Even before Greece’s economic crisis, Dimitris Gasparinatos found it hard to provide for his six sons and four daughters. His wife, Christina, who was struggling to make ends meet with his salary of 960 euros (US$1,242) a month and welfare aid of about 460 euros every two months, was unhappy and desperate.
Deep in debt, the couple owed money to the butcher, baker and grocer — the very people who had kept them going in the port of Patras, west of Athens. In their tiny apartment, the family slipped increasingly into a life of squalor.
“Psychologically we were all in a bit of a mess,” Gasparinatos said. “We were sleeping on mattresses on the floor, the rent hadn’t been paid for months, something had to be done.”
And so, with Christmas approaching, the 42-year-old took the decision to put in an official request for three of his boys and one daughter to be taken into care.
“The crisis had killed us. I am ashamed to say, but it had got to the point where I couldn’t even afford the two euros needed to buy bread,” he said. “We didn’t want to break up the family, but we did think it would be easier for them if four of my children were sent to an institution for maybe two or three years.”
The next day, his 37-year-old wife visited the local town hall and asked that her children be “saved.”
“She was visibly distraught,” said Patras Deputy Mayor Theoharis Massaras, the director of social works. “Requests for support have shot up. Last year, we sent food to 400 families in Patras at Christmas. This year, 1,200 asked for help and they weren’t what I’d call traditionally low-income people. Many had good jobs until this year when their shops and businesses closed, but to be asked to take children away was something new. When we visited their home and saw the situation for ourselves, the third-world conditions, the poverty and filth, we couldn’t believe our eyes.”
NOT THE ONLY ONES
In a nation as proud as Greece, where family always comes first, the plight of the Gasparinatoses quickly hit a nerve. Soon, shocked reporters were knocking at their door. However, testimony from charities, doctors and unions would suggest that they are not alone.
As Greece prepares to endure a fifth consecutive year of recession, as the crisis extends its reach, as cuts take their toll, as poverty deepens and unemployment climbs, evidence is mounting that society is tearing at the seams.
Like the middle class, society’s great connector, families are beginning to unravel under the weight of a crisis that, with no end in sight, is as much human as it is financial.
Tell-tale signs abound that in its quest to beat off bankruptcy, Greece is being hollowed out, a little more, with each passing day.
“People are going hungry, families are breaking up, instances are mounting of mothers and fathers no longer being able to bring up their own kids,” said Ilias Ilioupolis, general secretary of the civil servants’ union ADEDY. “Until now, there has been a conspiracy of silence around the tragic effects of the austerity measures the IMF and EU are asking us to take.”
From cases of newborn babies wrapped in swaddling and dumped on the doorsteps of clinics, to children being offloaded on charities and put in foster care, the nation’s struggle to pay off its debts is assuming dramatic proportions, even if officials insist that the belt-tightening and structural reforms will eventually change the EU’s most uncompetitive economy for the better.