Wed, Jun 20, 2012 - Page 9 News List

As the debt crisis bites, Greece’s poor and sick suffer the most

Some of Greece’s most vulnerable people, as well as hospitals and refugee centers, have no money or state support and have had to turn to neighbors for help

By Lizzy Davies  /  The Guardian, ATHENS

As the volunteers unpack their shopping bags of rice, milk and cooking oil, Goman Badder retreats to the room he lives in with his wife and their one-year-old son. For the 28-year-old Syrian Kurd, the deliveries are a mixed blessing: He is relieved that his family will not go hungry, but humiliated that it has come to this. He had hoped for better things for his son, asleep on the neatly made bed.

“When I left Syria, I felt I didn’t want him to be like me,” he says. “But I never thought for him it would be like this: people bringing him Pampers and milk. If I’d known it would be like this I would never have brought him to this world.”

His friend Salah Muhamed, a Kurdish teacher who fled the “hell” of Syria six months ago, did not mince his words.

“In Syria, we will be killed by guns,” he says. “Here, we will be killed by the economy.”

For the past six months, this state-funded center for asylum seekers has received no funding from the state. Its 25 staff members have not been paid since January. Because of its debts, the center has “huge problems” with suppliers and the usual food deliveries stopped two weeks ago.

Some of the 225 residents thought the staff had gone on strike over pay, but as director Vasilis Lyritzis explains, they could simply not go on: “We just stopped cooking because we didn’t have anything to cook. The moment that we have food, we cook again.”

Even now, the inhabitants of the Lavrio center, about 66km from Athens, are among the most fortunate of Greece’s tens of thousands of asylum seekers, most of whom receive no support from the state and sleep rough in large, unsanitary slums in cities such as Athens.

However, as the debt crisis takes its toll on state services and the unpaid bills to suppliers mount up, Badder and Muhamed are being pushed to the extremes.

They are not the only ones. Throughout the country, some of Greece’s most marginalized and vulnerable people who rely directly or indirectly on the state to feed them are now facing the possibility of having to turn to their neighbors for help.

On the island of Leros in the Dodecanese, the governor of a psychiatric hospital has, in the past two weeks, like Lyritzis, found himself having to plead with suppliers to keep bringing food, despite an almost complete inability to pay them. Yiannis Antartis’s suppliers stopped for a week, after which he found enough money to pay them each 15,000 euros (US$18,918) — enough to encourage them to restart, but far from enough to cover the hospital’s total debts to them of 1.25 million euros.

REAL PROBLEM

Antartis believes he has about a month to find money to pay the debts and protect the 400 patients, who have a range of mental illnesses, from depression to dementia and schizophrenia. Owed about 13 million euros by its debt-ridden health insurance funds, the hospital will soon be struggling for the basics, he said.

“If we don’t receive money within three to five weeks, we’re going to have a real problem — for food, for medicines, for hospital supplies, bandages, even the basics,” he says. “All levels of the hospital are going to start breaking down.”

“My primary concern is to receive enough money to pay some outstanding bills in order to keep the hospital going, from the insurance funds, from the state, from wherever, just to be able to keep the hospital going. I am really worried about the fact that the hospital will not be able to function normally if we don’t receive payment,” he adds.

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