All quiet on the Eastern Front?

LeftEast, the East European Left platform for analyses and struggles beyond national borders
 
Interview with Rossen Djagalov, Mariya Ivancheva, Mary Taylor, on behalf of the LeftEast collective
 
 
When  did  you start LeftEast? What were your main aims? 
LeftEast is an international platform for informed analyses where we also share information, election or action reports and solidarity statements that come from different movements in Eastern Europe and beyond. It was founded as a result of the growing communication between individuals and groups in the newly emerging Left in the post-socialist world. It started in late 2013 as a follow-up initiative of a series of summer encounters on the neoliberalization of the post-socialist world. The first one was co-organized in 2011 by Mary Taylor in Budapest. The launching of the website itself was a result of the second summer school in Budapest in the summer of 2012, and a follow-up meeting in Bucharest that same winter organized by the Romanian left-wing web-portal CriticAtac, which still hosts LeftEast. It was clear to all of us, that each group is locally engaged, and internationally connected, but we know each other’s reality mostly through word of mouth and the scarce and often biased, shallow, or misinformed analyses in the mainstream media in the West. We understood the need to break with the dependence on the West as a source of funding, information, and as an ideational center through which all our collaboration has been mediated in the past. Instead we needed to strengthen the links between movements and struggles in our part of the world, and also open up to further peripheral countries and regions from which we have been divided due to different historical experience and taxonomies of knowledge production. In this sense, LeftEast is not a movement or an initiative that comes out of one movement or struggle, but rather a space where such movements and struggles can find expression and space for debate.
 
Please give us some information about how you function: editorial board, gathering the texts, standards and rules etc.
The editorial board consists of a core of around ten people who do not function as a political collective with unitary opinion, but who express an amalgam of opinions and positions from different tendencies on the Left. We also have contributing editorial board members who are less active in the day-to-day function of the webportal, but produce, edit, or solicit texts with specific geographical or topical focus. We usually solicit texts through our networks of activists and scholars who work in/on the region. Facebook –a necessary evil– is also very helpful in this regard, as we often encourage people to turn their long critical comments we encounter there into short opinion pieces. Once a text arrives, at least two of us read and comment on it. As some of us have native or close to native knowledge of English, we also do proofreading. After all, most of our authors are not native English speakers. We feed editorial and language comments back to our authors. We see this as a longer process of learning both for them and for us.  Sometimes we solicit translations from texts published in some of our kindred platforms from the region. We do our work 100% on a voluntary basis and so do the voluntary translators. This means we all have full-time jobs that have little to do with LeftEast. Each one of us is active in other initiatives locally where she or he is based. And this, by now, is often outside the region. So, LeftEast gives us a unique opportunity to stay connected with the region and –hopefully– to help movements connect, get to know of each other, and get coverage outside their national context. We also try to meet every year in summer encounters – we ’ve held such in Budapest, Sofia, Kaunas, and this year we plan to have one in Istanbul. 
 
The name of the platform is “Left East”. 

The name was actually invented by Costi Rogozanu from the CriticAtac web portal after the Bucharest meeting in 2012. Back then the discussion rotated around names that were heavier, not easy to remember, and definitely exceeded our ambitions – like The East International or East Left Review. Retrospectively, LeftEast was shorter, smarter, and funnier. As your readers might have guessed, it reflects a joke – in everyday Eastern European English it sounds like ['leftist] – the verdict of the infantile disorder of the Left according to V.I. Lenin. As this was a pilot project, the joke was on us, but so was also a more relaxed atmosphere than a longer title would have suggested, so we went along with it. In fact, it spared us “the naming debate” which kills the energy of many collectives at the start. 
 
First, Left. What does  “Left” mean to you, in the 21th century?...
This is a broader debate in which we enter rather with an exploratory mission than with the aim of giving firm and definite answers. What is important to know is that LeftEast functions as an editorial collective, but not as a political collective: in the sense that we rarely publish shared editorial texts or try to have a political line that represents the whole editorial board. We come from different tendencies within the contemporary radical Left in Europe and beyond: autonomous Marxists, Leninists, Trotskysts from different tendencies, anarcho-syndicalists etc... We do share firm anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, anti-authoritarian, decolonial, and egalitarian beliefs. We try ourselves and encourage others to connect political economy oriented analysis with empirical research or experiential knowledge that take into account complex intersections between class, gender, race, and sexual identities. So rather than taking firm positions and political lines, we try to read most materials together and try to generate and curate debates among authors. Surprising as it sounds given all the traditional splits within the Left, it mostly works. 
 
