Saturday, June 3, 2017

When Hope is a Bird and It's Shot Out of the Air

"What would we do," I ask Tony, "if we were stuck in a foreign country without income, or if in our own country our situation changed unexpectedly and drastically because of political strife?"

It's a tough question to ask, even tougher to answer, but over and again, we are hearing the stories of people who've had to answer that question and improvise.

The Greeks seem to be an open, friendly, group of people, and they want to talk about Greece's financial woes, their government woes, and their own.

"But," Tony says, "they seem like a happy people, in spite of such drastic changes and uncertainty."

"Maybe it's what you learn when you loose everything three times." I'm thinking of the Greek shopkeeper, whose parents took him to Australia as a child because the Greek economy was in the toilet. They came back in 1986 when the economy had improved, but now he laments the current downturn. "Maybe they've learned," I suggest, "that financial security isn't at the heart of happiness."

The "three times" is an exaggeration--- until an artist opens up to us about his painting "Crisis." He explains that three times, he lost his business, money, and security because of poor government decisions. He goes into detail for one of his three misfortunes; he had a trucking business and the government taxed his business 70,000 EU per year until he could no longer stay in business. He lost 300,000 EU. So he turned to his painting talents to earn a living, but his painting arm has such severe tendinitis that his doctor has ordered him to stop painting.

"But I can't."

This is the story we hear over and again.

One waiter explains how he has to work two jobs, and because of nation-wide banking withdrawls, all Greeks are allowed to withdraw no more than 1600 EU per month. This has caused an economy of hidden-under-the-mattress savings.

"What are rents like?" I ask.

"Cheap. Because real estate has become a burden."

His girlfriend owns a villa and the per year taxes are 50,000. An apartment that used to sell for a 100,000, is now listed for 50,000, but sells for 29,000. With such cheap prices, so is the rent. My financial radar says time to buy but not when taxation is higher than worth.

I think back to my original question What would Tony and I do in this situation? I start seeing our faces in the men and women who make jewelry and sell it in the street.  Or the old woman knitting in front of her wares on a blanket. We pass her in the morning and she's still there at night.  I see us in the taxi cab driver who seems overly desperate to take us to the highest hill in Athens.

Could we be happy?

The circumstances that often accompany poverty prohibit happiness: hunger, lack of shelter, a country, or basic safety.

Yet, the ability to be happy in spite of dire financial straits, may still exist when there is hope. Hope may exist because a person made it through one failure already, and knows they can do it again.

But when hope fades, happiness follows into a dark alley.

When I ask my class at the refugee center what comes to mind when I mention the word cafe, they say "Political." I ask them to explain further, and I learn that cafes in this unstable economy  have become the meeting places for the disgruntled. The communists, the fascists, the far left, and the far right. A woman pops in and says, "I would say cafes are becoming predominantly the meeting ground for anarchists."

Lack of hope in their government is driving them to failed alternatives.

In the almost ten year war between the USSR and Afghanistan, the refugees were in the millions.  From these refugee camps in Pakistan, emerged the children (often without parents), without hope, to form the Taliban. Hopelessness is fertile ground for rebellion and desperation.

In a few days, we'll be working at Kara Tepe. We are reminded to bring copies of our passports to leave at the camp. At first, I accept the requirement without further thought, but I now see it is so we can enter and exit each day--we can leave. Because of new border restrictions, the camps are more commonly being referred to as detention camps than refugee camps. The hardest part about this journey,  I fear, will be knowing we can leave but others can't.

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