Helen’s Story – What Does Austerity Look Like? (Part One & Coda)

What does austerity look like? (Part One)

At first glance, not like much. If you’re a casual observer, just arrived in Athens and looking for a place to eat, austerity can look like this:

Or even this:

The streets are lively and verdant, and the Mediterranean sun still makes everything look just a bit better, especially if you’ve just arrived from 6 months of Portland rain.

In case you’re not sure what I mean by ‘austerity’, I’m referring to the economic stranglehold placed on Greece by the European Union. Essentially, Greece has been forced by the EU to declare bankruptcy. A large part of Greece’s national assets have been privatized and/or turned over to the EU, and severe economic controls have been imposed. Greece no longer makes its own economic policy: entire ministries are no longer even run by Greeks. A large contributing factor to the situation the Greeks are in was the 2008 real estate crash in the U.S. So, in a very real sense, the Greeks are being asked to pay for the sins of the American banksters who also brought the U.S. economy to the brink of ruin.

I’d done quite a bit of research on all this before coming. I knew a lot of facts and figures: unemployment numbers (astronomical), suicides among suddenly destitute pensioners (thousands), the vast amount of debt that the EU has imposed on the Greek people in order to keep Europe’s banking system afloat (and, not coincidentally, shake a warning finger at Italy, Spain and France). But for days I didn’t see those facts and figures as I looked around me. We’d pass tourist buses emptying their vacation-goers onto the sidewalks and I’d think how easily one could come here and not notice anything amiss. I, myself, was having trouble finding the cracks in the façade.


Then I met Kyria Eleni – Helen, as she introduced herself to me in South African English.

Helen sits on a wall beside the church, dressed as my old Swiss aunts used to dress, very dignified, very proper. On closer inspection, her clothes are threadbare. They were bought in another era, when she could afford quality. She holds a plastic cup, but she keeps it half covered. She could easily be resting and having a cool drink by the church. She speaks to passers-by, but in such a quiet, timorous voice that most pass by in the bustle and never notice.

I’ve spent some time getting to know Helen. Her perfect English has made the task much easier. In getting to know her, I’ve found a window into what austerity has done to Greece.

Helen was born and spent her childhood on one of the Greek islands. From her description, her family was upper middle class. In her youth, the entire family emigrated to the thriving Greek community in Cape Town, South Africa, where she lived for another three decades. In South Africa, the family owned a string of shops, and prospered. Over the years, they sent money back to family members in Greece to establish shops in the Athens area. Helen finished her schooling in Cape Town, married and had a son.

In the mid-eighties, she and her husband returned to Greece, where they took over the family businesses that had been set up with the money sent from South Africa. For about 15 years, things went well. Again, the busineses prospered and the family lived a secure, predictable life.

Not all of their subsequent problems were the result of austerity. It would be fairer to say that austerity sealed their fate, pushed them over the final cliff. A few years before the austerity regime was imposed on Greece, Helen and husband began to experience competition from larger supermarket chains that were moving into Athens neighborhoods. They were forced to close several of their shops, and tighten their belts economically. At the same time, their customers were also falling on hard times. They started allowing long-time customers to buy on account, but were in turn forced to take loans as their revenues sagged.

Then Helen’s husband passed away suddenly. In Helen’s view, the stress of business was what killed him. Helen and her son were left to try to save the family business, and they might have succeeded, were it not for the EU and austerity. When austerity came, suddenly no one had any money. Pensions were cut drastically, bank withdrawal controls were imposed, credit was impossible to find, and shops and businesses began to fail by the thousands. Almost overnight, all their options disappeared, all their loans came due, everything that had been put aside vanished, and in short order they lost their business and their home and found themselves on the street.

Kyria Eleni from Bill Megalos on Vimeo.

John went through a divorce at about the same time, and now he and his mother share a small apartment with no furniture, no water and no electricity. He explained to us how his education, his business experience and, above all, his age, made his prospects for finding a job even worse.

Yianni from Bill Megalos on Vimeo.

Meeting Helen had an interesting effect on my ability to see things around me. Where before I hardly noticed them, now I see the beggars in every square and neighborhood. Mostly old people and often, like Helen, in clothes that used to advertise their solid, normal lives and now, worn and threadbare, illustrate their complete destitution.

Coda – 3 July 2017

On my last day in Athens I walked up to the Xalandri square to say my goodbyes to Helen – and John, as he happened to be there with his Mom. We chatted for a few moments about my plans to bike in the Alps with my son, Kiran, and to spend some time in Italy. Then Helen suddenly exclaimed, ‘I was forgetting, I brought something to show you.’ She reached into a pocket and brought out a photograph and handed it to me, saying, ‘this is me back before all this happened. This is how we were, how we lived. This is how far we’ve fallen.’ Here’s the photo she showed me:

More Rovies

It has taken me over a week to write this post, as I was so moved my our time in Rovies. Rovies broke my heart. By that I mean it grew several sizes in sensitivity and empathy. Rovies is a wonderful place, as perfect as could be imagined. It is run by dedicated, smart, compassionate people. It’s a warm and loving environment, set in a small, lovely and welcoming community, sea on one side and mountains behind. And yet, in its very existence, it cannot succeed and cannot truly nourish people. It simply should not exist. It’s just not natural to have a holding place for people. Everyone is in limbo. No one wants to be there, they want to be on to the next step in their lives. Much better than any camp, whether a camp of tents or containers, the hotel is safe and welcoming, with numerous programs and services, yet it is still just a stop along the journey for its tenants.