…and, secondly, “East.” How do you describe this region (Balkans and East Europe and…)? And is this “East”  mainly,  a  geographical, historical, or political, concept/term? In your “About” section you say: «The aim is to constitute an alternative to the way we see the region but also to the type of intellectual production historically associated with this part of the world». Please tell us some more on this.
It technically means that we are dealing with the complexities that divisive historical processes have played in the region. We try to resist simple Cold War taxonomies of knowledge, which designate as socialist and post-socialist only East European countries, or stratify them even further into the Baltics, Central Europe, the West Balkans, Southeast Europe, the former Soviet Union, the Caucasus, Central Asia, etc., looking for shared patterns. We try to engage critically with different possible or imagined alliances (e.g. a Balkan or Transdanubian federation), also linking past and present experiences of socialism or projects for radical anti-capitalist social change. We are also interested in transversal knowledge that brings together countries beyond these divisions, for example, Latin America and Eastern Europe, Russia and Turkey, etc. Still, due to shared experiences, and contingent circumstances (our origin or research), we are still mostly focused on the formerly state-socialist regions of Eastern Europe and the Balkans. Most texts come from Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Ukraine, former Yugoslav countries, and less so from the North or further East. We have more recently tried to reach out to authors and cover topics in other geographies, including a few texts on Latin America and Asia, and have had a strong focus on Turkey and Russia. 
 
There are certain objective obstacles in this expansion: the further we move from the region, the thinner our networks become. Our audience (for the most part Eastern European) also seems to recognize LeftEast as a source of information and analysis about the region, while looking for information on foreign contexts in better established or geographically-specific Left-wing sources. Interestingly, one of our Greek readers and friends (Dimitra Kofti, Greek anthropologist working on Bulgaria) recently asked why we don’t cover Greece. Seems we've unreflectively reproduced one of these divisions we set out to problematize. True, Greece stayed on the “other” side of the Iron Curtain as part of Southern European and second wave EU member countries (PIIGS) and has been –unlike Eastern European countries– covered widely in Left-wing media. The assymetry became ever greater when Syriza was rising to power while the Left in Eastern Europe is still tiny and mostly politically marginalized. Since then Greece has been discussed by our writers, some of whom have contributed to AnalyzeGreece - a kindred English language portal - but Greece has mostly stayed out of our focus. Of course, we would be only delighted if you or your readers send us articles on Greece to publish, that include analysis sensitive to the different historical experiences within the Balkan peninsula. 
 
I would like to hear your thoughts on Syriza and the Syriza government. What does it mean for the movements  and the Left of the Balkans and Europe?
As an editorial collective we don't have a common view of Syriza, and neither do East European movements: for some groups/individuals connected to LeftEast, Syriza was never a real revolutionary alternative; others saw it as a last hope. In the region it was for a few years a hope that a socialist government can put other issues on the agenda of national and EU level politics, which our governments did not. We were all excited and campaigned in solidarity with the Greek people during the referendum in July 2015. Yet, both the Troika dealing and the Tsipras governments’ reaction were sobering and disappointing. Not so much the last-moment surrender, but rather their not having thought of a Plan B –Grexit – and actually preparing for it. While this was all happening, however, many of us realized a second, retroactive disappointment: how was it that a similar solidarity on the Western Left was nowhere to be found in the 1990s at a time when Eastern Europe –without a real Left in government– went through even more severe cycles of crisis and dispossession? So now it’s no surprise that solidarity is not there to be found - Greece still seemed affluent when looked at from e.g. Bulgaria or Moldova. Currently, we’ ve been engaged – individually and at times collectively through texts or invites we receive - in critical dialogue both around Lexit in the UK, and around DiEM’s attempts to revive a democratic Europe. As members of the editoral collective we have different opinions on these and the future of the EU or the lack thereof.  As for Syriza – for good or for bad, the refugee crisis sheds new light on how far the Greek government is ready to go in obeying the Troika, reneging on its mandate. Sure, the brutal economic blackmail doesn't help, but it's disappointing none-the-less...
 
