"Mommy, take us home and we will never ask for food again!" With this heartbreaking cry, a girl residing at a nursery in the Kallithea area of Athens tugs on her mother's skirt and begs her to take her and her two siblings back home. The mother, visiting to cuddle and play with her children at the nursery that is providing them with food and shelter, runs away crying as she can not afford to take her children with her.
"But, sweetheart, we have nothing to eat at home," she replies. Undaunted, the child continues with a seriousness way beyond her years, "Mommy, take us home and we will never be hungry again, I promise you!"
This story, along with many other similar tales of destitute families unable to feed and clothe their children, has become so common in Greece that UNICEF reports an unbelievable 600,000 of the country's young are malnourished and living below the poverty line.
Yes, the phenomenon of malnutrition has become a reality in Greece ever since the beginning of the debt crisis in 2010, forcing a growing number of organizations and individuals into a daily fight to feed the hungry. For, hanging from most public garbage cans around Athens, one can find neatly packed bags full of cooked food waiting to be picked up. Almost like a secret code among the public, it is understood that these rations have been placed there for their needy co-citizens.
In dozens of Athenian suburbs, such as Keratsini, Tambouria, Agia Varvara, Peristeri and Ano Liosia to name but a few, but also in Western Thessaloniki and in Crete, there are ever-increasing incidents of starved students fainting in class. This has led to a rush by the myriad of Parents' Associations in the country, in the face of an absentee government, to provide assistance to the families in dire economic straits.
The Greek capital is teeming with soup kitchens that continue to pop up everywhere, everyday. As Mayor Giorgos Kaminis reported last month, more than 20,000 residents now rely on strained municipal services for their daily subsistence with another 20,000 being fed by the kitchens operated by the Greek Orthodox Church and other private donors.
The numbers are shocking with over forty percent of users forced to visit a soup kitchen for the first time within the last six months and with 18 percent of those going hungry holding university degrees. Almost two-thirds of the needy are in their prime earning ages of 26 to 55 years, devastated by the crisis and by endless austerity measures that have pushed unemployment to stratospheric levels.
Mothers no longer leave their children in orphanages and nurseries as a result of abuse as was often the case in the past but, rather, because they can not provide for them and the situation is worsening rapidly. The "Smile of the Child" organization has assisted 10,927 children so far this year compared to 4,465 in 2012 and the "Children's Village SOS" is providing for 900 families today compared with just 47 five years ago.
The dire news has reached this side of the Atlantic with Greek North American organizations such as the Greek Orthodox Church, AHEPA, and others steeping in to help those back home.
One Montreal-based group, the "Magic Mission," founded in response to the crisis, has shipped over $100,000 worth of food, clothing, school supplies and medicines to the many organizations helping Greece's needy children such as "The Ark of the World," the "Smile of the Child," the "Children's Villages SOS," the "Lighthouse of the World," as well as the to the schools of Kilkis, the municipalities of Veria and Athens and to MSF Cyprus. Founded only eighteen months ago, "Magic Mission's" members continue their work diligently and silently, striving not only to collect money but to identify specific needs to be addressed.
For all the Greeks around the world, proud of their country's heritage and its contribution to Western society, there is nothing sadder than to hear the voices of the young back home crying out, "we will never be hungry again, we promise you Mom!"