Konstantinos Polychronopoulos On Lesbos (Mytilini) 2016
Monday morning I started to write a -long overdue, I know, and I apologize- article on what’s going on with the Automatic Earth for Athens Fund and with me, still here in Athens. But I was ‘cut short in my tracks’.
I found I just couldn’t go on in the vein I was in when I read that on one side of the European continent, refugees and their children were being bulldozed and sprayed with tear gas in the Calais ‘Jungle’, while at the very same moment, 2500 kilometers (1500 miles) away, tear gas was also being sprayed on refugee children, by Macedonia police, across their border with Greece. Rumors are there were Austrian and Czech troops on the scene as well.
It just seemed too crazy. Because what do you say to that? The obvious and inevitable questions, when seeing that, are: What are we, what have we become, what kind of civilization is this? Is it even a civilization at all? How does one define ‘civilization’? Shouldn’t perhaps a civilization be characterized and defined by the fact that acts and policies executed within it can be deemed ‘civilized’?!
And if that is so, what does this make us? Could we perhaps agree that a civilized society would never engage in -to name but a few examples- any of the following? That a civilized society does not bomb children, it does not let them drown without trying all it can to help, and it does not spray tear gas on them. Is it really such a stretch to accept that as minimum requirements to be labeled ‘civilized’?
Europe, have you completely lost it? How on earth can you tear gas infants? What is that? What’s that you said? They just got in the way? But that means you knew they were there, right?
And again, what does that make us? We do all of these things, and with impunity. None are forced upon us. We do them of our own free will. Or, rather, we elect people who then do them for us, in our name. But we know they do them, and we don’t protest, nor do we un-elect them. Once more, what does that make us? One thing’s for sure: it certainly does not make us civilized. Barbaric is more like it. Medieval, at best.
Now, while I think this is a global issue, if only because the entire world seems to be bombing Syria -just waiting for China to join in-, the immediate culpability and responsibility lies with Europe. But Europe has nothing. Yeah, promises to provide funds at some time in the future, to solve problems that are playing out today. That they can do.
And when those funds finally might arrive, you can bet they’ll largely be handed out to the wrong parties. I don’t want to rehash the complaints in Greece about NGOs, UN etc., but neither have I seen or heard much that will make those complaints go away.
The first and most pressing response needs to come from Angela Merkel, because she is the de facto leader of Europe. That this kind of power structure is very unfortunate since Merkel is more beholden to Germany than Europe is something I explained before. But even then. Merkel has mostly been AWOL. While the leader on paper, Jean-Claude Juncker, is even less visible.
The only thing Europe seems to have done, and do correct me if I’m wrong, is send armed forces to stop people who have come to Europe across perilous seas, losing thousands of their children, friends and neighbors in the process, because they were fleeing .. armed forces. That is bizarre from pretty much any angle.
One of the first things I wrote about the refugee crisis, it must have been about a year ago, was that the only proper response and approach to a situation like this is to put the people first. To make sure they don’t go hungry, they don’t get sick and die, and they don’t drown for no reason. But Europe, both as a whole and in its ‘separate units’, instead has put political issues ahead of the people. So 4000 drowned in 2015, and 400 already this year. And those are just the registered ‘cases’. How about we double those numbers?
And how about we let those numbers sink in? All those promising lives lost for no reason at all? How many potential Einsteins drowned in the Aegean? How many Florence Nightingales? How many loving and delicate mothers and fathers? You can take this from a humanitarian or a religious point of view, and you can pick your religion too while you’re at it, but there’s no philosophy or faith that justifies letting children drown while you’re sitting poolside with a Margarita or at home picking out your next best biggest TV screen.
This is not about opening one’s borders as widely as possible, or about allowing one’s own culture to be entirely submerged or overtaken, it’s about being civilized, about being recognized in history books as an actual civilization deserving of the label. About treating people like human beings, treating them the way you would want your children and your friends to be treated. The way you yourself want to be treated. And then take it from there, with your dignity and your humanity intact.
This is something I will never understand, I’m afraid. And that’s my angle back to the Automatic Earth for Athens Fund, and to my friend Konstantinos (Kostas) and his Social Kitchen (O Allos Anthropos) project. Because Kostas proves, and all the volunteers who cooperate with him do, that there are still humans in this world. I guess one might say that Kostas is what in Yiddish tradition would be called a ‘Mensch’, a term strongly associated with integrity, honor, valor.
