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Society

Crises, COVID-19 Stretch Greek Volunteer Groups Compassionate Reach

As the fear associated with COVID-19 – people moving away from each other like they're trying to avoid Zombies in The Walking Dead – spread as fast as the Coronavirus, help groups that had supported the most vulnerable in Greek society shrank back too. 

It's hard to be compassionate when you can't put your arm around someone in need or even get close enough to hear their troubles, especially if they're homeless or hungry, or desperate for some kind of help. 

That's where ‘O Allos Anthropos’ (The Other Person) stepped in unafraid, like Ben Hur going into the lepers’ den, a soup kitchen for the soul too. 

In a feature for The National Geographic, Sharon Jacobs detailed the selfless role of the group that since 2011 has been a quiet driver of compassionate for Greece's neediest, feeding and caring for them, even during a raging pandemic. 

The volunteers have had plenty of practice, working through a near decade-long economic and austerity crisis while successive governments, the country's oligarchs and others looked away and beat their breasts pretending to be patriots. 

Filling a vacuum, Konstantinos Polychronopoulos, the soup kitchen’s founder, led by example, cooking alongside people in need, many of whom were aging retirees shoved aside and forgotten. 

The group then jumped in to feed homeless refugees and migrants hiding in the shadows of the Greek capital and now is keeping it up during the time of the Coronavirus while other groups – even the Greek Church that had been a beacon of hope – has moved back. 

Organizations like O Allos Anthropos – there are others helping – have become part of a widespread, informal network of groups and individuals in Athens providing support to vulnerable communities, the piece noted. 

With a second lockdown that began Nov. 7 already extended to Dec. 7 and likely to push up to – or past – Christmas and the holiday season, the prospects are bleak for cheer with some people looking only to survive each day, from the virus and hunger. 

Jumping from one crisis to another, longtime volunteer Dhimitris Nora told the magazine that, “the only difference is the people you are feeding.” 

After the economic crisis, that's still being felt, and the refugee and migrant crisis, COVID-19 hit like a thunderclap, hard and fast, like a phantom from a horror movie jumping off the screen, leaving state institutions and NGO's grasping and gasping. 

“Everything changed in two days,” said Nora. “Everything closed. The government had been feeding people, but they stopped. The church stopped feeding people. And some NGOs stopped. So it was only us.” 

There's a lot of hidden need in Greece. In 2019, the Hellenic Statistical Authority found that one in three Greeks out of a total population of nearly 11 million was at risk of falling into poverty or social exclusion. 

Cuts in pay, pensions, a slash in the minimum wage – all while banks were allowed to hound people devastated by the crisis – even saw people scrounging through dumpsters and waiting outside supermarkets to get expired food. 

State programs to help the poor haven't been enough to fill empty stomachs, the government leaving it to volunteer groups to do its job. 

Just before the pandemic, the municipality of Athens had been serving some 1,500 prepared meals daily to the city’s homeless from a center downtown and giving out an additional 500 weekly dry ingredient packages to people who were unemployed or in extreme poverty, the story said. 

But when a first and restrictive lockdown was imposed on March 23 to stem the spread of COVID-19 and lasted 10 weeks, the safety nets were broken and many services slowed or stopped with little warning. 

Tassos Smetopoulos, founder and coordinator of Steps, an NGO that supports “street-connected people” – its euphemistic name for the homeless – said that the pandemic “was a good excuse to stop providing any support to the most vulnerable people.” 

City officials denied it. Grigoris Leon, head of the municipality’s department for reception and solidarity, said more meals were being distributed, but inside shelters and centers instead of on the street and that the city didn't retreat. 

In response to the increase in hungry people, Steps upped its meal distribution during the lockdown. O Allos Anthropos increased its food production tenfold, from 200 to 2,000 meals per day. Others, including the advocacy group Syrian-Greek Youth Forum (SGYF) partnered to distribute thousands of meals across the city. 

“I believe I really belong” in Greece, said Kareem Kabbani, a member of SGYF, who arrived in early 2016 seeking asylum. “I don’t consider myself as a refugee, passing through. We have a responsibility to nature, to the community, to ourselves.” 

In the multicultural neighborhood of Kypseli, the group Mirmingi (The Ant), which began in 2013, offers food and clothing, film screenings, a theater school, and activities to feed other hungers, tended to by a core group of 30-50 neighbors, the story added. 

One community member, Gregory Tsardanidis, said the pandemic has changed the mood, the indoor space closed for social distance requirements and the look on people's faces changing. 

Instead of people coming in to drink tea and talk while collecting food, they received packages passed through the window of the building – “which is not polite,” he said. 

He added quickly: “But it was more important for them to get food than to be politically correct.” 

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