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Daily pangs of hunger in an Athens home

'Do you know what it's like to have the school call you to say your kids have fainted (from hunger)?' asks a mother of six

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Vasiliki Triantafyllou and her her six children are desperate. They don't have enough food to eat. They have no water or electricity in their home. And 16-year-old Gavriella urgenly needs to see an angiologist

'I've told (my children) that they have to share the little they have. Even if it's just a glass of water. And they do that' (Photo: Orestis Seferoglou) 'I've told (my children) that they have to share the little they have. Even if it's just a glass of water. And they do that' (Photo: Orestis Seferoglou) Yiorgos is 11 years old. He doesn't eat every day. But whenever he has toasted sandwich with him, he shares it with the other children at school who are hungry to the point of fainting because they too have days where they have nothing to eat.

"I've told (my children) that they have to share the little they have. Even if it's just a glass of water. And they do that." Vasiliki Triantafyllou doesn't even have that much. Her water has been cut off. So too has her electricity. But when we visited her and her family at their home, she offered us a glass of water from the last bottle she had left.

"It's all I have to offer you," she said, and she meant it.

While others are celebrating the achievement of a primary surplus, Vasiliki and her six children are harbouring their own dreams and hopes in their small home in a workers housing project in Egaleo, in western Athens.

Their home consists of two small bedrooms, a tiny kitchen and a small living room. Four months behind on the rent, the they risk losing the little they have.

They're not dreaming of the high life. They just want shoes, clothes, a little food to survive and a vascular medicine expert to offer free treatment to 16 year-old Gavriella, who only wishes to lead "a normal life without pain".

And she's not talking about the hunger pangs she has when her stomach is rumbling. She can get rid of that with a little rice or a slice of bread. And when there's no rice or bread in the house, Vasiliki can ease her children's hunger with some gruel made with flour, the only thing left in the kitchen cupboard, once every four days. 

The pain Gavriella is talking about is in her head, jaw and nose. Nothing can get rid of it. Vasiliki doesn't have the €600-700 needed for an MRI scan. The allowance that she received as a parent of a large family was cut by €200 in order to pay "the debt to Germany", as she tells Eleftherotypia.

She has a welfare booklet for destitute families. But that doesn't cover her needs.

I have hope in people. I don't think we've lost our humanity. There are poor people who understand. I'm addressing them. A government minister cannot understand. But someone experiencing what I'm going through can. They are not selfish

Vasiliki is unemployed. The €10 she gets every month from the church is barely enough to meet the family's daily food requirements.

"'Do you know what it's like to have the school call you to say your kids have fainted? To be told that you have to fill their bellies? To have six children and be in constant fear that you're going to end up on the street? I feel incompetent," she says.

"Where am I to go? Where will I live? Who will put a roof over our heads? Where am I to go with six children. This isn't..."

Her eyes well up. Does she have any hope? "Yes," she replies, without thinking. "I have hope in people. I don't think we've lost our humanity. There are poor people who understand. I'm addressing them. A government minister cannot understand. But someone experiencing what I'm going through can. They are not selfish," she explains.

And do her neighbours help? "This is a poor neighbourhood. Everyone helps each other as best they can. But in these past two years, the situation has deteriorated. Many people go out at night to scavenge through the rubbish. The conditions are appalling," she says.

Has she got relatives to help her? "My relatives are my children. Whatever comes up, I discuss it with them. No matter how small the decision, we make it together. After all, we're always together," she says.

"If the state has been saved by cutting the €200 that we got as a large family, and they cut that allowance without even checking who really needed it, then what can I say? Congratulations. I've thought of killing myself, but I didn't do it because of the children. They make me smile. They give me strength. But there are thousands of people who have taken their own lives. And they didn't die out of kindness. They were pushed into doing it," she says.

"If you don't know what it means to be hungry, then you don't understand. During wartime, you can understand it. But now we have … wars without even realising it. Now you don't even have to lift a weapon," she continues, wondering what it would cost to provide enough milk, bread and fruit to schoolchildren to stop them fainting from hunger.

Vasiliki talks openly. "I've done nothing to be ashamed of. All I have done is to have six children and I feel guilty that I cannot provide for them," she admits.

I've thought of killing myself, but I didn't do it because of the children. They make me smile. They give me strength. But there are thousands of people who have taken their own lives. And they didn't die out of kindness. They were pushed into doing it

The family's living room is hardly large enough for the sofa, coffee table and armchair. There is a strong smell of incense. Every inch on the wall is  covered with a religious icon. Images of Christ, the Virgin Mary and the saints whom the children are named after.

Does she believe in God? "When you are desperate, you need something to hold on to. You have to believe in something, even if it's yourself. I don't expect anything from the priests, just ordinary people," she says.

But providence has not helped. Her relatives don't have enough themselves to give her anything. She's no job. She can't find anything, from cleaning to child-minding.

"I had to go around knocking on doors to get a pair of shoes for my son. The pair I got him don't fit. They're too narrow. He got blisters from wearing them. So today I sent him to school with one of the girl's pairs," she says.

* This newspaper has Vasiliki's contact details. Her eldest son is 25 and lives with a psychiatric illnesses. She has two daughters, aged 19 and 16, and even three other sons, aged 17, 11 and 5. She does not want money. All she wants are clothes and shoes for her children. Food and an angiologist. If you are willing to help, please contact Eleftherotypia (tel 211-109-6400) and we will provide you with the details

* This article first appeared, in Greek, in the 23 March 2014 issue of Eleftherotypia

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Social exclusion
Children
Poverty
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