Sunday, July 19, 2015

The story so far - Feeding refugees in Thessaloniki, Greece

Syrian refugees stranded at Thessaloniki, northern Greece

Today, I'm taking a day off, this will the second day off I've had in the last five weeks. What was once a small, part-time effort to feed refugees here in Thessaloniki has mushroomed into a seven days a week effort (see our Facebook page) that hands out cooked meals and other much needed items to anywhere between 30 and 100 refugees a day passing through the city on their way north. Even now I'm amazed by how quickly and how successfully this has taken off.

Five weeks ago it became clear that the number of refugees in need of help was far beyond the means of me and my friends and so I sent out a call for help via Twitter. the idea was that like-minded people would get together and see if we could organise ourselves and expand the help we could provide. That has succeeded beyond my wildest dreams and instead of just a couple of people handing of cooked beans in a park I'm proud to be part of a group that is able to help and information to hundreds every week.

After the first meet up, a number of volunteers are came forwards and quickly we formed ourselves into a much more effective group. I'm not sure if it was luck or good timing but along with the first wave of people to join us were those who possessed an immense range of vital skills as well as a genuine appetite for hard work. Amir, has proven to be a huge asset as he himself is from Afghanistan and not only helps with translation and cultural advice, but also other insights into what it means to be a refugee. That combined with the fact that he is an able manager meant that he kept us going off the rails, especially, in the beginning when we had the tendency to run around like headless chickens.

The same goes for Maria, a German exchange student who as well as bringing much needed structure to our group, has also been its calm centre when things threatened to grow too chaotic. That combined with her gift for languages, social media skills and ability to forge links with other, similar groups has been invaluable.

Giannis is a 70 year old Greek pensioner who catches two buses just to get to the centre of the city to help us. His passion and knowledge of the local political landscape proved vital in establishing links with and getting help from Thessaloniki city council. Thanks to his and other people's intervention the city has provided toilet facilities to refugees and 50 portions of cooked food a day along with a van and driver to assist us.

Another source of assistance has been our collaboration with the Oikopolis social centre who on hearing of our work opened their kitchen facilities to us. This along with the network of connections that have at their disposal has transformed our efforts. In addition to material help they have been able to put us in contact with other groups doing similar work in the city.

After the initial wave of people joining us with have also been lucky enough to attract other volunteers who make all this possible and often are lugging things in 35C summer heat. Literally, without them none of this would be possible. They are an international bunch and on any given day there may be anywhere between four and eight different nationalities taking part.

The ever tireless Gorka, a Spanish exchange student, Marina , from the Ukraine, also on an Erasmus program, Nikoleta, a first year psychology student who is a also a dab hand at DIY and organising people, Safar, our second Farsi speaker who is always willing to do whatever is needed, also willing to make sure the job gets done., Jason and Marcus, our Irish friends who have really been great in providing help, the wonderful people from Anatolia College who have regularly brought much needed sanitary items and clothing,... This list goes on and I know I have left out people who should be mentioned, but don't worry, over the next few days I'll be filling in the missing names.

To say the last few weeks have been transformative is an understatement, the fact that we not only got this feeding program up and running but in the midst of a crisis here in Greece is a testament to the strength of people's willingness to help.

Thursday, July 02, 2015

But Yes or No to what? Greece decides on Sunday.

Greeks lining up at ATM - Thessaloniki

On Sundays Greeks go to the polls to vote. They will be asked to vote Yes or No. But Yes or No to what? The question seems to produce an endless array of answers, which have left Greeks arguing passionately for the past week, both on social media and in real life.For the economically minded supporters of the Yes side, it is a vote to stay in the Eurozone, to retain a stable currency and avoid the risks of introducing a new, untried currency which may or may not be worthless. It's a Yes to open banks, pensions being paid on time and a step away from the financial abyss. For conservatives it's a Yes to membership of the European Union and a step away from what they see as rabid, socialist madness.

In the No camp, a No is a refusal to accept an creditor imposed austerity plan which has crushed the Greek economy and even on its own terms is a failure. For the more nationalistically minded its is a vote for independence, a chance to show foreigners that Greeks will not and cannot take any more crap from either Washington, Brussels or Berlin.

In the maelstrom of debate, the usual lines that divide the Greek Left and Right have been blurred, muddled and sometimes utterly forgotten. Nor, as it is sometimes portrayed as a fight between haves and have nots. Whilst those in the Yes camp are amply represented in the country's oligarch controlled media, the poll number are not restricted to just those who've weathered six years of austerity with their wealth intact. Pensioners fearful of their future, owners of businesses both large and small as well as those fearful of the consequences of a Grexit have swelled the Yes vote.