And then, I would like to ask you about your view on the refugee/immigrants issue, and especial the deal (the deal of shame, in my opinion) between the EU and Turkey.
The current dangerous liaisons of Turkey and the EU are one of the reasons why this year we are trying to hold our summer encounter in Turkey. The connection of Turkey to the region is complex, both because of lasting anti-Islamic sentiments due to the legacy of the Ottoman empire and to modern-day Turkey which have been key geopolitical players in the region. We are all clearly outraged by the dirty deal between the EU and Turkey. It uses taxpayers' money neither for economical and political integration of migrants escaping war and economic warfare, nor for the ending of the war and reparation of societies destroyed by war and plundered by neocolonial relations. It technically uses the Turkish state as an eager mercenary to fend off Fortress Europe from these migrants, while waging war on migrants and minorities. This is no surprise – the EU has been a key imperial power in the neocolonial exercise called “Euroatlantic integration” through which our region has gone since the 1980s. Inhuman reforms allowed millions of people in the region to become unemployed and homeless overnight while factories, land and buildings were privatized and remained empty. The neoliberal restructuring let people die without access to medical care while medical concerns and private doctors accumulated enormous sums. It allowed governments to cut even the miserable pensions, maternal and unemployment benefits for those most vulnerable under the premise of the survival of the fittest in a  “healthy” society of cut-throat competition. So as with the Greek crisis, we see the current intervention of the EU rather in continuity with its inhuman policies and tendency to defend elite interests and outsource its problems and create reserve armies by dividing and ruling its periphery. Sadly, the refugee crisis has exacebrated the fear of dispossession which our people experienced in the 1990s, and has pitted many against the migrants, instead of turning them against the elites.
 
What is the current situation, in other words, what are the main problems and prospects on the Left and among the movements in the region?
We have increasingly authoritarian governments driven by capitalist lobbies and not willing to obey even the simple rule of law. While the Left in Europe is raging against evil trade agreements as CETA and TTIP, Eastern European countries have been exposed to the detrimental results of the association agreements with the EU and bilateral trade agreements with European and North American countries, which contain the ISDS and which have twisted the hands of countries into deals that clearly go against the popular interest. At the same time, while the Left is ever further vilified and condemned by conservatives, liberals, and oligarchic social democrats, the right extreme has presented itself as the only alternative that “cares for the people”. The reemergence of Putin's Russia as some new hero for part of the Western and local Left has made it ever more difficult to form alliances locally and internationally. At a time of refugee crisis and the fight over non-existent or severely cut labour and welfare in the region, the Left-wing organizations are structurally volatile and severely underresourced: in each country many activists live abroad and are engaged in long-distance activism due to migration and precarity... In the final declaration of our encounter in Kaunas in 2015 (coorganized with activists based in South European countries), we said “The Balkans are the future of the PIIGS”. Unless the Left in Europe manages to find ways to fight back, it seems Eastern Europe will be the future of Europe. 
 
Rossen Djagalovis an Assistant Professor of Russian and Slavic Studies at the New York University. Formerly an organizer for Yale’s graduate student union (GESO), he works on representations of labor and international leftist culture in general.
 
Mariya Ivancheva holds a PhD in Sociology and Social Anthropology from the Central European University in Budapest, on the topic of the higher education reform in Bolivarian Venezuela. She is currently a post-doctoral research fellow at University College Dublin and a member of Attac Ireland.
 
Mary Taylor is Assistant Director at the Center for Place, Culture and Politics, Graduate Center, City University of New York. Mary received her PhD in anthropology from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Her research focuses on sites, technologies and politics of civic cultivation, social movement, and cultural management; the relationship of ethics and aesthetics to nationalism, cultural differentiation, and people’s movements in socialist and post-socialist East-Central Europe and the United States. She specializes in studying, theorizing, and organizing radical and alternative pedagogical activities under different conditions of urbanization. 

 
Mariya Ivancheva, Mary Taylor, Rossen Djagalov were interviewed by Stratis Bournazos.
 
First published in Greek on “Enthemata” of the newspaper “Avgi”, 15.2016.
 

