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Greece: a rural exodus


Greece: a rural exodus

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Angeliki Mihou has decided to take her future into her own hands. Last year, this Greek mother of two returned to her parents’ village to start a new venture… snail farming.

Unable to find a job in Athens or in the city where her husband works, Angeliki now lives in a small town some 100 kilometres from the capital.

She is hoping that raising and selling about three thousand kilos of snails per year will lead to a better life for her and her family.

The farm however, is not without its risks. After investing her life savings, about 17 thousand euros into this new business, Angelika tells euronews about the uncertainty she faces:

“I didn’t borrow any money and even if I had wanted to, the banks wouldn’t have given me any. It’s all my money. All my savings. So I hope this works and I’m doing all I can to make sure it does.”

Angeliki is one of the 60 thousand Greeks who has gone into farming over the past two years. She is also part of a new Greek exodus – a young generation which instead of going abroad, is going back to its roots, its rural villages, its home and especially its family.

Angeliki Mihou explains her new farm would never have been possible, were it not for the backing of her father:

“I needed some land and I would never have been able to do this without this land which belongs to my father. Also I needed help with the children and financial support. Right now it’s my father who is helping us and I couldn’t have done it without him.”

Almost half of Greece’s population of 11 million people live in Athens and it is estimated that one out of every two residents migrated from the countryside.

A migration which began in a post World War Two climate but which gained momentum when Greece joined Europe’s Economic Community in 1981, better known today as the European Union. As part of the eurozone, Athens launched a spending and borrowing boom which transformed the city.

Today however, Athens is no longer the symbol of a better life but rather the poster child for the eurozone crisis; a city which is sinking under the pressure of budget and salary cuts, higher taxes, rising unemployment and poverty. Even though it is reported that 70% of people in Greece own their homes, charities claim that the number of homeless alone has risen by 25% over the past two years.

For the past two years, demonstrations have become all too familiar. The outpour of frustration and anger at both past and current governments has left the country over 300 billion euros in debt.

A crisis which has forced Greeks to bite the austerity bullet in order to qualify for a new EU/IMF bailout of 130 billion euros.

Despite the protests, many both in and outside of Greece say this austerity plan was the only choice to avoid an even worse crisis.

Dimitri Sotiropoulos is a professor and political analyst at the University of Athens. He is also an adviser to the current prime minister.

He agrees the austerity plan is tough and he hopes the government will go after those who have avoided paying taxes in the past.

For him however, the real priority is staying within the eurozone:
“It will only work, I think, if people are convinced that in the short run there’s a burden that we can share amongst ourselves and I’m talking about different categories of the population. The alternative which is to default would bring about unheard situations of poverty and misery of the kind neighbouring nations witnessed in the beginning of the 1990s when they were making the transition from socialism to the free market.

For a growing number of Greeks, that poverty and misery is already here.

Alexandra Lekke is a teacher in Athens. Both she and her husband have seen their salaries cut by 20% in the past year. Her wages alone have gone from 1,400 to 1,100 euros per month. She says she is one of the lucky ones since they do not have a mortgage but believes a Greek default is almost inevitable:

“I believe that the saddest thing about the cuts and what brings anger and sorrow is the feeling that all the cuts are leading nowhere, that sacrifices are made in vain because we have cuts and cuts and cuts and still prices are going up in the supermarket and everywhere else. We have lost about 3000 euros each last year me and my husband but I don’t believe any hope is at the end of the tunnel.

“Would you consider moving abroad?”

Alexandra Lekke:
“Look, I have my mother here and many times Canada has crossed my mind because the rest of the family is in Canada and they have an easy, quiet and peaceful life but I am not sure because I am 45 and sometimes I feel very tired.”

The town of Levidi, with its population of 800, is about a two hour drive from Athens.
It has seen many of its people leave to study and work in Athens or abroad but today some are returning and setting up new businesses.

Konstantina Papanastasiou grew up in Athens yet came back before the crisis hit to turn her grandfather’s house into a bed and breakfast.

With the help of her parents and with 40% funding from the European Union, she has been open for business for the past three years. She is also married with a small child.

Although small businesses are seen as the backbone of Greece’s economy, Konstantina warns austerity measures are targeting the wrong people.

She pays 800 euros each month for bank loans and insurance while VAT alone has risen from 9% to 23% since 2010.

For Konstantina, the prospect of leaving the eurozone is not appealing:
“At the point where we are now, I think it would be catastrophic if we left the eurozone. There would be a huge disparity, the drachma would cause inflation and we wouldn’t be able to buy anything. At this point, I think it’s better to stay with the euro to avoid an even worse situation and to try to pay back our debts.”

Across the village square, Konstantina’s husband runs a café and restaurant. He also turned some family land into a hotel near the local ski resort.

Although business has been down some 40% this past year, Kostas, like his wife, agrees that bringing life back to Greece’s rural areas holds the key to a better future.

Kostas Papanastasiou told euronews:
“I believe things will get worse. In a year or a year and a half, unemployment will rise from 20% to 40%. That’s why I think that the only solution is immigration within the country. People who are in Athens or in other big cities where they can’t find any work should come back to their villages and start something, create something, do something not only to help themselves but also to help their country.”

Counting on yourself. It is a growing sentiment among many Greeks, especially the younger generation who feel that those in charge of running the country have let them down.

Angeliki Mihou remains unsure of what will unfold but knows for certain, repeating previous mistakes will not save her country:

“I don’t know what will happen. Either everything will reach a boiling point and explode and who knows what next. Or, we’ll improve things ourselves, little by little and that’s the best thing that could happen: understanding how we got to this point and from there, trying to change it.”

While politicians throughout the EU are pushing austerity plans to end the euro crisis, Angeliki has found potential buyers for her snails. A sign, albeit a small one, that slowly, Greeks are taking back their future.

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