Fiscal despair reveals new crisis in Greece

By January 24, 2013

Greece (MNN) — Many Greeks are afraid to imagine a future.

Austerity measures have taken hold, and their bite runs deeper than winter's cold. The new measures limit family benefits and force the middle class to pay over 40% of their annual salary in taxes.

There are three main categories of people feeling austerity's sting, and the first two are related: the unemployed, and the "neo-homeless" (the unemployed and homeless). AMG International Coordinator of Eastern European Ministries Fotis Romeos says, "We have more than 20,000 neo-homeless people in the city of Athens. It's a very tragic situation."

The third category is refugees. "Athens is the hub, actually, the entrance of what we call the ‘Refugee Highway' for people from North Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe who are trying to enter Europe to find a better future."

These groups represent hundreds of thousands of people who can no longer meet their own physical needs. Imagining a future would seem more nightmarish than just trying to survive the day. Romeos says the lack of hope has taken an emotional toll, too. "We have a social crisis. We have seen a lot of people committing suicide because of the crisis. These were normal people who had their homes, who had their families, and all of a sudden, they've seen their salaries reduced by 40% or 50%. That has destroyed the normal life here in Greece."

Roughly one in four Greeks is unemployed, and every second young person is on the dole. Among young people aged 18 to 28 years old, the unemployment rate is 52%. The pain hasn't stopped yet.

The cuts are part of an overall package approved past November in order to qualify Greece for more bailouts in the future. It aims to save Greece up to US$3 billion in 2013. However, despite the necessity to keep from defaulting into bankruptcy, response to the cuts has been volatile.

Another round of cuts last week was met in the public sector with a transportation strike. This week, subway workers in Athens defied a court order to return to work and continued their protest, stretching it into a week-long retort.

Shutters line the shopping districts more than open shops do. Property owners are feeling pressure due to tenants' inability to pay rent. Food prices have skyrocketed, and fuel for heat has jumped by 40%, too. Many can't afford to turn on their heaters or buy wood to burn in fireplaces.

The newly impoverished have been plunged into confusion. With it, comes despair, explains Romeos. "This is what we have been burdened with, as Christians, because we want just to help the people, not only in the physical needs, but we also want to tell them, ‘There is hope.' We have a crisis here, which is not just a financial crisis: we have a spiritual crisis."

This impact has been overshadowed by more urgent concerns like finding food, shelter, or medicine. However, the mental health toll is remarkable. The Greek ministry of public order says suicides rose 37% from 2009 to 2011.

AMG's 70-year presence in Greece has been brought to bear. Romeos says this is evidenced by meeting the two most critical needs. First, he says, "We're working with a network of a lot of churches. We're trying to help with these gigantic crises that we're facing here in Greece. What we're committed to do is help with the food." AMG's ministry teams are coming in to help with operating soup kitchens and distributing food bundles.

Secondly, "We want people just to rediscover their values. We want them to turn to God. We want them to seek help from above." It is that role, remarks Romeos, in which they have seen people dare to hope. "We see a lot of people coming from around the world, especially from Muslim backgrounds, to find Christ here in the city of Athens."

Despite the fact that Greece's story is echoed throughout Ireland, Cyprus, Portugal, and Spain, there is beauty rising from the ashes. "There are more than 90 local migrant churches made up of people from different nationalities from all over the world, here in Athens."

Romeos goes on to say that the hope for the future is being built now. "These churches were not existing 10 years ago. So, we see that in the midst of the crisis, God is working and is calling people to Himself."

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