The refugees who are in Greece at this moment fall into three categories:

1- People who are part of a reunification program. These are refugees who have relatives in other European countries and that is their ticket to a new home. They must apply for acceptance and the process can take up to several years (they can also be refused, there is no guarantee of acceptance.) These refugees have no interest in staying in Greece, in learning the language, even in having their children in school in Greece. Aside from food and medical services, they are only interested in English or German lessons.

2- People who are part of the relocation program. These people have applied for asylum in other European countries. Refugees from conflict areas are essentially the only ones eligible and if you’re not Syrian or Iraqi, you might as well forget it. This leaves out Afghans, Pakistanis, anyone from Africa.

3-Those who do not qualify for either of these categories are forced to take asylum in Greece or are deported. The asylum process takes a long time, as well.

The point I’m trying to make is that Rovies, as wonderful as it is (continue reading) is just a stop on the way for the refugees, a place to rest, a place to heal and to learn some of what they need, but they are they are paralyzed, unable to move back and uncertain about moving forward.

So, what’s so great about Rovies? First of all, Andreas, the owner of the hotel, who had to convince his family to allow the hotel to be filled with refugees, three meals a day and board for 17 euro/day (paid by the UN High Commission for Refugees through a Greek NGO called Solidarity Now that brings in services, like language teachers and administers the camp by hiring locals.) Zaphiris has a clip of Andreas at the end of his post that tells a lot about who he is.

Here Andreas tells why he thinks Rovies has worked as well as it has:

Andreas on Rovies location from Bill Megalos on Vimeo.

I would love to share some of the stories of the refugees whom we met, but it’s been a struggle to translate their Arabic, there just aren’t enough hours in the day, so those clips will have to wait until we are done filming. In the meantime, here is a clip from Manar, the mother in a refugee family who has actually made the transition to living in Greece with her husband and three boys. Her husband is working in Thessaloniki, Greece’s second largest city, she is working as a teacher and translator in the hotel and their boys are enrolled in the Greek school in the village. They were living in the hotel and now have their own home in Rovies. Michel talks about their story in detail in his blog Manar’s Story. You can hear her explain why they left Syria in this clip:

Manar on why they left from Bill Megalos on Vimeo.

You can’t talk about Hotel Rovies without mentioning the children. They are everywhere and they are having fun. Zaphiris mentions that they make a racket. He is being kind. Sometimes the noise is overwhelming and that is because they are comfortable and having fun. I would estimate that there are 50 or more children at the hotel including babies. We often struggled to find a place to interview our subjects because the lobby and the front courtyard (beautifully shaded by a canopy of mulberry trees) we so active and loud. The African saying of it takes a village to raise a child applies to Greece and to the countries where the refugees come from. The children are free to do as they will because everyone is always paying attention, including the hotel staff. Whenever the staff wasn’t elsewhere doing their jobs, they would be in the lobby and courtyard watching and interacting with the children. This clip of Antonis, manager of the hotel for Solidarity Now, the NGO funded by the UNHCR to provide services being greeted at the door by children. With him is Katerina, one of the locally hired teachers (she grew up and lives in Rovies.)

Antonis and Katerina with children from Bill Megalos on Vimeo.

Perhaps the greatest thing about Hotel Rovies is the staff. Every employee goes way beyond the duties of their job, especially in terms of taking care of the children. Throughout the day you see the staff playing with the children, minding them, comforting them and taking care of them as if they were their own. Whenever he’s not cooking in the kitchen below ground, Alexandros the chef is up in the lobby or in the front courtyard with the children, as is Athina, the chambermaid.

Of all the staff, Athina, the maid stood out to me and we did a long interview with her, down in the laundry room. She spoke openly and movingly of her life and how difficult the recent years have been for her, as she struggled to keep her family together in the economic crisis. She is the type of person who has been hit the most by the austerity measures and the lack of opportunity. A former police officer, she has had to scramble to take any job, all below her training and abilities. In order to keep her family in their hometown, where there are few jobs, she has taken seasonal work on faraway islands in hotels. She is grateful for this job that allows her to be home. When you see how hard she works and listening to how difficult her life has been, you realize that this is the life of most mothers throughout the world. She shared some of her thoughts in this clip.

Athina Voulgaropoulou from Bill Megalos on Vimeo.

The saddest thing about Hotel Rovies is that this loving, safe haven might be at the end of its time. The UNHCR is moving away from housing refugees in hotels and transitioning people into apartments. The contract is ending soon and it looks as if it won’t be renewed. The staff will be let go and there will be one less safe place.

Manar’s Story

WARNING: This may be the longest and most convoluted blog post you will ever encounter. It talks about a particular family’s journey from Syria to Europe, but it also lays out the complex and opaque rules and procedures that govern their lives after they land on European soil. Because of its length, I’ve decided to try to bring some order by using sub headings from time to time.