 
 
 
 
  • Published in EUROPE

Welcome to “Mirmigi”!


Mirmigi started to operate in 2012 by people active in various social and political movements. Most of them were engaged in other regional initiatives such as the conquest of the market of Kypseli and most of them were residents of the 6th district of the city of Athens.

Every day, we experience the abandonment and poverty in our neighborhood, Kypseli. More and more of us are experiencing difficulty to get by, to live with dignity and secure our daily necessities. More and more families, neighbors, friends, relatives are being driven to hopelessness, deprivation, poverty and alienation. We are neighbors and we believe that all of us together, united and in solidarity, we can effectively overcome the huge problems of the economic crisis that has been imposed on us. For this reason we formed the Solidarity Network of the 6th District, “to Mirmigi” (the Ant). Our network operates on two principles:

Solidarity derives from all towards to all people with no discriminations or exclusions. It is our weapon against their crisis. Together we claim our right to dignity.

Decisions are made directly by the same people who are actively involved in this endeavor, in the basis of self-management.The coordinating body of Mirmigi arranges its meetings on a weekly basis and it is based on the principle of equality. The meetings are open to everyone. This body decides on the special meeting which takes place every last Sunday of the month. The Mirmingi is self-organized and self-managed. Everyone who wishes to be a part of the venture is welcome.

Our space is located at the cross of Eptanisou and Tenedou St, in the area of Kipseli. We regularly organize movie screenings, parties and gatherings, discussions and other cultural events. We collect food through the donations made from the people of the neighborhood or the Mirmingi friends from all over the world. The food we gather is given out to people who are in need. We also gather clothes, shoes, blankets, bed sheets etc. for our free, permanent bazaar, toys and children’s books, as well as medicines for the supply of social pharmacies and healthcare centers. What is more, we provide legal support for families heavily in debt, consulting by social workers and psychologists, lessons for children in primary school. Since April 2013, we have been organizing on a monthly basis a Market without Intermediaries event which has open food market in our neighborhood, offering low-price and high-quality products sold directly by producers and collectivities from all over Greece. With the food we collect we already support more than 500 families.

Mirmigi has three food and clothing distribution shifts: Monday 18.00-20.00, Wednesday 10.00-12.00 and Thursday 18.00-20.00. Every Tuesday the meeting of the coordinating body takes place. In addition, every Wednesday and Saturday we hand out flyers outside the supermarkets of the neighborhood and ask for the neighbors’ contribution by buying something for our weekly food distribution.

In July 2013 we had one of the most moving moments for Mirmigi when a targeted fascist arson attack took place in our space and the neighborhood reacted and mobilized directly by extinguishing the fire and participating in a mass antifascist march of Mirmigi. Additionally, another precious moment which highlights the importance and the recognition of Mirmigi was when the municipality authorities asked the police to stop the operation of the Market without Intermediaries. Mirmigi managed in the next few hours to gather thousands of signatures from people opposed to this unfair act.

The “Mirmingi” is not a framework of the government, neither is it subsidized by the government. Rather, it is supported solely by the efforts and the solidarity of all those supporting the network. The bags containing food or the clothes come a long way before they get to the hands of the people supported. For our efforts to have continuity and stability we need the involvement of everybody in the neighborhood who can help in any way. Let’s meet.



Mirmigi, Solidarity Network of the 6th Community of Athens: Eptanisou and Tenedou St, Kipseli, Athens

 

Open event: Migrants & refugees in Greece and Europe: borders and barriers

Migrants and refugees in Greece and Europe: borders and barriers
Αn open discussion in English hosting by AnalyzeGreece!
Wednesday, February 3, 18.30
Viotechniko Epimelitirio (VEA), 18 Akadimias Street, Athens
Speakers:
Dimitris Christopoulos, Vice-President of the International Federation for Human Rights, Associate Professor, Panteion University
Apostolis Fotiadis, journalist, author of the book Border Merchants
Olga Lafazani, post-doctoral researcher, University of Barcelona, member of Network of Social Support of Refugees and Migrants
Achilles M. Peklaris,  journalist, activist in Lesvos’ “Village of All Together”, member of Migrants’Social Cente
Coordinator: Despina Biri, AnalyzeGreece!
 
