Greeks go back to basics as recession bites

By Chloe Hadjimatheou
BBC News, Evia, Greece

image captionThe members of the community on the isle of Evia live off the land

As Greece sinks ever deeper into the most severe economic depression in living memory, some young people are taking drastic action to change their lives.

In the spring of 2010, just as the Greek government was embarking on some of its harshest austerity measures, 29-year-old Apostolos Sianos packed in his well-paid job as a website designer, gave up his Athens apartment and walked away from modern civilisation.

In the foothills of Mount Telaithrion on the Greek island of Evia, Mr Sianos and three other like-minded Athenians set up an eco-community.

The idea was to live in an entirely sustainable way, free from the ties of money and cut off from the national electricity grid.

'Crisis of civilisation'

The group sleeps communally in yurts they have built themselves, they grow their own food and exchange the surplus in the nearest village for any necessities they cannot produce.

"What others saw as a global economic crisis, we saw as a crisis of civilisation," Mr Sianos explains.

"Everything seemed to be in crisis - healthcare, the environment, education. So we made the decision to try something different."

Mr Sianos and his eco-activist companions first met in an online forum in 2008 and after two years of exploring ideas decided to put their principles into practice.

"When I first made the decision to give up the city and move to this patch of land I was a little nervous," he admits.

"But now I can't imagine ever being attracted by that kind of lifestyle again."

The community calls itself "Free and Real" - an acronym for Freedom of Resources for Everyone, Respect, Equality, Awareness and Learning.

image captionAnything the commune does not use is exchanged for other goods

Now in its second year, it has 10 permanent members and more than 100 part-time residents who spend some of the year there.

But the last few months have seen an explosion of interest in the community from Greeks who feel let down by the system and find life in the financially crippled cities stifling.

Last year the country's economy shrank by 7% and 2012 could see a similar dip; in real terms that means thousands of businesses going bust and tens of thousands of people being laid off.

A recent survey by Thessaloniki University suggested 76% of Greeks would like to emigrate, but for those who cannot afford to start a new life abroad, going back to farming the land is an increasingly attractive alternative.

Mr Sianos says that this year has seen an enormous movement of people from big cities to the countryside, with many contacting his community to ask for advice on sustainable living and organic farming.

"The Greek financial crisis is not all negative," he says.

"It is providing a huge opportunity for people to see that the system they live in is not working, so they can begin looking for alternatives."

Seasonal jobless

Hundreds of miles away, another group of young Greeks is taking an entirely different approach to the dire circumstances their country finds itself in.

Like most people in Greece's fourth-largest city Heraklion, Andonis Sklavenitis is what he calls an "insecure worker".

Last year he worked a few months helping out on an archaeological dig and this year he has managed to get a few shifts a week as an airport security guard.

image captionNikos Karantinakis says his family has to survive with the help of food handouts

Since leaving university with a degree in tourism he has worked in bars, restaurants and shops, but in almost every one of those jobs his employers have refused to give him sick pay, holidays or pay his national insurance contributions.

To make matters worse it is all seasonal work. As soon as the summer is over he will rejoin the growing numbers of unemployed.

Mr Sklavenitis's experience is typical; Crete has the highest jobless rate of any region in the country, with nearly one in four people out of work and many others in unstable positions without decent conditions.

In 2010, when Mr Sklavenitis and his unemployed friends realised that their numbers were growing, they decided it was time they stood up for their rights.

They established the first Association of the Unemployed, which had two main objectives: to fight for decent working conditions and to provide practical and psychological support to those struggling financially.

After the latest round of cuts, unemployment benefit in Greece is now around 350 euros (£273; $431) per month, but only those who have up-to-date national insurance contributions are eligible; and even then it only lasts for one year.

"When the 12 payments are up you are completely on your own," Mr Sklavenitis says.

Among the association's demands are free travel on public transport for the jobless, as well as discounts on electricity and telephone bills.

One member who desperately needs help with his bills is Nikos Vrahasotakis.

The 30-year-old does odd jobs as a cleaner, making around 10 euros daily, barely enough to feed his young family.

"I just got an electricity bill for 600 euros; it is the fourth bill they have sent, so I am expecting them to cut us off any day," he says.

Food and support

Mr Vrahasotakis, who is not entitled to state benefits, lives with his wife and 18-month-old daughter in an old building that used to be a canteen.

"In the winter it is freezing and a few months ago part of the ceiling caved in," he says.

image captionThe Association of Unemployed organises demonstrations to call for more government support

Without the support of the association he says he would not be able to cope.

"If I didn't have that connection with other people in my position, which reassures me that I am not alone, I would probably have killed myself by now," he admits.

As well as the psychological support the association provides, they also distribute food parcels to families in dire circumstances.

Director Nikos Karantinakis, 31, says he and his whole family - father, mother and fiancee - are all unemployed and depend on food handouts to supplement the little they manage to grow in their garden.

"There are arguments every day at home because everyone is so stressed," he says.

It is estimated that around 1,000 people a day are losing their jobs in Greece and already the percentage of the population not working is higher than those who are employed. It is those under the age of 35 who have been the hardest hit.

"Our whole generation is on hold," Mr Karantinakis says.

He and his fiancee are unable to plan a future together. Starting a family is completely out of the question.

Since the Association of Unemployed was created in Crete, other chapters have been cropping up around the country, in big cities such as Athens, Thessaloniki and Patras.

Beyond the support it provides its members, Mr Karantinakis says the association has had few successes, but it has allowed him to feel he is doing something.

Before he began focusing on unemployed rights he used to sit in his room staring at the ceiling. Now he spends his days petitioning local government and organising demonstrations.

"Being able to work is a basic human right in a civilised society," he says.

"If the government won't provide us with it then we will have to fight for it."

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