It’s All Greek to Me

Stepping off the plane onto the tarmac at Thira Airport on the idyllic landscape of Santorini, one would be forgiven for doubting the seriousness of Greece’s current economic situation.  Indeed, here the people smile, the streets are full of tourists with well-lined pockets, hotels are bustling, and the price of a sandwich is exuberant even by European standards.  However, the tropical paradise remains one of the few places still boasting robust commerce in this economically flailing nation.  The fact that you are more likely to hear English in a variety of accents over the native tongue, is sign enough that the islands are not an accurate indication of what is going on in the country at large.

A few hours ferry ride to Athens paints an entirely different picture altogether.  In a city that boasts the birth of democracy and a plethora of archaeological testaments to mankind’s wisdom, it is clear that the Greek capital is struggling to keep its head above water.  Shops and businesses all over Athens have closed as a result of the crisis.  Buildings remain derelict and empty, if not filled with squatters who live amongst a stench that can only be described as putrid.  Unemployment is at an all time high, and Greek youth have little hope of employment within their borders after graduating from university.

So far the crisis in Greece has managed to destroy the economy and annihilate a government, as well as threaten the future of the Euro and potentially the European Union.  But alongside these economic outcomes, Greece has seen an increase in youth unemployment (now at approximately 50 percent), crime and suicide rates.  While much has been written and published about the Greek economy and the failure of politicians to find a solution, the human side of this crisis too often seems to be forgotten.  When a country’s economy has failed, there are inevitably people behind it suffering grossly.  This is a quick look at the plight of the Greek individual behind the statistics.

Greek youth are generally well informed, educated, and worldly.  More than twenty percent of the population in Greece is under 35 and financial difficulties are presenting huge problems for young people.  An average of more than 1,000 people have lost their jobs every week since 2009.  Greeks are known for a willingness to converse with anyone and help people out wherever they can, but increases in suicides, attempted suicides, the use of anti-depressant medication and the need for psychiatric care are causing great concern in a country not used to such issues.  For a country that had one of the lowest suicide rates in the world, experts estimate that Greece’s suicide rates have doubled in the past two years.

In the wake of the ongoing financial crisis, public fears over vandalism and violent crime appear to have risen dramatically, often in conjunction with increased concerns over illegal immigration and drug abuse.  One government report estimated that drug use in Athens jumped from 7,400 in 2008 to 12,000 in 2009, coinciding with the first wave of the global financial crisis.  Murders in Greece have more than doubled since 2006, with the annual figure rising from 83 to 175 in 2010.

On an average 40-degree (Celsius) day in summer, the streets of Athens are filled with homeless youth.  One young man who looks like he hasn’t eaten in weeks lies on a doorstep, his head tilted back and mouth wide open while flies buzz around him in the scorching heat.  The scene is more reminiscent of a malnourished beggar in an Ethiopian town than a busy street in this once thriving metropolis.  Awakened from his drug induced comatose state, the young man looks at an offered bottle of water as though it is a foreign substance, mutters incoherently and collapses again.  Not long after, a slightly healthier looking man grabs the water left at the beggar’s side and strolls away.  This is what it has come to, one unfortunate man stealing from an even less fortunate soul; because in the struggle to survive there is no room for a code of ethics.

When the author attempted to find help, two local business people smiled sadly, shrugged and lamented that it was now a common occurrence in Athens.  People die on the street because they are hungry, because they have nowhere else to go, and no one to help them.  A girl working in a nearby cafe promises to keep an eye on him and call for help if he gets worse, but worse is hard to contemplate.  The authorities it seems have larger problems to deal with than a young man at death’s door on a sidewalk.

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