A million migrants and refugees in total arrived by land and sea in Europe in 2015; 840.000 came through Greece. To cope with this, the State, local authorities, NGOs and volunteers have taken action rescuing and supporting these people through their journey.
On the other hand, European member states are closing their borders down leaving Greece alone to accommodate thousands of trapped people and to deal with the problems caused by the continuing migration influx.
Under the circumstances, there is a de facto disruption of Dublin III and a series of meetings of the European Council in an attempt to form some sort of a European Action Plan on Migration.
AnalyzeGreece! is celebrating its first-year anniversary and it is hosting  a debate on migration issues in order to engage foreign correspondents, experts and NGOs as well as Greek and foreign citizens and migrants and refugees’ representatives, to reflect on the following aspects:
A. European Policy for Migration and the role of Greece as a host or transit country
B. The role of solidarity movements in the current situation in Greece.
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Speakers:
Dimitris Christopoulos,
Vice-President of the International Federation for Human Rights, Associate Professor, Panteion University
Apostolis Fotiadis, journalist, author of the book Border Merchants
Olga Lafazani, post-doctoral researcher, University of Barcelona, member of Network of Social Support of Refugees and Migrants
Achilles M. Peklaris,  journalist, activist in Lesvos’ “Village of All Together”, member of Migrants’Social Cente
Coordinator: Despina Biri, AnalyzeGreece!



Analyze Greece! offers and alternative critical view amidst the often confusing and conflicting information about Greece. It is grounded on well-documented analysis, opinions and comments, originally published in Greek, from a left-wing and grassroots movements perspective. We exist to fill a gap; while iterations of crisis and resistance abound in Greece, much is lost in translation. Analyze Greece! provides a link between Greek social movements and the people of the world.
AnalyzeGreece! is an independent website that hosts analyses and alternative news from a critical left viewpoint. All published texts are about Greece and are exclusively in English, emphasizing issues such as Let-wing governance, the far-Right and Golden Dawn, racism, refugees and migrants, solidarity and resistance movements, democracy and Greco-European relations. Most of the articles come from Greek left intellectuals and activists and are either written originally in English or are translated by our team.
 
THE EVENT WILL BE HELD IN ENGLISH


 

Austerity vs. The People's Health: How Greeks Built an Alternative Health System

Vijoleta Gordeljevic
 
"We don't earn anything, we only spend, but for each other," said a tall, middle-aged man as he entered the little room full of medicine where I was sitting behind a small wooden table, interviewing a 15-year-old volunteer at a solidarity clinic in Pireus, Athens. As he raised his voice, he added: "Write that down, say that we are no NGO that pays people for doing something good. We all do this for free; we do it because we have to." He closed the door and left.

Not only do the hundreds of volunteers involved in Greece's informal health structure consisting of circa 50 solidarity clinics & pharmacies earn nothing, they also do not get the praise they deserve. Like in May of this year when the Medical Association of Athens, instead of supporting the cause, decided to accuse solidarity health clinics of causing unfair competition due to the "unknown work relationship" between the clinics and their volunteer doctors. This was not only a slap in the face for those giving their time and effort to provide indispensable health services for free at these clinics, but also for at least 75,000 Greeks that relied on these services alone in Athens. As a response, the Social Solidarity Clinic & Pharmacy of Arta published a statement saying they pity those who think that solidarity clinics are illegal and that all it does "is have love and respect for the fellow man, nourishing hope for a better future, for a life with dignity."

Over this summer I was lucky to visit dozens of examples of such healthcare-related solidarity. I learned that not only do they provide the sick with medicine and health services, they also help reverse the alienation suffered by many due to unemployment by strengthening social values and practicing open communication and selfless giving.

 
Greece has lately been seeing its own version of the "economía solidaria"; a term dating back to Latin America in the 80s when a big segment of the population started experiencing economic exclusion due to debt and unemployment and decided to counter it through a cooperative, autonomous and self-managed provision of various services by their members. The same thirst for justice and self-management could be witnessed in the past five years in Greece. Here, austerity has forced self-organization in areas such as housing, food and healthcare. It is especially the latter that has resulted in a remarkable network, quietly saving lives every day whilst listening to announcements of more and more public services being compromised.

