Grassroots groups doing their bit to help the crisis’s biggest victims

Costas Polychronopoulos worked in the marketing department of a multinational firm until 2009 when he was downsized at the age of 45.

“I looked for a job for around two years but no one would hire me because of my age,” he told Kathimerini. “In the end I just gave up hope and became something of a recluse.”

In September 2011, however, Polychronopoulos witnessed something that changed his entire attitude toward being unemployed.

“I saw some kids fighting over a garbage can in Egaleo,” he said of his experience in the western Athenian suburb. “It broke my heart. I went home, made about a dozen sandwiches and I took them to the kids. They refused to take them. I sat down on the sidewalk and ate one. After that they trusted me and came and got the food.”

The lesson that Polychronopoulos learned that day was that poverty and unemployment do not necessarily have to lead to a loss of dignity and pride.

The following day after the incident in Egaleo, Polychronopoulos and two of his friends went to the local open-air market and asked customers to donate one potato, one onion, etc, until they had enough ingredients to prepare a large meal for the same kids. Several customers became interested in their initiative and asked if they could help. That day led to a food program called “Allos Anthropos” (Different Person), which organizes soup kitchens at various public spaces in Athens.

“Unemployed, homeless and sick people come to the kitchen. People with jobs, even entrepreneurs, come to participate and help. As time went by I realized that the people who came to help had a problem of their own: they needed to communicate,” said Polychronopoulos.

The crisis, according to Polychronopoulos, is not a one-dimensional struggle for survival, but a complex situation that demands a change of stance toward life in general.

This is the message that was put across at the second festival of solidarity and cooperative economy at the Municipality of Elliniko in southern Athens on October 12-13, which was attended by some 50 groups running similar social initiatives.

The groups participating in the event cover a broad spectrum of activities from food handouts and free healthcare provision, to campaigns promoting a more eco-friendly and cost-effective lifestyle. There were also seminars on healthy eating and workshops presenting how to make a range of products at home, such as DIY toothpaste, laundry detergent and soap. Classes in basic sewing, dancing and photography added a creative note to proceedings.

“We are showing people what we do and hope that this will inspire them to participate more actively as well,” said Christina Papadopoulou, one of the organizers.

Polychronopoulos, meanwhile, continues to feed the indigent. He explained why “Allos Anthropos” is different to other soup kitchens.

“When you go to a soup kitchen run by a municipality or a church you may get asked to display some form of identification. If I had to present my identity card in order to be given some food, I would die. Even if you are in dire need of food, you should not have to humiliate yourself for it.”

“The different person, as our group is called, is inside all of us. It is solidarity. When you’re being charitable, you are offering something which you have in abundance. When you are acting in solidarity, you are giving when you have little yourself. That is the difference,” said Polychronopoulos.