, and taxes on small businesses were raised from 26 to 29 percent.

Graffiti reading "I am tormented" ("Basanizomai") on a building in Athens. (Photo: Angelos Tzortzinis/Getty Images)

Today it is Greece that is tormented. The growth these measures were supposed to induce never came. During the Great Depression, between 1929 and 1933 GDP in the United States declined by 26 percent before it started rising again. In Greece, after almost six years, it is still falling (by 26 percent in 2014). Greece continues to suffer from high unemployment (25.6 percent, the highest in the eurozone), and there are no signs things are getting better.

The current government of the Coalition of the Radical Left, which promised to end austerity, was forced to capitulate to its lenders and accept a fiscal recipe as bitter as the one it had been elected to overturn—the toughest measures ever imposed on a eurozone economy—in return for opening talks on a new 68 billion euro rescue package. But an elevated debt-to-GDP ratio means that Greece owes way more than what it produces; the bailout money mainly goes toward paying off international loans rather than making its way into the economy. Strict limits on daily bank withdrawals and overseas cash transfers are stifling what Greeks can do with their earnings and savings.

Having welcomed 500,000 Syrian refugees in 2015, the Greeks well know that there are worse tragedies than an economic crisis. But ever since Athens asked for help in 2010, life here has been degenerating. Among the jobless, 73 percent have been out of work a year or more; social security is in ruins; more than 200,000 university graduates have left the country; wages are collapsing.

How does one live in such a place? History shows that countries don’t fall apart with a bang; it happens slowly. Greeks are surviving. Life is more difficult; they scrape by with ingenious means. Here are the stories of four people whose lives were forever altered by imposed austerity.

Costas Polychronopoulos, 53, in the house where he prepares meals every day, free of charge, for those in need. (Photo: Myrto Papadopoulos)

Hotel Executive to Soup Kitchen Founder

In December 2011, Costas Polychronopoulos didn’t have the money to visit a specialist, and neither did he have the drive. Even without a diagnosis, he knew that depression was a bit like that. Divorced and out of money, he had returned to live with his mother. Feelings of abandonment, despair, and sorrow coursed through his body from the moment he opened his eyes every morning.

Polychronopoulos was 45 on Sept. 15, 2008, when Lehman Brothers went bankrupt, triggering the near collapse of the global financial system. He read the news in the morning newspaper while sitting at his desk at the multinational hotel company where he worked. Like most Greeks, he would believe the assurances of politicians that “the Greek economy is armored,” which was the general feeling among the public and the slogan of both political parties.

Within five months, however, Polychronopoulos was out of a job, one of the first to be laid off from his company. With unemployment at 9.5 percent at the time, Greek society considered it a stigma to be unemployed. After a fruitless search for work that lasted a few months, Polychronopoulos sank into depression in his childhood bedroom.

Polychronopoulos went through all the stages of grief. “It took me six months to get out of the house,” he says. One day in December 2011 he went for a walk to clear his head. “I saw two children across the street—they couldn’t have been older than 14—fighting over a rotten apple in the garbage bin. They were hitting each other, furiously, trying to get to it. That image shook me.”

On the way home, he decided he had to take action. “I called a friend and told her that tomorrow I wanted to give out food to those in need,” he says. The following day, he and his friend, who was also without a job, made some sandwiches and roamed the streets handing them out. “In the beginning, passersby were reluctant, hesitant. We went out again the next day, better prepared.”

The word ‘career’ no longer has any meaning for me. I am not optimistic.

Alexandros Katsis

Polychronopoulos has a thick beard and a lean, sinewy body. His talk is fast, full of energy and passion, and his eyes smile when he’s describing how his life has changed. He now sets up a mobile kitchen at a different spot in Athens every day and prepares meals, free of charge, for those in need.

“This is not a charity, nor a handout. No, what we do here, this is called solidarity,” he says.

The project is funded entirely by private donations. “I don’t care about politics,” says Polychronopoulos, “just people.” But what he does has become perceived as a political action. Soon the Greek media, looking for hopeful stories, learned what he had been doing. He became more and more popular, and he was included in a 2015 documentary by Yann Arthus-Bertrand called Human.

Costas Polychronopoulos and other volunteers try to comfort a pregnant Syrian refugee shortly after her arrival by raft on the Greek island of Lesbos, November 17, 2015. (Photo: REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis)

The more recognition Polychronopoulos gets, the more difficult it is for him to avoid being engaged in politics. In September 2015, the European Parliament suggested that Polychronopoulos be given a European Citizens’ Prize, which is awarded to organizations “contributing to the strengthening of a European spirit.” Polychronopoulos refused the award but traveled to Brussels to explain his reasons. Addressing the parliament, he said, “6.3 million people in Greece live on 420 euros a month. The homeless are over 30,000, and there are 3,000 locked-down buildings belonging to the Church or the municipalities. Who is giving me the award? The European Union which created this mess in the first place?” Shortly after his speech, he cooked for the homeless in Brussels.

