Crisis-hit Greeks put own woes aside to help refugees

Crisis-hit Greeks put own woes aside to help refugees

Their own wages and pensions have been slashed by the debt crisis, but thousands of Greeks are putting their economic woes aside to help desperate refugees trapped in the country by the Balkan border blockade.

People old and young, from couples with babies to pensioners and teenagers, came to Athens' Syntagma Square on Sunday loaded with bottles of water, medicine, pasta, nappies and clothes.

Panayiotis, a 32-year-old accountant, was just one of those determined to help. "Greek people know what it is to be a refugee," said Panayiotis, a volunteer with the Red Cross at the Sunday donation organized by a social solidarity network.

"My grandmother came from Turkey in the 1920s. She had to leave everything there and she arrived in Thessaloniki with nothing. A lot of people in Greece have grandparents who experienced this exodus. This is maybe why we are helping those people," he said.

With Greek state services overwhelmed by the arrival of around a million people in a year – most en route to countries in northern Europe – the support of volunteers and private donations has been invaluable in helping aid groups manage the crisis.

Like Panayiotis, many donors say they are motivated by the suffering of family relatives who became refugees themselves in the 20th century when Turkey progressively expelled a sizeable Greek minority from Istanbul and Asia Minor.

Giorgos and his wife have came to Syntagma Square with bags of food and clothes after seeing television images of migrants stuck at Idomeni on the Greek side of the Greek border with Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) where over 13,000 people are camping in miserable conditions waiting to cross.

FYROM is only allowing a few hundred people through every day, while thousands more continue to arrive from Turkey.

"The only thing we want is to help those people. We saw them on TV in Idomeni. A friend of mine says that we stopped being human as soon as we became citizens ourselves," said the 70-year-old pensioner.

Alexandra Fitas, a 22-year-old sociology student, brought packets of pasta.

"I heard about it through some friends on Friday. I couldn't bring more, but if everybody brings a little we can make something good," she said.

Not everyone has been so eager to help. Some refugees coming from the islands say they were offered food and water at exorbitant prices and asked to pay shop owners to charge their cellphones.

In northern Greece, locals have taken matters into their own hands to dissuade the creation of migrant facilities.

Farmers in Pella prefecture, last week ploughed a field a day before army engineers were due to arrive to start constructing a new camp.

And last month, a fire broke out in a disused army camp near the town of Grevena where another accommodation facility was to be created.

In a poll published in February, more than two-thirds of Greeks voiced sympathy for the refugees but just over half said they would "rather not" see them settle in the country.

In Syntagma Square, 52-year-old designer Anastasis said the response had been overwhelming with around 10,000 people turning up with donations.

"I came here this morning to bring what I could, and now I am staying here just to observe people coming and going. I am amazed by the number of people giving stuff," said the designer who brought rain jackets and blankets.

The supplies will be going to refugee camps set up by the government around the capital in a frantic effort to ensure a minimum level of shelter for people who may have to spend several weeks there.

One of the improvised camps is at the main port of Piraeus, where the refugees and migrants land from the islands after being registered by police there.

"Nobody was thinking that so many people would have come to bring stuff. Half an hour after we started, we already had 40 big boxes of croissants, 20 boxes of pasta, 15 of juice," said Dimitra, one of the organizers.

"We brought medicine and diapers. We really want to help the children, we heard a lot of them were sick," said Angelos, who came with his wife and child.

The situation is at its most dire, however, at Idomeni, where the UN refugee agency and the Doctors Without Borders (MSF) charity have warned for days that food distribution and sanitation are stretched to breaking point.

MSF has said there ought to be eight times the number of toilets at the site.

The government this weekend said it was mobilizing the area's state medical services as aid groups warned of imminent risks to the health of exposed refugees and their children.

"Primary healthcare in the region of Idomeni will be fully covered" by state health services, the government's refugee crisis unit said on Saturday. [AFP]

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