'An alternative was needed'
Just two years ago, various authors and journalists referred to Greece's newly-sprung clinics as underground clinics; places people started going to as they increasingly could not afford or access treatment at a private or public hospital. Patients with severe physical and mental problems, many with cancer, diabetes or depression had to neglect their physical and mental problems for months as they were not able to pay the steep private hospital fees.

The public system became inaccessible because of inhumane waiting lists as a result of being greatly underfunded on every level due to austerity. Now in 2015, as Greece's socioeconomic crisis has long become a humanitarian crisis as expressed by Prime Minister Tsipras and other Syriza officials on multiple occasions, these underground clinics have long become known as "social" or "solidarity clinics" and their existence is not even closely as secret as the former term would suggest. Even though they are considered informal and exist without any legal status, solidarity clinics have become the alternative and frankly, quite innovative form of organizing healthcare for the citizens of Greece -- by their own neighbors and friends.

Greater Athens alone accounts for approximately 20 of these clinics and pharmacies. Another 30 are spread all over Greece, including on its islands where public health cuts have resulted in particularly neglected patients. Clinics operate free, without the use of money at any point. The doctors, nurses and administrative assistants are volunteers, buildings are either donated by the local municipality or squatted, leftover medicine is mostly donated by locals and medical equipment tends to come from retired physicians.

What has started off as an emergency solution to the harmful effects of public health cuts has almost become a parallel health structure on which growing parts of the Greek population start to rely. It is a structure that places the idea of health being a human right at its very center. In times when healthcare has become more and more commodified, competitive and selfish, self-organized relationships of care and community demonstrate a way out. They prove that healthcare can work if it is organized and creatively crafted by those most affected.


Health care from the bottom-up, in the middle of crisis-stricken Greece and born out of dire need: How did all of this happen and how did a people decide to take health into their own hands?

The first solidarity clinic -the Social Clinic of Rethymno- was to open on Crete, the idyllic island that is especially popular amongst European tourists. The clinic describes its purpose on its website as supporting people who do not have access to free health, medicines and vaccines as well as highlighting the problem that a big part of the population is being excluded from basic health services. Whereas the clinic was initially founded to serve the influx of immigrants and refugees, it soon started getting demand from native Greeks. Those who came were from diverse backgrounds; most just recently lost their health insurance as a result of unemployment. More than 300,000 people fell into this bracket in 2014, making the total share of uninsured Greeks stand at around 33.2% of the population (not even counting immigrants). Even people that are part of the social security register and formally employed have increasingly been making use of the solidarity structure; a decrease in public spending for medicines by more than half, from ca. five to only two Billion Euro means that many are unable to afford co-payments for drugs of sometimes up to 70%.

Whereas Greece has surely never been a pioneer in health matters - it has always been able to guarantee access to care to those that needed it. Its healthcare has been a mix of social health insurance and tax financed services via its own NHS run structure; comprised of a fragmented, corrupted but nevertheless accessible system. And although quality suffered in the last years, the biggest difference now is not that good-quality services are unavailable, but that people´s incomes are too low to pay for them any longer.

'The right to health'
"It is not just money that is missing. People lost their rights," Nikos from the solidarity clinic in Peristeri told me, a neighborhood in northwest Athens. Nikos is referring to the right to health; a right that was taken away when physicians were laid off and when waiting times became unbearable. If the state does not have the finances to save its population´s health, its people will. As Nikos says "We just want back our rights. We will then fight for the budget, together".

The sheer existence of a solidarity structure makes clear that the times in which health was affordable are long over. The Metropolitan Clinic of Helleniko, by far the biggest solidarity clinic in Greece, reports patient numbers have risen by 375% from 2012 to 2013 with 15,000 patients asking for medical attention in 2013 alone and probably reaching 20,000 patients in 2015.

 
Meanwhile, the International Monetary Fund was reporting that all of this is part of its plan to "to keep public health expenditure at or below 6 percent of GDP, while maintaining universal access and improving the quality of care delivery." In other words, Greece suddenly needed to do more with much less. It was expected to take care of the health of 11 million people and a rising number of immigrants with only6% of its GDP starting in 2010. This has further decreased to roughly 5% in 2015. Most other EU countries spend at least double as much on health. State-run hospitals have had to cut budgets by as much as 50%, tens of thousands of physicians and other medical staff members were laid off as part of this "modernization" of healthcare.