In September 2015, the kitchen began operating in Lesbos, where more than 300,000 refugees entered Europe in 2015. Polychronopoulos is the first to greet some of them in this new life journey. A recent photo shows him welcoming a new arrival from Syria. His smile suggests he left behind the depression that took hold of him back in Athens.

Cuts to the national health insurance program resulted in Tasos Sismanoglou losing his coverage just before he was diagnosed with cancer. Formerly a wood-carver, he now digs graves at a cemetery near Athens. (Photo: Myrto Papadopoulos)

Wood-Carver to Uninsured Cancer Patient

Tasos Sismanoglou shows his hands, calloused from manual labor. Formerly a wood-carver, he now digs graves at a cemetery. “I don’t know if it’s the ideal job for a cancer patient,” he says. “But it is a job, at least.”

In March 2013, Sismanoglou began experiencing pain in his chest. He had closed down his woodworking shop in 2011; the furniture, church decorations, and sculptures he made for 17 years were a luxury, and in a time of crisis, his customers were fewer and fewer until he was unable to pay his increasing taxes. Sismanoglou went to the emergency department of a state hospital and was told there was nothing wrong with him. He resorted to opioid analgesics given to him by a friend. After three more visits to the doctor he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Beginning in July 2011, as a result of austerity measures, Greece’s national health care system eliminated coverage for people who have been unemployed for longer than a year. “I was officially an uninsured cancer patient,” Sismanoglou says. He had to be carried to his first chemotherapy appointment, only to be told he couldn’t get treatment because he was unable to pay. Eventually he was taken in as an emergency case.

Sismanoglou, 57, lives with his mother. He is divorced, with two children he is unable to care for. “Cancer devastates you,” he says. “You are left with no strength to fight against a system that wrongs you.”

Sismanoglou decided to turn the tables. After visiting the Association of Cancer Patients, Friends, and Doctors, a patient advocacy group known as KEFI (in Greek, the acronym spells the word for "mirth"), he read the cancer patients' "bill of rights" (as declared by the European Cancer Patient Coalition), which states, "Every European citizen has the right to optimal and timely access to appropriate specialized care."

I’ve got no demands of life, but I’ve got demands of society.

Tasos Sismanoglou

"When I asked the president of KEFI why he does nothing," Sismanoglou says, "he answered that he is trying—but there were another 600 cases like mine that month alone. So I decided to take action."

One day he was at KEFI’s offices when reporters with Mega, the biggest Greek TV channel, were on location there, doing a story on cancer patients. That was his first television appearance, during which he attacked the health care system of Greece and got into an argument with Adonis Georgiadis, the conservative government’s minister of health at the time. Georgiadis later told The Washington Post that “illnesses like cancer are not considered urgent unless you are in the final stages.”

Sismanoglou is trying to show the absurdity of a system that reduced spending on medicine from 5.2 billion euros in 2009 to 2 billion euros in 2014, has slashed overall health expenditures by 10 percent since 2009, has an acute shortage of doctors and nurses, and pushes more and more impoverished Greeks to private insurance—or no insurance at all.

“I’ve got no demands of life, but I’ve got demands of society,” says Sismanoglou. “I don’t care about surviving that much. I want a decent life while I still live. One could say that cancer was the best thing that happened to me. I changed priorities. I got over stress. I just want to live better, no matter how long this lasts. I now value every breath I take, not just every day of my life. Life doesn’t owe me anything.”

His job digging graves enables him to be accepted at the hospital for treatment, but Sismanoglou has a debt to the Greek government of 30,000 euros, for the chemotherapy while he was unemployed. He doesn’t have the money and is afraid that when he dies, the debt will be transferred to his children: “Every day I see that whether we’re rich or poor, we’ll all end up in a bag of bones. That’s why, for as long as we’re alive, we need to at least live with dignity.”

Alexandros Katsis, a former marketing executive, documents Greece's economic condition through photography. He stands in an alley in the Exarchia neighborhood of Athens, known as a hotbed of anarchism and political resistance. (Photo: Myrto Papadopoulos)

Marketing Executive to Freelance Photographer

Alexandros Katsis can't get that day in September 1997 out of his mind. It was late in the evening of Friday the 5th when state television broadcast from Lausanne, Switzerland that Greece had won: It would host the 2004 Summer Olympics. Katsis was sitting in the living room of his family home. He was 18, an amateur track and field athlete who was about to start studying sports marketing at one of the national Vocational Tranining Institutes. "I decided to take part in the games one way or another," he says. "I would be there."

By 2002, while construction for the games was transforming Athens, Katsis had a degree in sports marketing and was working as an international relations coordinator for the Olympics organizing committee, with a salary of 2,000 euros a month. “The country was flourishing. There was optimism, money—a future,” he says.

