Samos Diary February 2012
By Chris Jones at Apr 01, 2012
Christmas Eve saw me driving into Karlovassi to get the food shopping for the holiday period. We had only returned from England the day before where Christmas hysteria was in full swing. I was not expecting to find that level of panic but I was expecting hassle as people stocked up and did last minute shopping. But at 9.30am on Christmas Eve, the car park at the main supermarket in Karlovassi was near empty – I counted 6 cars – and it was pretty much the same inside. I was amazed, as it seemed even quieter than ever.
Friends from the village who went later to do their shopping said by lunch time it was busy but all agreed that this Christmas and New Year would be very different given the crisis. And by crisis they are not referring to the stuff in the newspapers about bail outs and the euro but the crisis of everyday living – no money, no work, and no future.
On Christmas day we cooked and ate with 8 Greek friends, of whom four had no jobs and no secure income from anywhere and two were working – one in the family business and the other for a local farmer. Since his contract ended in October, Yanni has only managed to find casual work and the farm work is just the latest of a string of ‘little jobs’. For 12 hours work a day he is being paid 20 euros. He needs the money but just as important for Yanni is that he is doing something. Have nothing to do drives people crazy.
Yanni’s experience is now unusual in the sense that he has managed to find a few days of work every week since his job on the archeological site finished in October. Many on the island have not even managed that. Winter does not help as the weather restricts work on the land and what little new building work is available. But what is especially significant about Yanni’s position is that it shows how Greek workers are now increasingly doing jobs that were once the monopoly of refugees and undocumented workers, and more importantly at the same miserable wages.
New Year seemed even more poignant for this is a common time for people to reflect on the year past and the year to come. For most 2011 was a dark year but 2012 looks to be blacker still. It’s the lack of any prospect for improvement which is so demoralising and disheartening. It is hurting people so much. The fact that I am being told about the growing number of suicides in Athens by an 80 year old Greek American within minutes of meeting him at a New Year’s Eve party pretty much captured the mood.
Some of our time over this period was taken up first trying to get Tariq out the country and then getting him back to Samos. Tariq is the brother of our Algerian friend who has settled and married on Samos. Since Tariq was expelled from Sweden where he had lived and worked for 7 years, he has spent most of his time on Samos. I have learnt that the majority of refugees try to get to places where they have family and close friends. Without any kin or friendship support survival is almost impossible for refugees here. Like others in his situation, last winter was a nightmare for Tariq with no work followed by casual tourist trade jobs in the summer. During the summer this work dried up totally as the downward escalator threw the migrants and refugees out of the local labour market. So in August Tariq headed for Athens to try and get enough work to pay for a set of forged papers which he hoped would get him to Italy and then on to his sister in France and later to Sweden. But Athens proved to be a nightmare. A massive city which in the past always could be relied upon to offer some kind of work no matter how risky or low-paid was now offering nothing. Relying on a network of Algerian refugee friends in Athens he was able to live with little or no income. But it was always hard for us to know the real situation as Tariq never ever complains and when we called him he always wanted to reassure us that all was ok. But just before Christmas it was clear that all was not ok.
Tariq’s life in Athens with no money was so painful and humiliating especially as he never wants to be a problem or burden. He was clearly amazed to find no work. The strain on the already hard pressed and vulnerable, including the refugees who gravitate there from the Greek borders is becoming intolerable. As Sofiane, Tariq’s brother told me, you can’t ask anyone for help now as you know they are in exactly the same situation as yourself. The meager sources of survival are simply evapourating by the day. In the past Sofiane said you could go to previous employers where you had a good experience and they would often try and see you over with some small job. But now nothing. They want to help in many cases said Sofiane, but now they have nothing to give.
The systems of survival, at least those of Sofiane and his north African friends, are informed by a strong sense of ethics; a kind of moral economy. Cash borrowed is nearly always paid back, even if it is immediately borrowed again. I have seen a 20 euros be paid back and then promptly re -lent. Thieving is not considered an option. To have to resort to theft means total defeat for them and implies all hope and dignity have been abandoned. This is what they are desperate to avoid.
I have found it hard to grasp just how young guys like Sofiane and Tariq survive in this situation just as I did when I was in the West Bank where again people seemed to get by on virtually no cash income. And in both Greece and Palestine the most significant sources of help come from friends and family. Tariq told me on his latest return from Athens that without money (sent via Western Union) from family and relatives at home many would be in real difficulty. In other words, those who travelled at often great risk and expense in order to be able to support their families at home now find themselves relying on these relatives to survive. (I wonder, given the size of the Western Union network just how much money they make from these cash transfers amongst the poorest of the world?)
