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July 20, 2011

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Greece threatened with long-term poverty

PovertyImage via Wikipedia
This time, the fight for survival last exactly 29 minutes. At precisely 3 p.m., Father Andreas, a 37-year-old Greek Orthodox priest, opens the doors of the food bank in downtown Athens. At this hour, the line of hungry people stretches all the way across the large square outside and into the street. Needy people of all ages are waiting patiently -- pensioners, unemployed people, mothers with children, immigrants, asylum seekers. "We can't let these people starve," the priest says. "They are already suffering so much. They should at least not go without food."

It is a charitable deed. But in just under half an hour, all of the kitchen's 1,200 servings have been taken, causing several dozen people to leave with empty hands and growling stomachs. They can only hope to be among the lucky ones next time.

Katarina was one of the lucky ones. The 44-year-old got her hands on eight servings of a salad made of carrots, potatoes and peas, several yoghurts and a bag of bread -- the only food her family will have today. Katarina is ashamed and prefers not to give her full name. She and her 7-year-old daughter have to take a bus in from a suburb and travel all the way across the sprawling city just to get a warm meal.

Katarina was laid off from her job at a biscuit factory roughly a year ago. Since then, she's been forced to rely on the handouts paid for by what Father Andreas calls "holy money." Katarina says there are no more jobs to be had. "No one will even pay you to stuff mailboxes with advertisements anymore," she says. "Greece is finished." 

Skyrocketing Need 

Spyros Xaplanteris has been coming to the food bank for a year. His shirt is greasy, his trousers tattered. "I'm driven here by need," he say. The 62-year-old lost his job in the storeroom of a Hilton hotel. "It hurts," he says. "But what am I supposed to do? I'm broke."

For weeks, thousands of enraged Greeks have been holding anti-government demonstrations outside Greece's parliament building. They come with bullhorns and banners, and a couple hundred also bring stones and Molotov cocktails. Camera crews from around the world are always there to film them, but they never turn their lenses toward those in the dark back alleys of central Athens.

In recent weeks, the needs of such people have been keeping Father Andreas and his colleagues very busy. Almost all of the 400 parishes in the Archdiocese of Athens have opened food banks like the one he runs. City officials have opened some as well. 

His food bank distributes meals three times at day. Up to 2,000 come at noon, another 1,200 in the afternoon, and about another 1,000 in the evening. The workers try to make sure that they don't always supply the same people. Such vigilance is necessary because "the number of needy is skyrocketing," says one volunteer who estimates that the figure has increased by 30 percent in recent months. "But we can't be sure it will stay there," she says.

Most people who come to the food bank are so hungry that they eat their food right there on the square. They hunker down on benches and walls covered with pigeon droppings and drink water from sprinkler hoses.

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