On the other hand the No vote included those with little to lose from maintaining the status quo, such as the unemployed and young voters who see that more of the same in a nation with record high unemployment is not an option. Also there are those who  are sick of Greece's continual humiliation at the hands of the EU, ECB and IMF and wish to show these institutions that enough is enough, no matter what the cost. The fact that political Ancien Regime, discredited by corruption and ineptitude has thrown its weight behind the Yes vote is just further proof that a No vote is justified.

What will happen on Sunday, I do not know. If you'd asked me a week ago I would have said that the Yes vote will win comfortably, but given the fact that EU leadership smugly seems to betting on this combined with a week long fear campaign on TV makes me think that perhaps that things will turn out differently. The same political forces that tried so hard to crush Syriza in the January elections are once again openly playing their hand, and there's a chance they'll fail now as they failed then.

Once again the crude political intervention of the ECB which stopped lending to Greek banks via ELA so starving them of liquidity along with the arrogance of various German politicians simply fuel the No vote  just as the intervention of English politicians in the Scottish independence referendum aided the rise of the Scottish Nationalist Party.

Whilst people are angry they cannot take out money from their saving accounts and fearful for their future, there is a growing sense that they will not bow down and take anymore. Whether their vote is based on carefully calibrated deliberation or knee jerk nationalism, the result will be the same in the polling booths on Sunday.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Take the Starbucks challenge! Can you feed 30 refugees for less than price of a coffee?

Refugee kid in the park. Taking a break before moving north.

Modern life is tougher than ever and full of a seemingly endless list of First World Dilemmas; domestic or imported beer, Chinese or Italian, Starbucks mocha double latte with added cream or feeding 30 hungry refugees. So here is the smart guide to having it all, a clear conscience and a decent meal for hungry kids camped out in your local park and all for less than cost of a coffee that has more calories than visible stars in the sky.

For this you will need a few things organised in advanced, other than the ability to give a damn about fellow human beings not mentioned in the gossip columns.

1kg of dried white beans (approximately 1.19e from Lidl)
1kg rice (1.20e) from Lidl)
3 cans of tomatoes (3x0.37e) from... guess where)
1 cartoon of concentrated tomato juice or small tin of tomato paste (0.40e)
4 large onions (0.60e)
8 cloves of garlic 0.20e
1 chilli pepper or a few pinches of chilli powder (0.10e)
1 large zucchini/courgette (0.25e)
loads of green peppers (optional)
1 cup of olive oil (0.40e)
1/2 cup of cooking oil (0.15e)
salt/pepper/oregano/bay leaves/sugar.

Total cost is less than 6 euros. That's not a bad deal on 25-30 portions.

Alas, nothing is ever as simple as it appears in the ads on TV so will need to prepare a few things in advance, so in keeping with that thought you will need to soak the beans overnight (add a tablespoon of baking soda to the water). You could just buy beans in a can but then cost increases even more exponentially than Greece's debt repayments.

Basically, you are making two one pot dishes so will need...... wait for it..... two pots. The one dish is the traditional Greek bean soup known as fasolada, the source material nationwide for endless fart jokes since the time of Plato. The other is a fusion/hybrid/bastardised rice dish designed to provide carbs as cheaply whilst still being edible.

Fasolada recipe

1 Wash the beans well and then add enough water and level tablespoon of salt to cover them, just
    like you would cook rice.

2 Boil till they're kind of soft, which may be between 1-2 hours depending on whether the 
   beans are big or small. (you may need to add more water)

3 In your other pot add 1/2 cup of olive oil (doesn't need to be fancy extra-virgin stuff).

4 Gently fry 3 thickly sliced onions till they are translucent.

5 Add half the chilli pepper/powder and 6 cloves of garlic chopped/crushed/grated/ atomised

6 Cook for few minutes more then add 3 cans of tomato and 1/4 of the tomato paste/concentrated 
   juice, along with a tablespoon of sugar, teaspoon of salt, handful of oregano and 4-6 bay leaves

7 Cook gently for another 10-15 mins.

8 Put aside till beans are cooked or at least not rock hard.

9 If you can put the tomato mix in the blender and give it a whizz, Makes for better presentation and 
   easier to serve.

