How Greece’s economic crisis produced an emerging civil society in Athens


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by Letty Reimerink

ATHENS, Greece — The Greek economic crisis has hit this historic capital city hard. But if there is a bright spot, it is the grassroots social initiatives mushrooming all over the city.

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Designers, chefs, architects, writers, educators and other professionals — many of them unemployed — have channeled their energies into finding ways to feed, house, and maintain the dignity of the thousands of people suffering from deep cuts in social services. In a society drenched with politics, people from different political backgrounds are joining forces to try and somehow build something positive. By one count, the number of these initiatives grew from 238 in 2013 to 415 last year.

In 2014, the municipality of Athens was awarded €1 million ($1.2 million U. S.) through the Bloomberg Philanthropies Mayors Challenge for an initiative to help connect all these grassroots activities. The funds are supporting an online platform called Synathina. It’s a digital home for all these initiatives to explain what they do and post their agendas — and hopefully, recruit new members and find like-minded organizations to partner with.

Amalia Zepou is the leader of this effort for the municipality. She’s a documentary film maker who became a grassroots activist herself when she and her family moved to the city center of Athens in 2007. “Athens was an abandoned city,” Zepou recalls. “Garbage was piling up, and there were many homeless people and drug addicts on the streets. I started cleaning up a plot in my street and all kinds of people from different political backgrounds helped me: the gay guy, the old lady and the Turkish neighbor. This is how a spontaneous kind of guerilla gardening started.”

In 2013, Zepou approached Mayor Giorgos Kaminis to make him aware of all these initiatives and their potential to make a difference. She became his adviser and was later elected vice mayor for civil society. Her aim is to not only help these initiatives thrive. It’s also to inspire a lumbering city bureaucracy to learn something from them.

For example, a goal of the effort is to identify outdated regulations that might prevent grassroots groups from helping people or making the city better. This hasn’t yielded much yet. The only concrete change in municipal regulations so far has been to allow a group called Atenistas to put historical markers on old deserted buildings. While the city is working on loosening rules around vending and cooking on the streets, the groups doing these activities don’t seem too concerned about obtaining proper permits. Still, says Christos Alefantis, the founder of a street newspaper for the homeless, “It’s good to know that the city is with you.”

Zepou agrees that simply supporting these initiatives, rather than suppressing them, marks a change in attitude for city government. “The encouragement of these grassroots activities was in the political sphere considered dangerous, because they were not under the control of any political party,” Zepou says. “We gave confidence to a group of people that were not necessarily [inclined to vote for Kaminis], which was audacious. Things like that start to build trust again.”

Last month, I visited with the leaders of a number of these new grassroots groups in Athens. The spectrum of their activities is too wide to capture in one article. But the stories of these five groups is a good sampling of the kind of civic energy that is flowing through an emerging civil society in Athens.

Social clinics: health care by volunteers

One of the fastest growing holes in Greece’s social safety net is health care: a third of the population is no longer covered by health insurance. Three months of unemployment is enough to get a person kicked out of the social health system; with the youth unemployment rate at 60 percent, many young people never enter into the system in the first place. Greece also has a large number of illegal immigrants who lack insurance.

Constantine Kokossis manages a social health clinic that runs on volunteers and donated pharmaceuticals. (Letty Reimerink)

Constantine Kokossis manages a social health clinic that runs on volunteers and donated pharmaceuticals. (Letty Reimerink)

Through an organization called Kifa, doctors and other volunteers around Athens have mobilized to create 70 clinics where the uninsured can at least get some care, for free. Constantine Kokossis, who is not a doctor but manages one of the clinics across the street from his shop in the center of Athens, says: “We have reached the point of no return on the destruction of our social welfare system.”

Despite what feels like a hopeless situation, Kokossis and dozens of others do whatever they can. They get medicines donated from people who no longer use them. They round up medical equipment from retired doctors. Part of their funding comes from other European Union countries. Kokossis explains: “The clinic is not an NGO. Everybody works as volunteer and the patients don’t have to pay anything. Our 35 physicians have private practices or work in a hospital, and a couple of hours a week they come here.”

In two and a half years, the clinic Kokossis manages has treated 7,000 patients. Hospital doctors have begun referring patients to the clinics, although the clinics are limited in what they can do. They can’t perform complicated procedures or laboratory tests, for example. “We cannot cope with this social and human crisis,” he says. “At the end of the day, we are always short of the necessary means.”

A social kitchen: overcoming isolation with food

Konstantin Polychronopoulos cooks on the streets and feeds 200 people a day. “It is about solidarity, not charity,” he says. (Letty Reimerink)

Konstantin Polychronopoulos cooks on the streets and feeds 200 people a day. “It is about solidarity, not charity,” he says. (Letty Reimerink)

In 2009, Konstantin Polychronopoulos lost his job in marketing. He spent six months at home looking for a job. Loneliness became its own barrier to finding work. “I didn’t feel useful anymore,” he says. “I had to prove to myself that I still had something to offer.”

One day at a farmer’s market, he saw two kids fighting for food from the garbage bins, and it struck him that nobody seemed to care. That was when he decided to start cooking on the streets. He’s been feeding about 200 people a day ever since.

