Sunday, January 31, 2016

Reforms, Roadblocks, and Refugees in Greece’s Mid-Winter Spring

Chickens, Flowers, Goats, and Greens

In the middle of a newspaper article about recent Greek political events, this interpolation surprised me: “After the meeting, a 51-year-old woman was arrested outside the Maximos Mansion for throwing a live chicken into the front yard of the building.” This strange sentence about a farm animal in Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’s yard in Athens appeared in an otherwise unremarkable discussion about the leftist prime minister and the new conservative centrist party leader, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who were said to “find little common ground in [their] first meeting.” As Tsipras, his SYRIZA colleagues, and their right-wing coalition partner ANEL prepare for their attempt to push wildly unpopular pension reforms through parliament, Greece’s New Democracy party chose 47 year old Mitsotakis as its leader and moved ahead in polls. But in that news article, it was the woman with the chicken that really stood out.

That interjection strikes me as very Greek. In addition to countless stray cats and dogs, sheep and chickens share my semi-rural Cretan neighborhood. Large flocks of sheep sometimes block the main road, and a herd of goats regularly grazes just beyond the neighborhood, tended by a shepherd who keeps it away from flower and vegetable gardens. The local roosters could turn into dinner at any time, although the hens are valued for their eggs. Since middle-aged and older women generally handle them, it’s not surprising that a 51 year old woman was holding a live chicken. Only its appearance in Athens and intrusion in the prime minister’s yard make this newsworthy. What was her point? That the Prime Minister needs to think more about how people will pay for necessities if taxes and social insurance contributions are increased? That chickens don’t usually roam around the nation’s capital to offer sustenance to the hungry? That proposed tax, insurance, and pension reforms could jeopardize the livelihood of rural folks who provide the country’s meat and produce?

One day, I followed a goat path up a rocky, muddy hillside for an unimpeded view of a striking cloudscape. I was surprised by three dogs roaming around among the wild shrubs, where I generally meet no one. Looking up, I saw their owner and said (in Greek) “Hello! How are you?” “Happy New Year,” he responded (with the greeting of the month). Then, after a moment, “Do we know each other?” I didn’t think so, but he thought I was very polite. I considered it best to be friendly and noticeable, since some Cretan men with dogs carry hunting rifles.

On the hillside, I discovered that lavender buds were almost ready to open in the warm sun of our mid-winter spring, and tiny purple thyme flowers were blooming. I plucked a pinch of each and inhaled their scent. Higher up, I encountered inch-wide daisy-shaped flowers with purple spots in the center and miniature crocuses with six pointed white petals and bright yellow centers. As I crouched down to photograph them, attempting to avoid thorny shrubs, I was startled to hear the honks of some invisible geese. The honking was soon replaced by gentler chirps, distant dog barks, and nearby bee buzzes. 

Descending the hill, I heard the bells that herald the animals of a grizzled goatherd I’ve spoken with a number of times. Having seen me gathering wildflowers, he asked where my flowers were. I was taking photos instead of blossoms that day, since it was very wet after the rain, and my sneakers weren’t appropriate for the eight inches of soggy sorrel under the olive groves where purple and pink anemones had called to me last time I went by, offering a lovely bouquet with a few early daisies.

The friendly goatherd suggested I gather wild greens, since many are now in season. I’d thought of that myself after noticing older couples searching for them. He offered to show me which were edible before noticing that my sneakers wouldn’t hold up next to his knee-high rubber boots. I was glad a friend arrived in an old pickup truck to distract him with a missing animal problem, and I got away with an offer of a lesson next time we meet. I should take him up on that, given a BBC News Magazine report on “Why some Greek pensioners may have to forage to survive.” So far, D and I have been lucky, but it is not only pensioners who have to forage for food. Only one woman dropped a chicken in the prime minister’s yard, but others are protesting in their own ways. 