'Patient-centered care'
In Patission, a formerly wealthy neighborhood in the northern edge of the city, I met Irene and Aleka, who both volunteer their time at the neighborhood´s Social Pharmacy which was founded by two pensioners almost three years ago. My question regarding their feelings about the future was met with head-shaking and ironic laughter. "The future? When Syriza got elected we believed the pharmacy would close, but the opposite happened, we are going backwards." They told me about their patients and the anger they sometimes share with the volunteers at the pharmacy. "People feel betrayed, cheated on and lied to. They feel so much anger". Irene, a former secretary for more than 33 years who lost her job 5 years ago and whose work as a volunteer helped her escape a depression, adds in quiet voice "Now after the news of the new memorandum, I feel I am losing my strength, my hope. I am looking for something small to grab but nothing seems to be improving."

She continued by telling about the pharmacy´s relevance and the 944 patients registered and how they have identified ca. 70 families in need of food assistance. Every couple of months those families can come to the pharmacy to pick up donated food and baby products next to the medical products they receive, helping them survive as many are unable to sustain their families since having become unemployed. Irene and Aleka do not only help organize food assistance, they are also aware of the emotional support the pharmacy provides. To my question of whether she thinks the people coming to the pharmacy come for more than just medicine, Aleka replied "Some people don´t want to be alone, they are understood here. We are all in this together."

It is exactly examples like this that demonstrate the clinic´s far bigger purpose than to simply provide health-related attention. In the process of trying to meet the basic health needs of the people in their communities, these clinics are cultivating democracy and justice, and they are planting the seeds of a more patient-centered health service, one that takes multiple social determinants of health into consideration.


'Beyond medicine'
Through my visits to dozens of clinics in and around the city I came to realize that solidarity clinics can be said to fulfill three main functions: Firstly, the obvious medical function through the provision of free healthcare services to a continuously increasing number of patients at their own locations as well as through a loose network of associate clinics, diagnostic centers and physicians.

Secondly, the function of a social support system, which attempts to assist patients in matters of food and shelter and thus, considers other determinants of health than just access to health services. This function also aids in strengthening social relationships through its inviting and participatory character, it assists people with the integration into social life and gives back dignity to those that felt excluded from society due to illness, unemployment or both.

And thirdly, a political function in which solidarity clinics advocate the right to health and show resistance to all those trying to impose limits on this right. Those are not only the institutions that forced austerity on Greece in the first place but also, national and international policies limiting access to healthy living incl. privatization of water, the country´s beaches or the ongoing commodification of health and health care. Having said this, solidarity clinics as part of Greece´s newly emerged solidarity economy go beyond achieving purely social aims: they aim to put right an injustice by expressing solidarity.

'Being part of something'
They are in the first place about providing medical help, but whoever spends a couple of hours within their facilities, will soon come to realize that their actual relevance encompasses a much wider field and probably an even more important one- companionship in times of crisis.

So regardless of what the near future holds, for the next year or two many of the clinics will continue to be there when no one else is. They will offer a new, innovative form of providing medical attention to people without the use of money and authoritarian principles. "No one will be left alone during the crisis", is therefore a sentence that now marks the websites and leaflets of multiple solidarity clinics and that captures well how the volunteers at the clinics are assisting their fellow people not only in the fight against an illness, but also in the fight against a system that limits their access to good health.

Making their patients "part of something" as Maria Spiliotopoulou - a historian and admin volunteer from the Social Clinic & Pharmacy in Omonia - told me is therefore the essential difference that distinguishes solidarity clinics from other initiatives present such as Doctors of the World. Whereas the latter without a doubt offers great service to the Greek people too, it represents a hierarchical service, where outsiders have come to help the poor and sick. Solidarity clinics in contrast believe in the actual meaning of the word; as Eduardo Galeano said "charity is vertical as it goes from the top to the bottom, while solidarity is horizontal as it respects the other person".

Those who treat and those who get treated have both been hit by the crisis, they understand each other's pain. This way, solidarity clinics do not only provide remedy to physical pain, but they give hope. They make all those visible that have felt invisible the past months and years, they offer social inclusion, companionship and love for the fellow man. Medicine is often just a practical side-effect.

