Perama, population 45,000, is the poorest neighborhood in Athens, located 10 miles to the west of the city centre. Perama started to morph into its present sociological stratification when Greek refugees from Turkey settled here in the 1920s having been forced from their homes in the war between the two countries. Around the same time the first shipyards for building wooden boats where moved to the town’s beachfront. Between 1940 and 1960 the population blossomed from 1,462 to 14,694. The local wooden boat building industry grew into a broader zone for ship repairing in general and, in turn, the landscape, with its pine forest descending from the surrounding hills to the beach, was irrevocably transformed. The Zone is what defines the area and the people, until this day.
Unemployment in Perama remained relatively low for many decades thanks to the trade that sustained its community. Greece too was growing economically, until the Olympic Games in Athens in 2004. In Perama small businesses, coffee shops, restaurants, retail shops and consumerism flourished. New high-rise apartment buildings spread all over the hills looking down on the 23 shipyards below. Out to sea, Salamina Island rises proudly as a reminder of the great Athenian victory against the overwhelming Persian fleet in 480BC.
When the international economic crisis hit Greece, the education, health and social care system – which had never received proper government funding during the prosperity years – failed. The ensuing union-led strikes at the Zone and the predominance of political corruption in every aspect of life, brought Perama and its citizens to their knees.
In 1986, 25,000 people were working everyday in the Zone. Today just 200 to 300 will find short-term jobs. Unable to produce an income, men and women are indebted to banks. They look to Church charities and NGOs for their everyday necessities and medical care. Electricity and water supplies are often cut off due to unpaid bills. Families are unable to find even a few euros to provide food for their children. Climbing up the hillside overlooking Perama one can find most of the illegally built – on government owned land – buildings that are reminiscent of Brasilian favelas. On this hillside live some of Greece’s poorest.
Greeks have been savaged and ridiculed in every possible way these past years and months. Yet there is a humanitarian crisis of an enormous scale behind all the figures and calculations of national debt. People live with the spectre of increasing numbers of suicides, widespread depression and severe health problems from years of working in the Zone with no health care. Long queues for basic food stuffs and the rising number of homeless have become part of the daily routine of life. Greek society’s traditional family bonds and topographical foundations have broken down. There is no safety net to catch the many who are failing to survive.
This photography project and the film I have put together with it was realised to help people abroad come to terms with the reality of life in Greece today. The worst, we are warned, is yet to come for this country and its people. In my mind, Greeks must believe that one day they will feel proud of themselves again. A helping hand offered with increasing frequency by conscious citizens is a starting point, and we can but hope that somehow, by pulling together, Greeks will see their country into a new era beyond this disaster, just as we did after the second world war.
As opportunities for my own work in the media industry dried up, I found myself with free time on my hands and an urge to participate. For the past five months I have been volunteering for the Greek branch of Doctors of the World. It all started with a call for volunteers from their PR department. Next thing I knew, I found myself helping to arrange clothing and blankets, unloading medicine and food from donors’ cars, keeping records, distributing boxes of food to the unemployed and uninsured people and visiting the volunteer run medical centre in Perama. Being there has helped me establish a relationship with the local community and individuals; I learned a lot about the neighbourhood before taking my first picture.
We go to homes and we listen to the people talk, often for hours and hours. I have edited 30 minutes of footage to give Doctors of the World to take to their donor countries in the hope they can raise more support for my countrymen and women.
When we are talking and the residents of Perama stop to think about how to describe their lives, it is in that moment – when they pause to reflect, silently, on their present situation – that the frightening despair within them is revealed. This horrified look is the same one that is etched on the face of the whole county, when we reflect on what has been and what is yet to come.
BBC reports from Perama
Doctors of the World Int’l Network
This story came to my attention by way of a flippant comment I made on Twitter – provoked by what I saw as the absurdity of the $100bn valuation of a company in California set against the daily devaluation of Greece and the Greeks. Christos rightly took offence but, fortuitously for me, his commitment to the story took our conversation beyond what could have been just another cold, disconnected view of Greece made from the comfort of my safe livingroom in England.