I‘ve been going through some of the earlier pieces in which I talked about him, and I noticed the numbers I presented, on meals served per day etc., were sometimes a little off due to communication difficulties. Since I worked hard to get more accurate numbers now, let’s see if we can correct that. Do note that they are really in a constant state of flux these days.
At the moment, as per my latest meeting with Kostas and our -dear- mutual friend and translator Tassos on Friday, there are 10 different ‘chapters’ of the Social Kitchen active, most in the Athens (Attica) area, but also in Thessaloniki and on the islands. That’s up from 2 or 3 ‘kitchens’ 8 months ago. The total list: Athens, Mytilini Island, Egaleo, Haidari, Salamina Island, Ilion, Megara, Thessaloniki, Piraeus, Drapetsona. Yeah, it’s growing fast. They’re not all active 7 days a week, often – or partly- due to a lack of resources. Some cook once a week, some 2-3 times.
But the biggest change by a mile, since the beginning of February, is the 7 days a week Social Kitchen in Mytilini (the capital of what we know as Lesbos, which Greeks often just call Mytilini, Mitilene, Mitilini) in the government facility -don’t want to say ‘camp’- of Moria. The lady who runs the facility has asked Kostas to come cook every day because there were no other provisions. Which is pretty crazy given all the NGOs operating on the island.
A few months ago, he had to tell her he couldn’t afford to do it, but in the perhaps best part of this story, all the food now gets donated by the local population (I’ve said it before, Greeks do solidarity well). And this is no small feat. It means 2500-3000 meals every day, and since the Greek government has been forced to slow the transfer of refugees from Mytilini to Piraeus, the number is set to grow, perhaps fast. This comes on top of the perhaps 1000 meals provided every day in Athens and other places.
And it could be much more, if resources were available. There are 12(!) more locations on a ‘waiting list’ who have asked to join Kostas’ project but who have neither equipment nor funding: Patra, Pyrgos, Sparta, Kalamata, Korinthos, Ioannina, Larissa, Preveza, Nafpaktos, Zakynthos island, Heraklio Crete, Ierapetra Crete (time to go to Google Maps, I know).
When we were talking a few days ago, Kostas said he’s not so much pre-occupied with providing the food itself. That he can manage. Perhaps a bit optimistic, but if he’s anything, that’s it. And in his position, you would have to be. He carries a lot of weight and a lot of people, those who work with them and those they feed, on his shoulders.
What worries him at times are the fixed costs.
I walked over 24 hours ago to Monastiraki square, where a Social Kitchen team always cooks on Tuesday, in memory of a famous Greek musician, Antonis Vardis, who was a very early supporter of the Social Kitchen, but tragically died of cancer in 2014.
Only, this time, the team couldn’t start at 2pm -to serve food at 5pm-, because their equipment was not there. Kostas had decided, from a distance, he just got back from Thessaloniki, that using it to prepare 4000 (!) meals in ‘The House’ to be sent to the port of Piraeus had bigger priority (emergency, starving refugees), and the 300 or so homeless in the square would have to wait. 3 hours or so. Hungry and homeless. That’s where the need stands. That’s reality in Athens.
But to get back to the practical side of things, or let’s call it the fixed costs, here’s an overview.
There’s ‘The House’ as they call it, and so will I, a pretty simple apartment-sized location that has been the nerve center of the operation for a while now. Problem is, the rent used to be paid by supporters until January 1, but they couldn’t afford it any longer -there’s a million stories like that in Greece, of people who can no longer afford things. So now that’s what Kostas worries about. Losing the nerve center is like the worst thing that could happen.
It allowed for those 4000 meals to be cooked yesterday. It offers laundry, service, homework facilities to homeless and their children. The Social Kitchen couldn’t operate without it.
Anyway, on Friday, I paid that rent, with your donations, to the tune of €2054 for 3 months. And told him I’d guarantee the next 3-month payment, due May 15, as well. Because that takes worries away. From someone who must worry, whether he shows it or not, all the time. Here’s the receipt – we went to the bank together-:
Not that the rent for the nerve center is the only fixed cost. By a mile. In fact, the cost for gas for transport for all the kitchens is easily €2000 a month. The propane tanks they need for cooking come to at least €1000 a month. Breakfast, laundry and shower for the homeless in ‘The House’ comes to another €2500 a month (no kidding).
