Greeks rebuild lives after debt crisis wrecked dreams

Published August 19, 2018, 7:41 PM

by Francine Ciasico

By Agence France-Presse

In 2010, Panagiota Kalliakmani had just secured her chemistry degree and dreamed of going into research. Then the Greek economic crisis struck.

As the fiscal crunch ate away a quarter of Greece's economy, some 300,000 Greeks -- among them the best educated and including Panagiota's brother -- emigrated (AFP/ MANILA BULLETIN)
As the fiscal crunch ate away a quarter of Greece’s economy, some 300,000 Greeks — among them the best educated and including Panagiota’s brother — emigrated (AFP/ MANILA BULLETIN)

With the cash-strapped state forced into massive spending cuts, the plug was pulled on myriad research programmes and a police forensics job Panagiota planned to apply for in her home city of Thessaloniki was scrapped.

“The crisis was a slap in the face,” says the 34-year-old, who is now a chef. Working in the kitchen reminds her of being in a lab, she muses.

“We had grown up accustomed to the benefits of living in a European country and suddenly everything came crashing down,” Panagiota said.

As the fiscal crunch ate away a quarter of Greece’s economy, some 300,000 Greeks — among them the best educated and including Panagiota’s brother — emigrated.

Unemployment soared to highs of nearly 28 percent in 2013. Tens of thousands of small and middle-sized businesses had to shut up shop.

Saying goodbye

“The most painful part of this era were the small get-togethers we had to say farewell to friends emigrating for work,” says Natassa Dourida, a 35-year-old civil engineer.

In 2013, Natassa was working in construction, one of the most dynamic sectors of the economy up to that point.

As contracts dried up, she resolved to stay in Athens and became involved in the peer economy that timidly emerged as mainly young Greeks sought to help each other in response to the crisis.

With a Masters’ degree in conservation, Natassa helped in 2015 to set up Communitism, a group that undertakes the restoration of rundown historic buildings for community use.

“The crisis was an opportunity to learn how to live and solve problems together,” she said.

Broken dreams

On August 20, Greece’s third and final bailout officially ends after years of hugely unpopular and stinging austerity measures.

The economy is growing slowly, and unemployment fell to below 20 percent in May for the first time since 2011.

“Greece has managed to get back to its feet,” Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said in a statement earlier this month.

“Now a new page of progress, justice and growth can begin,” he said.

For some, however, rebuilding their lives is not that easy.

“I’m putting back together the pieces of broken dreams,” says Panagiota.

“You need to save yourself. You need to pick up your pieces, gather yourself, see what you are able to do, see what your skills are.”

“Try to do something for yourself because nobody is going to do that for you. Not the state, not the European Union, not anybody else,” she says.

Matina Tetsiou, a mother of two in her forties, not only lost her petrol station job in 2014 but then split up with her husband and struggled to support her family on low unemployment benefits.

Matina now lives with her mother to save rent, but she is unable to pay her social insurance arrears and a 2005 bank loan for a business that failed.

Still, she counts herself lucky to have a part time job.

“It’s enough to feed the children,” she says.

After two years of studies, Panagiota is about to sign her first employment contract as a chef in September.

But she won’t allow herself to get excited over it.

“Nothing is certain. The crisis taught us not to make long-term plans,” she says bitterly.