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Reportage from Athens . The open wounds of the Greek crisis along Omonia’s narrow streets

The story of the Greek crisis, now in its seventh year, told by a former homeless man, Lambros Mustakis, who managed to make ends meet by selling copies of the monthly magazine "Shedia", the Greek word for “lifeboat.” Lambros guided us through the narrow streets of the Omonia district, in one of the most tragically authentic pictures of today’s Greece. He shared his story with a small group of Italian youths. “I was left without a job and ended up sleeping on the streets, having to seek food and water, and a place where to wash.  If you don’t wash yourself you end up stinking, and nobody draws near you or wants to talk to you.” It’s the life of many people in Greece today

“Shedia” is the Greek word for “lifeboat.” It’s the name of the only street newspaper in Greece, founded in 2013, when the economic downturn in the Country was in full swing, by a group of homeless persons. For many of them, “Shedia” truly acted as a lifeboat which helped them avoid being dragged into the maelstrom of poverty caused by the Greek crisis, which is clinging to what remains of a Country whose economy dropped by almost 25% after seven years, with unemployment rates that peaked to over 25%, reaching 50% among the young. Not to mention the huge public debt amounting to approximately 180% of GDP.

There is increasing anticipation over the Eurogroup summit of June 15, called to decide on aid and debt relief for Greece ranging from 7 to 10 bn Euro, which would provide some respite to Premier Alexis Tzipras, in office since 2015.

 “Shedia’s” offices are located in the district of Omonia, whose narrow streets display the open wounds of the crisis. The faded shutters of shops closed down a long time ago, bear the words “politai” (for sale), many signs read “for rent”.

The once thriving artisan shops and workshops have been replaced by semi-deserted minimarts run by Chinese, Pakistanis and Sinhalese. Walking on the sidewalks is a zigzag between the displayed goods, fruits, suitcases, knick-knackery, and destitute persons lying on the ground, trying to overcome a hangover caused by too much alcohol. From here, the sunny Acropolis is almost a mirage. One of the “Shedia” workers is Lambros Mustakis, 55, of Brazilian mother and Greek father. His unfulfilled dream is to “be a human rights advocate”, with a passion for theatrical acting.

 

After having worked in Brazil and Argentina, in 1997 he returned to Greece. Speaking five languages, he found a job at a hotel chain. Until in 2011, when his employer was forced to shut down the hotels owing to the economic crisis, he was left unemployed. “In those years I still had a home – Lambros said, with a smile – but when I was fired I lost everything I had. I ended up sleeping on the streets, seeking food and drink, along with places where to wash myself: if you are dirty you start to stink, and nobody draws near you or wants to talk to you.

I wasn’t begging for alms. All I wanted was someone to listen to me and help me get back on my feet.”

Many people in today’s Greece are living in these conditions and not all of them manage to make a comeback like Lambros did. “I’m not talking about the homeless who deliberately decided to live on the streets, but of those who ended up on the streets after having lost their jobs – Lambros pointed out –. When you lose everything you have you are left with two options: either you continue being an honest, dignified person, or you start to commit street crimes and end up dying of alcohol and drugs.”

Today Lambros lives on the sales of “Shedia”, three Euro per issue, “1.50 Euros go to the seller.” He and his coworkers sell 27 thousand copies from Athens to Thessaloniki. “Each month I manage to put together some 300 Euros that help me keep going.” In addition to his role as seller Lambros accompanies small group of people along Athens’ so-called “invisible routes”, where he lived as a homeless person, such as soup-kitchens, dormitories, day-centres, medical clinics, sharing his memories and motivating participants in the fight against poverty. Invisible places to the eyes of those arriving in Greece to admire the Acropolis, the Parthenon, the Parliament building, the Agora, or the other artistic beauties of the capital’s ancient history. Today there is a more recent story that needs to be told. It has the face of the many Greeks and migrants (estimated to be 60 thousand) who remained in Greece after the Balkan Route was closed. Today’s story is one of “the great hotels such as Hotel Ionis, in Omonia, rented out by Athens’ municipality to house poor families and people with no other place to go. The crisis caused cuts in social funds – Lambros said – so cancer and AIDS patients are often seen living in the same shelter home. Hospitals lack beds and the medicines are extremely expensive.” Vathi Square, a few blocks away, “was filled with drug-dealers before the Police cleaned it out four years ago. But drug-addiction activity continued in the adjacent streets, where in the evening “sisha”, called the “crisis drug”, which can be produced at almost zero costs, is consumed. A dose can be purchased for less than two Euros. It destroys internal organs and leads to death by hemorrhage after a few months. Many people take it.” Nearby, between the trees of a small street, is located the soup-kitchen of Caritas Hellas, one of the local Catholic Church’s initiatives to meet the needs of the population. We continue walking in the direction of the National Greek Theatre, in Agiou Konstadinou. Eighty per cent of those living in the area behind the theatre, Lambros went on, “are migrants, 20% are Greek.  Here, the neo-Nazi Party Golden Dawn, currently facing a trial on charges of organized crime, is the first political Party.”

Odos Sapfous is a few steps away. Here the “municipal soup-kitchen distributes 1700 warm meals every day. They previously offered a second course, but the cuts in funding make it no longer affordable.” The last step of this “invisible route” is Athens’ Old Market. “At dawn, when the stalls are closed, it’s full of drug-dealers and prostitutes. Those who can, find a shelter for the night in some remote corner, waiting for dawn.”

It’s time to say good-bye. Lambros’ gaze goes to the group of eight youths from the diocese of Acqui, accompanied by their priest, Fr Mario Montanaro, in Athens for a week of volunteering work for the refugees and the poor.

They silently followed his every step. His last words for them were:

“Never give up. Stay united, cultivate your families, true friendships, honesty and goodness, and all the doors will open up.”

“When I was in the chasm of desperation I asked God to help me continue leading an honest life. He sent me this lifeboat, that is Shedia. I started living again.”

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