Even before Greece’s economic crisis engulfed his own home, Dimitris Gasparinatos found it hard to provide for his six sons and four daughters. His wife, Christina, who was struggling to make ends meet with his salary of €960 (£800) a month and welfare aid of about €460 every two months, was unhappy and desperate.
Deep in debt, the couple owed money to the butcher, baker and grocer – the very people who had kept them going in the port of Patras, west of Athens. In their tiny flat, the family slipped increasingly into a life of squalor.
“Psychologically we were all in a bit of a mess,” said Gasparinatos. “We were sleeping on mattresses on the floor, the rent hadn’t been paid for months, something had to be done.”
And so, with Christmas approaching, the 42-year-old took the decision to put in an official request for three of his boys and one daughter to be taken into care.
“The crisis had killed us. I am ashamed to say but it had got to the point where I couldn’t even afford the €2 needed to buy bread,” he told the Guardian. “We didn’t want to break up the family but we did think it would be easier for them if four of my children were sent to an institution for maybe two or three years.”
The next day, his 37-year-old wife visited the local town hall and asked that her children be “saved”.
“She was visibly distraught,” said Theoharis Massaras, the local deputy mayor and director of social works. “Requests for support have shot up. Last year we sent food to 400 families in Patras at Christmas. This year, 1,200 asked for help and they weren’t what I’d call traditionally low-income people. Many had good jobs until this year when their shops and businesses closed.
“But to be asked to take children away was something new. When we visited their home and saw the situation for ourselves, the third world conditions, the poverty and filth, we couldn’t believe our eyes.”
In a nation as proud as Greece, where family always comes first, the plight of the Gasparinatoses quickly hit a nerve. Soon shocked reporters were knocking at their door. But testimony from charities, doctors and unions would attest that they are not alone.
As Greece prepares to endure a fifth consecutive year of recession, as the crisis extends its reach, as cuts take their toll, as poverty deepens and unemployment climbs, evidence is mounting that society is tearing at the seams.
Like the middle class, society’s great connector, families are beginning to unravel under the weight of a crisis that, with no end in sight, is as much human as it is financial.
Tell-tale signs abound that in its quest to beat off bankruptcy, Greece is being hollowed out, a little more, with each passing day.
“People are going hungry, families are breaking up, instances are mounting of mothers and fathers no longer being able to bring up their own kids,” said Ilias Ilioupolis, general secretary of the civil servants’ union ADEDY. “Until now there has been a conspiracy of silence around the tragic effects of the austerity measures the IMF and EU are asking us to take.”
From cases of newborn babies wrapped in swaddling and dumped on the doorsteps of clinics, to children being offloaded on charities and put in foster care, the nation’s struggle to pay off its debts is assuming dramatic proportions, even if officials insist that the belt-tightening and structural reforms will eventually change the EU’s most uncompetitive economy for the better.
Propelled by poverty, 500 families had recently asked to place children in homes run by the charity SOS Children’s Villages, according to the Greek daily Kathimerini. One toddler was left at the nursery she attended with a note that read: “I will not return to get Anna. I don’t have any money, I can’t bring her up. Sorry. Her mother.”
“Unfortunately, there’s been a huge increase in demand from families in need,” said Dimitris Tzouras, a social worker employed with the organisation for 19 years. “In the greater Attica region [of Athens], we’re talking about a 100% increase partly because public welfare is in such disarray people have no one else to turn to.”
Whereas in the past, pleas for help had come mostly from families where abuse was a problem, they are now from victims of the economic crisis.
“Parents who feel they can no longer look after children are calling in, but our policy is to do whatever we can to keep families united,” added Tzouras. “The crisis has exacerbated underlying problems that in the past may just have threatened to tear families apart. It’s not only the vulnerable. It’s now affecting the middle class.”
Few know more about the plight of children abandoned, abused and neglected in Greece than Costas Yannopoulos, who chairs the local charity the Smile of the Child. The Athens headquarters of his 16-year-old organisation is home to children who have endured life’s worst excesses.
Inside the tidy, two-storey building are cots for babies who were abandoned in hospitals, found in windowless homes or taken from unfit parents.
Yannopoulos recalls the baby he discovered in a rubbish dump and the eight-month-old boy whose body had “turned to jelly” lying unloved in an overworked maternity ward.
“The crisis has made a bad situation worse,” he sighed. “Alcoholism, drug abuse and psychiatric problems are on the rise and more and more children are being abandoned on the streets.”
With the country’s health system severely hit by cuts and the spectre of its economy becoming worse before it gets better, Yannopoulos has a plan to host children affected by “this war” in specially established “farms”.
There is, he says, another Greece “of kindness and hospitality and caring about others” that all too often is overlooked.
Last week Dimitris Gasparinatos got good news. After learning of his family’s circumstances, the wife of a wealthy Athenian businessman donated money for him to move to a new home with his wife and 10 children.
“This good woman has changed our lives. She has allowed us to hope again,” he said. “The crisis has taken us places we never wanted to go. By the New Year, thanks to her, we will be in a new house, all together.”