That country is no more. Its sports industry was one of the first to go. Now 36, Katsis still lives in his family home. He is keeping busy with photography; his income is 500 euros a month.

Before 2004, only a small portion of the Greek press would speak worryingly about the cost of the Olympics. But the spending and transgressions that accompanied the frenzied development only added to the fact that such a small country could not support the games.

I started thinking differently regarding consumption, the Western way of life, the dead-end philosophy of the capitalist system.

Deppie Kourellou

During preparations, public spending was unchecked and funded by unsustainable borrowing. “From 1997 to 2000 the Greek government, faced with the immense task of organizing the Olympic Games in the smallest country to have ever taken them on, increased the initial budget dramatically, to 11.27 billion euros, which was 6 percent of the GDP,” the Greek minister of sports, Stavros Kontonis, stated recently. “Today there are estimates that are closer to reality and put the cost over 20 billion.”

Dozens of unused buildings, white elephants built for the Olympics with no potential for use afterward, litter Athens. “Stupidity or profligacy? Probably both,” says Katsis.

In 2005 he was hired by Super-Sport, Greece’s largest sports equipment installations company. It had renovated squares and stadiums in preparation for the Olympics. Soon, Katsis says, “the market started seeing bad checks. Nobody paid attention; everyone thought it was just the hangover from the Olympics.” By 2007, he says, cities stopped paying for work his company had performed. In 2009 the company went out of business. “It would be funny if it weren't tragic,” Katsis says.

Though has not had steady work since 2010 in the field for which he was trained in state schools, Katsis is trying to build a new career documenting the political moment through photography, part of a generation of Greeks who will for the first time live lives more difficult than their parents'. He finds photography fulfilling, but financially speaking, he says, “I am not optimistic.” Once his bedroom wall displayed memorabilia from the games. Now his photos, which capture the Greek financial drama in a pessimistic light, hang there instead.

No longer able to pay her mortgage after losing her full-time job as a reporter in Athens, Deppie Kourellou, 41, went to live at a sanctuary for abandoned animals operated by her sister, freelance-writing as work becomes available. (Photo: Myrto Papadopoulos)

Journalist to Animal Rescuer

In autumn 2009, Deppie Kourellou entered a bank in downtown Athens. She was 34, working as a journalist, with a monthly income of about 2,800 euros. She rented her home in the suburbs of Athens and, like most Greeks before the crisis, believed that owning a house was a sign of financial security. She applied for a loan to buy an apartment and was approved within a few days to make monthly payments of 750 euros on 180,000 euros borrowed.

Back then banks in Greece initiated about 800 mortgage loans a day. In the first trimester of 2015, the newspaper Kathimerini reported, a total of 750 mortgages were approved. People are unable to pay off loans taken out in 2009 with the salaries—or unemployment benefits—of 2016.

Foreclosing on homes because of missed mortgage payments used to be prohibited in Greece. One of the central promises that the government of the Coalition of the Radical Left made before the elections of January 2015 was to maintain this policy—but as a result of the latest bailout from the troika, such foreclosures will be permitted under some conditions beginning this year.

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In 2009, Kourellou’s work as a journalist offered plenty of opportunities. The media industry was swimming in money: The Greek government spent about 20 million euros a year on state advertising, subsidizing newspapers that were friendly to the party in power. As soon as the debt crisis began, and as Internet media ascended, the traditional press began to suffer. Newspapers shut down. Unemployed journalists were in abundance. Within a year, Kourellou was out of work.

Money soon ran out. “I felt weak, helpless,” she said. “I left the house only to walk my dogs.”

For years, Kourellou had been active with animal welfare organizations. The financial crisis resulted in thousands of abandoned dogs, adding to the more than 1 million strays in Greek cities, she says. “Saving these animals became a kind of therapy for me. I was an animal activist before the crisis, but after I lost my job, I started being more involved in the movement for their protection.”

At the same time, Kourellou found herself joining demonstrations in the streets. The squares of Greece were often filled with people from the movement known as the “aganaktismenoi”—“the outraged.” It was initially a spontaneous, apolitical conglomeration of citizens, ranging from leftists and anarchists to supporters of the far right, who opposed the austerity measures. “I started thinking differently regarding consumption, the Western way of life, the dead-end philosophy of the capitalist system,” Kourellou says.

She decided to leave Athens for Evia, 125 miles outside the city, where she and her sister care for eight horses and dozens of dogs that have been abandoned by their owners. She freelances as a journalist occasionally, writing for the media that can pay her a small fee. “I live a pretty frugal life,” she says. “I don’t know what will happen when the foreclosures are permitted again, but I cannot do anything to prevent it. In nature, you put problems in perspective. You can just take a walk at the beach and realize how small you are, forget how you can’t pay your loan, and decide that you can make your life better under these conditions. It’s not simple, but it’s not hard either. The loans can wait. ”