And if that doesn’t scare you away enough, the by far largest expense, as I found out this week, and I would never have thought of this -guess I’m not all that bright-, is in the containers the food is served in. It seems such an obvious thing, but it’s absolutely not. Kostas gets these things already at a steep discount from what even supermarket chains are paying, but even then, it’s -close to- killing the Social Kitchen. Here’s what we’re talking about, these simple thingies:
This may seem like nothing, but it’s something alright. The discount price he pays is €5 per 100 units. Now start multiplying. That urgent 4000 meals he had to do yesterday, just that one ‘shipment’, cost €200 just for the containers. Multiply that by 30 days a month and you get €6000. Times 12 is $72,000 a year. Yup, that is crazy. But the Social Kitchen can’t serve its food without containers either. And -flat- paper plates won’t work because most of the food has too much liquid in it.
Ergo, Kostas has come up with an -about 50% cheaper- alternative, one that if we could make it happen might save the Social Kitchen some $20,000 a year. But there are a few hooks. His alternative, made of ‘hard paper’, is not available in Greece. They would have to be imported from Romania. But you need import permissions for that. And that requires having a company. Something the Social Kitchen refuses to become.
And what’s more, these containers would have to be paid in advance. Something for which there is no money. Everything necessarily operates on a day-to-day shoestring basis. If there is some money, they go buy a few thousand of the aluminum containers down the road. The kind of advance planning that would be required for the -much cheaper- alternative is simply not possible, and therefore not an option.
I think I should just press ‘Publish’ now, because there is no end to what I could write about this. I’m here where it happens, finger on the pulse, and I’m afraid of what this might become. 70,000 or 100,000 or half a million stranded in Greece, all those numbers look possible right now. It’s impossible to say.
But at least there are people here doing what they humanly can to alleviate the misery, even as Europe is clearly not. But the fear of course is that there’ll be a breaking point in Greece, where the already severely strained government will simply run out of resources. And the citizens will, too.
EU promises don’t count for a thing, until they become a tangible reality. But things still happen, and move forward; thousand of refugees arrive here every day. And drowning them all in the Aegean is not an option. Merkel’s best hope is Turkey PM Erdogan, and that’s a terrible best hope to have.
It could all be simple. Just make the people your first priority, and everything else will fall into place. We’re human, and we’re a social animal. That’s what Greece, and the Greeks, prove on a daily basis. But not the rest of the continent.
So, much as I’m hesitant to ask you for support again, I must. ‘My people’ here provide the most basic of necessities: they feed the refugees and homeless. There was a report coming out of Idomeni, on the Macedonia/Greek border, yesterday, that mothers couldn’t breastfeed anymore because they themselves hadn’t eaten in days.
That’s what we, and you, can help prevent from happening.
The way to do it is the same as it has been for a while now: donate through our Paypal unit, top left corner at The Automatic Earth, an amount ending in either $0.99 or $0.37. That all goes straight towards the Social Kitchen. Other donations go to The Automatic Earth itself, which also runs on -and really needs- donations.
There is still some money left from the two donation ‘drives’ I’ve done, which totalled over $20,000 (!) -you guys are so fantastic-. In the past few weeks, I’ve given Kostas €7,550, and earlier I donated €5,000 to volunteer clinics, to Kostas and to Myrto Lemos’ Support Center for street children. That means there’s about $8,000, or €7000 left, and as I said, I promised to pay the rent for the nerve center on May 15.
That leaves about $5000. I have to say ‘about’ all the time, because between what they skim off donations, plus the conversion from USD into EUR, Paypal takes quite a bit, 7-8% in total, which I really don’t like, but it has a (quasi-) monopoly. Thing is, I’m hesitant to spend it all today because of might be coming to this country, and the people fleeing to it. It might be wise to have a war chest for when for instance Kostas really needs it.
Let’s finish for now with a personal thank you note from Kostas, as translated by Tassos:
I want to thank you deeply for the donations, all the people, the readers of the Automatic Earth, who have put their trust in me, without knowing me personally. Ilargi wrote about what we are doing after he met me and saw what we do. I thank all of you that you sent your money to support the fellow humans who are in need. But the most important as I see it, is that you heard and trusted your heart. For me this is solidarity, to hear and trust your heart, because your heart deeply knows and can’t be wrong.
I am Konstantinos Polychronopoulos, the man who has dedicated his life to the Social Kitchen -O Allos Anthropos- and I kindly invite you whenever you are in Greece to meet us, to eat with us and to have a coffee together at our Social Kitchen house in Athens, which is open for all Humans and that means you too!
Social Kitchen on Mytilini Island (Lesbos) 2016