In Rovies last week we met Manar. Meeting her, we discovered that being well-educated, multi-lingual and cosmopolitan is no guarantee of success when you’re a refugee knocking on Europe’s doors. Manar, her husband and her three children are from Syria. I’m going to leave out many personal details because of their fears for family members still in Syria. What I can talk about is what they faced when they arrived in Greece and how the clumsy system that has been put in place and tasked with integrating the refugees into Europe has enormous consequences for thousands of lives. What happened to Manar’s family after they fell within the purview of that system is just one example.

Manar teaching the morning English class at Hotel Rovies

Manar and her husband are both university-educated professionals. Their life in Syria was comfortable and quiet, until they ran afoul of the Assad government. I can’t go into details, but I can say that the reasons behind this were both principled and courageous. Any country, learning their story, should have seen in them ideal candidates to become future citizens.

When things turned dangerous for them, it happened very quickly, and they had to pack up their children and flee immediately with what they could carry. To avoid detection, they split up on their journey out of Syria. Until they met again in Turkey, they had no news of each other’s fate.

In the months after their departure they learned that their house had been destroyed by government shelling, after which everything of any value had been pillaged by rival militia groups. They literally have nothing left to return to in the country that was their home.

They arrived in Greece after a difficult and dangerous journey and discovered, as have so many refugees, that the northern border had been closed with barbed wire and that leaving Greece was now, in practical terms, impossible. They now had three options available to them.


Under the current regulations adopted by the EU as a result of a continuing and rancorous debate over how to deal with the refugees, all refugees must apply for asylum in the first EU country they arrive in. Of course, even now many don’t. Refugees arriving in Greece, in particular, quickly discover – if they didn’t already know – that the austerity regime imposed on Greece by the EU has plunged the country into a 7-year economic depression by many measures worse than the Great Depression of the 1930s. Unemployment is at record levels, economic activity has been decimated, pensions have been cut, and old people are reduced to begging while the young flee the country – economic refugees themselves. Many refugees, particularly young men, find ways to leave Greece illegally, over the northern hills or clinging to the undersides of trucks leaving the port of Patras for Italy.

The EU has established two programs under which refugees can apply to move elsewhere from their country of arrival: relocation and family reunification. One of us will be discussing family reunification in another post. Since Manar and her family didn’t have close family members in Europe, their only option to leave Greece became the relocation program.

Under this program, refugees can apply to emigrate from their country of arrival to another EU country. In practice, this process is completely opaque to the applicants. First, a refugee – or family – must apply to enter the relocation program. If accepted, their file will be forwarded to one of the participating EU countries, generally without the applicants being informed of which country has been chosen for them. The chosen country then vets the application and makes a decision, with little or no input from the applicants. If the country refuses, grounds for refusal are not disclosed to the applicants, and they have no opportunity to address any deficiencies or concerns that may have led to their refusal. Finally, and most importantly, there is no provision to allow them to apply to other countries; a refusal by any country is considered a refusal by all.


This sequence of events played out almost exactly in Manar and her family’s case. First, the family had to apply for relocation via Skype. This involved waiting for days with the whole family in front of a cellphone in their tent until someone was available at the other end. They were then photographed remotely and told their file would be forwarded to a participating country. (Not all members of the EU participate. Most of the former Soviet bloc countries, in fact, are currently refusing to accept refugees.)

Some time later, Manar’s family received a notice to travel to the French embassy for an interview. The family took a 6-hour bus ride from northern Greece to Athens, where they waited several more hours due to a scheduling mistake at the embassy. The interview finally took place and they were told to expect a reply within a month. A month and a half later they were contacted and told to report to the Greek asylum authorities to hear the decision. There, they were told that France had refused them, that the grounds for refusal were secret and that – to their bewilderment – they had no option to apply to another country. Here’s Manar reflecting on the moment when they received the decision.

Manar on relocation rejection from Bill Megalos on Vimeo.

When I first heard Manar’s account I was sure that something was wrong – that they’d been given incorrect information, that someone had taken a dislike to them, or that they’d misunderstood the options available to them. In fact, Manar’s experience sounded so Kafkaesque that we decided to do more research before blogging about it. Since then, we’ve verified Manar’s description with a variety of sources, including people doing legal support for refugees, the office of the Greek Ombudsman for Children, and even the head of UNHCR in Greece. This completely opaque and top-down system is being encountered by thousands of refugees every year; people who have already lost their former lives, their possessions and their loved ones arrive in Europe to be confronted with a bureaucracy that disempowers them and determines their future at the stroke of a pen.

Ironically, this system, largely designed for security, seems to fail even at that task: numerous refugees have recounted to us watching North Africans with fake Syrian passports and even self-declared IS members pass through the system and leave for other countries.

At the end of our interview we asked Manar to reflect upon her family’s journey, upon the upheaval and danger they have been through, and upon the disappointments that have accompanied their arrival in Europe. I listened to her words with mounting respect for her ability to accept and surmount adversity.

Manar on acceptance from Bill Megalos on Vimeo.