Polychronopoulos cooks with food donated by private individuals, and ten volunteers help him. He moves his street kitchen around to different locations on sidewalks or public squares around the city. Anyone can join him. “It is about solidarity, not charity,” stresses Polychronopoulos, who is 50. “It is about communication and eating together.”

While stirring his big pot, he gets lots of hugs from people he has grown close to over the years. Occasionally passers-by react negatively. “They don’t like the image of people eating on the street in Greece,” he says, “but they don’t mind if people eat from garbage bins.” In the beginning he was harassed by the police, but since Amalia Zepou, the vice mayor, stood up for him, he has not been bothered anymore.

Suspended Coffee: neighborhood cohesion in a cup

Similar ideas are at work with a project called Suspended Coffee. Former journalist Christos Alefantis is organizing coffee shops to make it easy for patrons to buy a cup of coffee for another person who can’t afford it.

Christos Alefantis is making it easy for coffee-bar patrons to buy a cup for those who can’t afford it. (Shedia)

Christos Alefantis is making it easy for coffee-bar patrons to buy a cup for those who can’t afford it. (Shedia)

It’s simple: If you go into a bar that has the yellow Suspended Coffee logo showing, you can pay for an extra cup and the barman notes it on a blackboard behind the bar. Another patron can come and ask for the coffee without having to pay for it.

“The whole idea of suspended coffee is based on trust and discretion,” says Alefantou, who got the idea from Naples, Italy, where it’s been around for more than a century. “You pay for an extra coffee and trust that the barman will later serve it to someone. The barman has to trust the one that is coming to ask for it, that he can’t pay for it himself.”

As with the social kitchen the idea behind suspended coffee is not so much charity, but neighborhood cohesion. It’s keeping up the spirits of the long-term unemployed by allowing them to participate in the daily rituals of life. “There are so many people that just sit in their apartment and don’t go out, because they can’t afford a simple coffee,” Alefantou says. “We want them to go out of the house, socialize and meet their neighbors. In one neighborhood we even had a group of women baking cakes which they gave to the cafés to serve with the coffee. So it really is a neighborhood initiative.”

This isn’t Alefantou’s first grassroots effort. In 2007, he and a group of friends set up a football team for homeless people to play on. That was later followed by a street newspaper published and distributed by the homeless. The NGO he founded also has launched city tours led by homeless people, who show both locals and tourists the soup kitchens, shelters and other places the homeless go. Tour patrons are typically shocked to learn how many of Athens’ homeless aren’t drug addicts but regular people who used to have jobs and homes and families.

Tip the Chef: learning by doing

Restaurant jobs are hard to come by in Athens, with fewer people eating out. That’s not stopping aspiring chefs like Fahd Hassan-Kassem. Fahd has hopped between freelance jobs in catering and marketing, and dreams of setting up his own food business.

Fahd Hassan-Kassem cooks meals for clients without any guarantee of being paid. He hopes his labor will turn into a business. (Tip the Chef)

Fahd Hassan-Kassem cooks meals for clients without any guarantee of being paid. He hopes his labor will turn into a business. (Tip the Chef)

Instead of waiting for the economy to turn around, Fahd and some chef friends of his decided to just start and do it — without any guarantee of getting paid. Their group, called Tip the Chef, caters for people at their homes. The chefs buy the food, cook and organize the meal. The clients just pay for the food and can leave a tip for the chefs if they want to.

“In my catering jobs I am only responsible for a small part of the meal,” Fahd says. “Here we do everything ourselves, from contact with the clients, to creating the menu, buying the groceries and preparing the food. Basically we have set up our own learning experience.”

Fahd doesn’t see Tip the Chef as a grassroots organization, but as a startup business getting ready to launch. “There is no underlying political motivation,” he says. “We are just a group of young chefs coping with the current economic situation in Greece and taking a risk to try something new.”

Sometimes people accuse them of evading taxes, but Fahd says: “Our goal is to set up a legal business and pay taxes, but here in Greece, you have to pay two years of taxes in advance if you set up a business. So you really need to be prepared.” Fahd is positive about his chances of starting an official business in 2015 and even found an investor. “When we do, I’ll be happy to pass on all that we’ve learned to others who can continue Tip the Chef.”

Omikron Project: fighting Greek stereotypes

This main goal of the Omikron Project is to counter the image of Greeks as lazy victims of the economic crisis. Started by Mehran Khalili, a British-Iranian political communications specialist who is married to a Greek, they make ads that challenge stereotypes and question the ways the crisis is portrayed in the international media. They’ve also chronicled the rise of the Athens grassroots groups through an annual count of them.

Omikron’s biggest hit so far is a pair of humorous videos about “Alex, the lazy coffee drinking Greek.” (Watch them both below.) It doesn’t dispute that Greeks like Alex (a cartoon character) love their coffee. But it uses data from Eurostat to show that Alex actually works longer hours than other Europeans, gets fewer days off and will retire years later. Another video series debunking the image of “lazy ouzo drinking Greeks” is coming soon.


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