Refugees are always being hassled by the police in Greece. Tariq returned to Samos describing new levels of harassment in Athens. Being pulled to check your papers is now a daily occurrence rather than an occasional risk. Tariq had lost his paper concerning his refugee status so whenever he was stopped he was detained until the authorities in Samos verified his identity. Not only was this repeated many times a week but Tariq told of how police coaches are now parked up in central Athens and are ferrying refugees throughout the day to police stations for these checks. And the outcome for 99.9% of them is to be released after a few hours. Back to the streets and back to being stopped. This circus of messing the refugees about is now a daily event.
In late November some money was sent to help Tariq get new false papers and the bus fare to Patras where he planned to get on a ferry to Italy and out of Greece. He failed. His new false papers were taken at the port and he was told to bugger off basically. With little money left he made his way to Kalamata which is not so far from Patras and where he had a friend where he could stay and maybe through whom he could find some work. He was there for 3 weeks. Not only was it like Athens in having no work, it was also like Athens in that the police were forever on his back which led him to being held for 4 days in the police jail before yet again being released with nothing, to fend for himself.
The jail in Kalamata provided no showers or washing facilities, and food consisted of being allowed 6 euros a day to be used for ordering food and drink via the guards from outside shops and cafes. Many according to Tariq usually spent half this allowance on cigarettes, for as he said there is nothing like a smoke to keep you from feeling too hungry.
Finally Tariq decided that he had to come back to Samos not the least to put his refugee papers in order which can only be done here as this was his entry point into Greece. The ‘rose card’ as it is called here indicates that you have an asylum case pending and have rights to stay though not to travel outside the country. It also has some medical rights. Sofian claims that the Greek government gets 50 euros a day (from the UN’s Refugee agency) for each person issued with a rose card. If so where is this money going?
Tariq returned to Samos in the middle of January. He left nearly 6 months ago to get out. He is back again.
It is has not helped that the past three weeks have been really cold here. For most of the last week the daily temperatures have hovered around zero in the village. We have heard of no fatalities on Samos as yet but in Crete four people sleeping rough have died through the cold in the last month. But it is not just a problem for the homeless. Most of the houses of our friends are like refrigerators. It goes without saying that heating is now such an expense that many of those we know move into one room – usually the bedroom – and try to keep warm. I suspect that if hibernation was on offer many here would take it.
But what to do? This is the foremost question in our minds and those of our friends. Many people are asking this question. One thing is for certain is that no one is expecting anything from the Greek state either in Athens or in Samos so people look to themselves for possibilities. In the last week, we have heard of 3 different sets of people now talking about the possibility of snail farming on the island. Snails don’t figure much in the diet here but in Athens it seems that there is still a big demand and we heard figures of 5 to 6 euros per kilo being mentioned. Snail farms it appears have the advantage of requiring little in the way of funding to get going – as long as you have access to land - although I have no idea what else is involved in producing the 50 kilos of snails a week which might just provide a basic living wage on the island. Moreover, if we know of 3 budding snail farmers you can be sure that there are hundreds more thinking on the same lines all over Greece. Could it be that snails will take over Athens? Another person in the village told us that he was planning to remove some of his vines and plant up to half an acre of arona berry bushes. Arona fruits are apparently the new super fruits which exceed pomegranate juice for health benefits and look to promise a good return.
We have heard many ideas for projects as people consider what to do. Samos has no camping site, has no public transport system which links the villages to the nearest towns, has done little to develop ‘green tourism’ which is so suited to the island with its abundance of wild flowers, and footpaths through the hills and mountains. There are endless possibilities but no resources to get anything off the ground – hence the snail farms.
One thing is for sure is that things won’t stand still either here in Samos or in the rest of Greece. Too many things are sliding downwards. The acute pressures on survival which are felt so hard amongst the refugees are embracing more and more of the people. There are now so many signs that the traditional capacity (much over stated in my view) of the Greek family to sustain and reproduce the majority of the population is under massive pressure. Suicides, homelessness, children abandoned and malnourished are all remorselessly rising. We are entering a fifth straight year of economic recession, savage in its impact on the vast majority of the people. What else would you expect?
At the moment the response here to these developments is probably best described as confusing and confused. This is not helped by the fact that it is winter now. Bad weather and no money mean that most people stay at home. The roads are incredibly free of traffic. Maria, our friend who works in the filling station says that it is very rare for anyone to ask for a fill-up. A couple of months ago the most common sale was 30 euros of petrol a time, now the most common is 20. All these factors mean that it has been difficult to gauge the general mood, even in the village.