10 Add the tomato mix to the beans and cook on a medium/low heat for another 20-30 minutes.

11 Add the remaining 1/2 cup of olive oil along with more salt/pepper to taste.

How do I know it's ready? Well, the beans shouldn't break a tooth and the sauce should be fairly thick, but that's a matter of personal preference.

Refugee rice 

I call it that as I had to think of something quickly this morning when I went to the park and saw that my fasolada dish was nowhere near enough to go around.

1 Slice thickly 1/2 onion and whatever softish vegetable (eg. courgette/zucchini, peppers) are 
   cheapest or in your fridge and gently fry them in 1/2 cup of cooking oil.

2 After onions have gone translucent, add the remaining chilli pepper/powder and  2-3 cloves of 
   garlic chopped/crushed/vapourised. Cook for a few minutes.

3 Add 1kg of rice (your choice) and gently fry for a few minutes.

4 Add tablespoon of salt and sugar along with 2 two and a half times much water as rice.

5 Bring to the boil and after turning it down to a milder setting add the remainder of the tomato 

6 Cover and leave for 10-15 minutes.

Now you have a recipe that can feed approximately 25-30 people and all for less than the cost of a coffee that frankly, tastes crap. 

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

A Short Story About The Greek Credit Crisis: A European Morality Tale

Greek government radical new approach to economic growth pays off

Let's imagine a situation. Let's imagine that times have been good for you and you decided to buy a house, a house that you always dreamed of, a place that you can call home. The only problem is that this place is a bit pricey, certainly a stretch financially but what the hell, times are good, your credit rating is just fine and the guys at the bank just love you.

Alas, the economy takes a downturn, your job isn't as secure as it used to be and the boss is muttering darkly about downsizing and wage cuts. Now those mortgage payment instead of being steep become vertical so you go to the bank and decide to ask them if some kind of deal can be made. They look at you aghast, they had no idea that you are unable to meet your financial commitments, otherwise why would they have sent you all those credit card applications or phoned so insistently wondering if you want a loan for a new car/holiday/kid's dental work/shopping/home extension. They are shocked, shocked to hear that you have been so profligate with their hard earned cash, how on earth could you have deceived them in such an underhand manner?

But rather than lose a long standing customer (and a house they'd never sale for money you paid for it) they decide to offer you a loan to cover your debts. The problem is that this loan comes with some pretty severe conditions, no more outings, eating in restaurants is a thing of the past, also the kids really should leave home, they're a drain on your resources and frankly, granny's presence puts the family budget over the edge.

Grudgingly, you accept the terms, what else can you do? The problem is that the job market is still not getting better, the boss is demanding ever greater "flexibility" when it comes to salaries and that loan you just took out to cover the mortgage is still just beyond your pay grade. No matter how low the interest payments are, they are piling up and up.. So you go back to the bank and explain the situation, maybe rather than foreclose they could be persuaded to cut the total loan and allow you to pay, at least some of it whilst keeping a roof over your head. The mere suggestion is enough to make them choke on their mid-morning lattes and you get the impression that all is lost.

Yet, these are finance professionals and they know that a foreclosure would not only look bad for the bank, it would also not do their careers any good at all so they come up with a compromise solution. this time they'll issue you a credit card to draw upon when you need to pay the next installment of the loan you took out to cover your initial mortgage. Your kid's college fund will have to go, and that pension plan you took out is way too extravagant for a family of YOUR means. While you look dumb struck, they add a final condition,"you have to sell the family car". But how will you get to work or find a better job without a car? "No", they say, "a car is simply a luxury you can no longer afford, the price of petrol alone means it's not a viable option. Have you considered cycling to work?"

Without a car you cannot earn enough to pay off the credit card installment which you needed to pay off the loan you took out from the bank to pay back the mortgage you had with them. You refuse, saying the conditions are unacceptable. 

Welcome to Greece.

Monday, June 01, 2015

EU believes puts its faith in guns not aid

According to a secret document released on 25 May 2015 by Wikileaks the EU is in the process of implementing a plan for the use of military force in order to deal with the growing refugee influx from Libya to Europe via the Mediterranean. The plan devised by the EU Politico-Military Group aims to "disrupt human smuggling networks" and  "to contribute to systematic efforts to identify, capture and destroy vessels before they are used by traffickers".

Given the turbulent nature of Libya in the aftermath of the NATO - sponsored overthrow of the Gaddafi regime, how yet more European military intervention is going to affect the situation on the ground is unclear. This, in turn leads to the problems of identifying "traffickers" (as the document calls those taking migrants to Europe) in a fluid, often violent civil conflict in which different factions are vying for advantage. It is all too easy in these cases to be misled by groups hoping to use European military force to even the odds by way of air strikes. As the West's debacle in Iraq and Afghanistan, shows ignorance of local history, customs and political realities is often fatal for civilians. 