Vijoleta Gordeljevic is a Health Economist & Global Health professional. She currently works as digital health consultant and freelance writer on topics at the intersection of health and politics.
She is also a member of the People´s Health Movement.


First published in Engish on "The Huffigton Post", 6-7.10.2015.

A Good Samaritan in Greece

William Spindler

PAPA STRATIS, IN MEMORIAM
The Guardian Angel of refugees lives no more...


 
Father Efstratios Dimou – “Papa Stratis”, a Good Samaritan of our time,  the founder of NGO Agkalia in the Greek island of Lesbos, who had helped thousands of refugees and migrants since 2007, lives  no more. We re-published (from www.unhcr.org) an articel by William Spindler abourt the great work done by Agkalia and Papa Stratis.
ANALYZEGREECE!


 
Father Efstratios Dimou – “Papa Stratis” to all and sundry –  sits in the front yard of his house, surrounded by flowers in earthenware pots, a small apricot tree and his big bear-like dog, Siba. Overhead on the Greek island of Lesvos, swallows fly in and out of a nest on the wall.

He wears a dark blue cassock, a pony tail and leather sandals which complement his big grey-blue mischievous eyes and long bushy grey beard. He suffers from a chronic respiratory condition and has to be permanently connected by a tube to a tank that supplies oxygen directly to his lungs. This does not stop him from smoking the occasional cigarette.

Papa Stratis, along with other local volunteers in the village of Kalloni, has been helping refugees since 2007 through the NGO ‘Agkalia‘. In all these years he reckons that he has helped some ten thousand people, including a few locals fallen on hard times. But never before has he seen so many refugees looking for help.

“Every day between one and two hundred people come to Kalloni,” the 57-year old Orthodox priest says. “The local people tell them to come to us for help. We give them food, water, milk for the babies, shoes, clothes. They can stay here too: we have blankets, mattresses on the floor.”


Chased by the war in Syria and by conflict and persecution in other places, more than 26,000 refugees have arrived in Lesvos since January. They cross the short stretch of water that separates the island from Turkey in rubber dinghies and wooden boats. Many of them land on the remote northern coast and walk for up to 15 hours to Papa Stratis’ temporary shelter in Kalloni.

“I have seen small children with blisters on their feet and pregnant women holding their bellies and crying in pain,” he says sadly. “These people are not migrants, they do not choose to come here. They are children of war, fleeing bullets. They are life-seekers, they search for life, hope and the chance to live another day.”

With local authorities overwhelmed by the 64,000 refugee arrivals to Greece since the beginning of the year, local activists like Papa Stratis and the network of volunteers “Village All Together”, are often taking on the sole responsibility of caring for the refugees on the Greek islands.

“We have no external funding,” he explains with a smile. “We depend completely on the generosity of the local people.”

His battered wine-red Citroën Xantia – he calls it “Tarzan” for its ability to scramble onto the island’s most inaccessible corners – is always packed with food, water and spare clothes.

“One day we found a baby asleep in his mother’s arms at the beach. We wanted to give him milk but didn’t have a bottle and he couldn’t drink from a glass. It was in the middle of the night, so we woke up all the pharmacies in town until we found a bottle,” Papa Stratis chuckles cheekily.

Hard-hit by a pervasive debt crisis and circumscribed by economics, politics and geography, small communities in the Greek islands are having to deal with the fallout of conflicts far away of which they know and understand little. Many islanders are wary of the destitute refugees who arrive in their midst. Others worry about the impact their presence will have on tourism. But many, like Papa Stratis, are rolling up their sleeves and stepping forward to help.
 
William Spindler was born  in Guatemala and now is based in Geneva, Switzerland. He worked as a journalist in London and in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, before joining UNHCR in Mozambique. He has since worked amid humanitarian emergencies in Rwanda, Kosovo, East Timor, Sierra Leone, Colombia and Mali, as well as in Paris and Geneva. He has a PhD in art history and theory and has published articles on cultural, political and humanitarian issues in “The Financial Times”, “The Spectator”, “Le Monde diplomatique”, “Libération” and “Cambio 16”.

 
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