Neckties and Tractors in the Streets

In other parts of Greece, hundreds of farmers have been blocking roads with their tractors, urging the government to reject steep increases in their taxes and social insurance contributions. Pensioners have been marching in Athens protests, fishermen have been blocking harbors, and ferry workers have refused to work for two days at a time, keeping boats in port three times recently. (This makes a big difference in a nation of islands, where gaps begin to appear on stores’ shelves if boats don’t deliver the goods.) In a “necktie revolution,” even lawyers, doctors, notaries, and engineers have been protesting and striking over the government’s plans to follow creditors’ orders to reform the pension system. One engineer claimed that the proposed law would result in “84 percent of our earnings … go[ing] to taxes and other contributions” to the state, pushing him to join the country’s general brain drain and seek work outside of Greece. The Federation of Livestock Associations made a nearly identical claim about farmers losing 83% of their earnings should current proposals be carried out. Farmers fear they’ll be pushed off the land, rather than out of the country.

Since I cannot understand how any logical European leader could contemplate the imposition of such extreme levels of taxation and insurance contributions, and I think there must be some logical leaders involved in this, I hope there has been a misunderstanding somewhere. But maybe not; even by Greek standards, the extent and breadth of recent protests have been noteworthy. And the third general strike in three months has been called for February 4. Yes, reforms and cuts are desperately needed here, but not reforms and cuts that push people into abject poverty or out of the country. “Poverty anywhere is a threat everywhere,” according to Nigerian billionaire Tony Elumelu, who is giving “10,000 young entrepreneurs $10,000 each of his own money” in an effort to reduce the threat of terrorism in Africa. Who will reduce the threat of extremism in Greece? The neo-fascist Golden Dawn party has been gaining adherents as taxes and unemployment increase here.

Refugees Resisted

Educated Greeks are leaving their country in search of jobs and opportunity, but over 50,000 refugees and migrants have arrived here just this month. Greece doesn’t know what to do with them, since there are no jobs to offer, the rest of Europe is resisting their entry, and European leaders cannot agree on a course of action. The proposal to redistribute 160,000 refugees in Greece and Italy throughout Europe has not been carried out (except for 414 people). The plan to pay Turkey to provide better conditions and support for the 2.2 million refugees there seems to have led to little reduction in migration to Greece so far. And now a Dutch politician has a new proposal: take several hundred thousand refugees from Turkey into Europe annually, but immediately return to Turkey those reaching Greece on smugglers’ boats. Aside from the fact that this would unjustly deny refugees’ right to have their asylum claims examined, I don’t see why that would work when the previous two proposals didn’t. 

I do see that babies, children, women, and men continue to drown in the cold sea between Turkey and Greece even now. So does the Greek soccer team that staged a two-minute sit-down protest against the inadequacy of EU and Turkish actions before a recent game. Turning Greece into a massive refugee camp by closing its northern border while its unemployment rate remains near 25% and its people struggle with major reforms and tax increases would not solve the problems facing Europe, but it would probably help smugglers increase their business. As the mayor of the small island of Lesvos said, “More than 550,000 people passed through the island of Lesvos alone - which is but a dot on the global map - and we didn't close borders. Greece is doing whatever it can. It's doing a lot more than it can” given its own problems and small population. This is especially true of private citizens, grassroots groups, established NGOs, and visitors from around the world. With a few noteworthy exceptions, it is not true of most other countries, including many that are far more prosperous than Greece.

After almost two years here in Crete, three children, two women, and one man from three different refugee families continue to wait in a Chania hotel for reunification with their families in Germany and Sweden. These are some of the lucky ones who are not stuck in the violence and destruction of Syria or the overcrowding and poverty of a refugee camp—situations almost too horrible to dwell on, let alone dwell in. But think of this, which is easier to grasp: children and parents, wives and husbands have been separated from their formerly peaceful lives, their homes, and each other. Refugee families should be reunified promptly. They have lost everything else; at least let them have their families.

If Kenan Malik is right that “the key problem lies not at the level of policy at all, but at the level of attitude and perception,” your perception of the problems facing refugees, and your attitude toward these human beings, could make a difference. Think about how you would feel in their shoes. Imagine that.

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