Yet even if EU manages to avoid the mistakes of the past it is hard to imagine how such actions will do anything more than temporarily limit numbers from Libya. The operations are being marketed as a way of saving refugees from the dangers of a taking a route which has cost the lives of thousands, but refugees are perfectly aware of the risks they take when crossing the Mediterranean. With the expansion in ownership of smart phones worldwide, modern refugees can often contact home via services such as Viber and Facebook, so ensuring valuable, potentially life saving information can be shared. Faced with the choice of drowning on a leaky vessel and going back to the war torn homes they fled, they are opting for the former, given the fact the EU immigration rules have given very little chance of choosing a safer alternative.

Even if, by some miracle European war planes/ships do manage to target just smuggler ships what exactly happens to those intercepted in international waters? Will they be forced back to Libya, fired upon if the crew refuses to heed warnings, foisted off on some third nation's territory following Australia's example?

Should this measure work then the next step would be the switch to smaller, less easily detected vessels even less suitable for making a long sea crossing and hence we have the possibility that a successful interdiction policy will lead to even more drownings of men, women and children in the Mediterranean, now the most dangerous stretch of water for refugees in the world. Alternatively, the flow of those willing to risk all for a better life will be channelled elsewhere to places such as Spain and Greece whose close proximity by sea to other non-EU nations make them impossible to seal off unless the most draconian of war time precautions are employed.

Already, Greece has become a transit spot and many unable to fly or use other forms of transport are walking across the Balkans in order to reach places such as Germany and Holland. In cities in the north the parks are now temporary home to groups, often composed of families with young children taking a short break before continuing their arduous trek north (see previous post). In an era when air travel has become more affordable than ever before we are faced with the sight of groups of people attempting to cross a continent on foot.

On a deeper, more moral level the idea of using military action in a humanitarian crisis is a symptom of a malaise in Europe, instead of providing aid and relief to those fleeing war, poverty and other disasters in places such as Syria and Yemen The EU, which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012, is authorising the use of force against some of the poorest and most desperate people on the planet. 

The deliberate conflation of the terms "smuggling" and "trafficking" by European politicians and mainstream media outlets is part of the current media strategy aimed at legitimising military action to deal with, what in essence is a refugee crisis. The idea is that people who smuggle others (angels by no means|) over a border are the same as those who are little more than modern day slavers.This, itself the product of the hardening of attitudes to newly arrived migrants, minorities and other groups of the poor who have suffered the brunt of austerity measures implemented since the 2008 financial crisis. Often the poorest are pitted against each other in a bitter fight for basic resources such as employment, health care and housing

Attitudes to immigration, once the preserve of far right fringe groups such as the ultra-right British National Party are now to be considered respectable enough to be part of mainstream political discourse and even worse are becoming the basis for initiatives that remind us of the darker days of Europe's recent past. 

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Walking North - Europe's crisis of conscience.

Refugees in the park, taking a break before continuing their journey north.

Today it was lentil and tomato soup, some bread and cheap chocolate croissants for the kids. As welcome as the home cooked food was, what most of the refugees that have chosen a park in the northern port city of Thessaloniki were interested in was Wi-Fi passwords and a place to charge their smart phones. We live in a schizophrenic age when people are forced to walk halfway across the European continent as if in a 1940's newsreel yet are guided by the latest Google apps and can tell family and friends back home that they are safe via Facebook and Viber.

At a time when flying from Greece to Berlin, Oslo or Rome can cost less than the price of mediocre restaurant meal the EU's draconian immigration regulations and the ever coarsening attitudes of northern European nations to refugees means that thousands are trekking across the Balkans, hiding in forests, sleeping rough in parks in the hope of escaping the wars Europe has been so eagerly fostering directly or indirectly in North Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

Along with groups of young men now the parks in the northern Greek port city of Thessaloniki,  and other cities across the Balkans are playing host to entire families, some with young kids also making the same arduous journey north. Hence the food my friend and I have been distributing, along with the advice on getting internet access. Not much compared with what they have face in the coming days and weeks but something, a remainder that Europe is not just home to frightened xenophobes, happy to forget their own horror stories of war and dislocation every time political carpet baggers and publicity hungry media bigots want to grab votes and headlines.

Refugee kid goofing off in the park