Until recently what seems to be have stirred people the most at the moment was the decision to replace the island’s ferry link to Piraeus/Athens with a 40 year old ship whilst the much younger ferry is refitted and serviced. Although only 35 minutes away by plane, it now takes up to 14 hours to travel from Athens on to Samos. But what has angered people here the most is not just that this ferry adds 3 to 4 hours to the journey time but that it is so old and hence thought to be unsafe. It touches on the raw feelings left by the sinking of the Golden Vergina just over a decade earlier in September 2000 when 80 people died when the last worn out and aged ferry was operating the Samos/Piraeus route. Many of the dead were from the island and returning home when it sank approaching Paros. So over the past few weeks we have seen our ferry service disrupted both here and at other islands it calls at en route to Piraeus including Ikaria. Last week demonstrators stopped the ferry from docking in Samos town and the passengers and vehicles were stuck in the harbour for nearly 12 hours before being allowed to dock at a minor quay on the other side of the bay from the main harbour. Ironically, 2 of our friends who have used the ferry in the past month described it as comfortable and elegant in an old fashioned sense.
It seems pretty obvious to us that the outrage and activity over this clapped out ferry is fueled by the deep anger over the crisis. Here at least is something tangible and local at which to express our anger over our situation. It also stands a chance of succeeding as the goal is clear and equivocal – a faster, new ship whereas the crisis seems unfathomable.
However, the weekend of February 11/12, 2012 marked a discernible shift in mood. Sunday 12th February saw the latest vote on the Troika imposed plan for ensuring Greece stays in the Euro Zone. The parliamentarians voted yes. Over the course of the ‘negotiations’ not only did it become increasingly evident that the Greeks had lost any semblance of control over their affairs but that they were being subjected to daily external humiliations. Internally, all this was accompanied by a cacophony from the political class and their media that any alternative other than the Euro would be utterly catastrophic for the country and its people. Nightmare scenarios of no hospitals, schools, mass unemployment and rocketing prices were continually being broadcast with the clear message that the current and projected austerity was far better than any other option.
On Samos, and in most of Greece, this strategy of frightening people has backfired and stirred new deeper levels of anger. On Sunday evening I walked into a heated discussion in the village mini market with 2 older women. How dare the government try and tell them that there was disaster ahead unless they signed up to harsher austerity. The crisis is here and now they said. People freezing in their homes, no work, no money. Talk is of young people leaving the island and families fracturing. State employment which was so highly prized for its security is now a nightmare not the least because banks can take loan repayments directly from their salaries something which does not occur in the private sector. Costa’s police friend took home 48 euros last month after debt deductions. He is married with 2 children. His salary had already been cut from 1,200 euros last year to 700 euros a month this year. He has been a policeman for over 25 years. This example can be repeated endlessly.
Alongside all the fears and anxieties there is a rage now – at the Troika, the EU and the Greek political elites and bourgeois. Some of it is unpleasant and not thought through such as the anger at Germany and Merkel and Sarkosy, although here on Samos this is not the primary focus of resentment. This is reserved for their own leaders who are seen as being completely out of touch with the people. How else could they vote for more austerity when 2 years of this garbage has seen life for so many destroyed and deformed? All of our friends and neighbours here tell us that those politicians who voted yes on Sunday will never again be elected.
When Papandreou called for a referendum on austerity before Christmas (which never happened and led to the installation of the banker’s representative - Papademos - as prime minister) he was relying on polls which showed that 65% or so of the population wanted to stay in the euro. That figure is now below 50% and falling daily. For the people, the idea of being outside the euro is not looking so frightening and certainly not as frightening as what is being imposed by the Troika which includes no strategy for growth and development and promises deeper hardship for decades to come. “Bring it on” was Nondas our farmer neighbour’s comment when asked about leaving the euro. “At least we gain some control over our destiny and can have some hope again.”
We are in deep shit here. I don’t know anybody who does not share that assessment. As Costas told me only this morning, old systems and patterns are and will continue to break down and new structures, parties and movements are going to emerge. Just what they might look like is still too difficult to discern, although it is now fairly evident that parties such as PASOK which have shared power with the conservatives for the past 3 decades look doomed. The European ‘ideal’ which was so strong here 10 years ago is in tatters and the people feel isolated and abandoned especially by the governments in the north of Europe. At this point we are in need of solidarity from the people of these countries who recognize what is being imposed on the Greek people is a crime against humanity. It would mean so much to the people here and make us that bit stronger and less afraid.
At least each passing day brings warmer weather ever closer.