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Crisis-hit Greeks put own woes aside to help refugees

Volunteers collect bags and boxes full of goods donated by Greek people for migrants and refugees at Syntagma square in Athens on March 6, 2016. At least 25 migrants including children died on March 6 when their wooden boat capsized in the Aegean Sea while trying to cross from Turkey to Greece, the Turkish coastguard said. The tragedy comes a day before a crucial summit between Turkey and European Union leaders in Brussels. The 28-nation bloc is hoping for new commitments from Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu at their talks in Brussels in order to stop the stream of refugees. / AFP / ANGELOS TZORTZINIS

Athens / AFP

Their own wages and pensions have been slashed by the debt crisis, but thousands of Greeks are putting their own economic woes aside to help desperate refugees trapped in the country by the Balkan border blockade.
People old and young, from couples with babies to pensioners and teenagers, came to Athens’ Syntagma Square on Sunday loaded with bottles of water, medicine, pasta, nappies and clothes.
Panagiotis, a 32-year-old accountant, was just one of those determined to help. “Greek people know what it is to be a refugee,” said Panagiotis, a volunteer with the Red Cross at the Sunday donation organised by a social solidarity network.
“My grandmother came from Turkey in the 1920s. She had to leave everything there and she arrived in Thessaloniki with nothing. A lot of people in Greece have grandparents who experienced this exodus. This is maybe why we are helping those people,” he said.
With Greek state services overwhelmed by the arrival of around a million people in a year—most en route to countries in northern Europe—the support of volunteers and private donations has been invaluable in helping aid groups manage the crisis.
Like Panagiotis, many donors say they are motivated by the suffering of family relatives who became refugees themselves in the 20th century when Turkey progressively expelled a sizeable Greek minority from Istanbul and Asia Minor.

Packets of pasta
Yiorgos and his wife have came to Syntagma Square with bags of food and clothes after seeing television images of migrants stuck at Idomeni on the Greek side of the Greek-Macedonian border where over 13,000 people are camping in miserable conditions waiting to cross. The Macedonians are only allowing a few hundred people through every day, while thousands more continue to arrive from Turkey.
“The only thing we want is to help those people. We saw them on TV in Idomeni. A friend of mine says that we stopped being human as soon as we became citizens ourselves,” said the 70-year-old pensioner.
Alexandra Fitas, a 22-year-old sociology student, brought packets of pasta.
“I heard about it through some friends on Friday. I couldn’t bring more, but if everybody brings a little we can make something good,” she said.
Not everyone has been so eager to help. Some refugees coming from the islands say they were offered food and water at exorbitant prices and asked to pay shop owners to charge their cellphones.
In northern Greece, locals have taken matters into their own hands to dissuade the creation of migrant facilities.
Farmers in Pella prefecture, last week ploughed a field a day before army engineers were due to arrive to start constructing a new camp.
And last month, a fire broke out in a disused army camp near the town of Grevena where another accommodation facility was to be created.
In a poll published in February, more than two-thirds of Greeks voiced sympathy for the refugees but just over half said they would “rather not” see them settle in the country.
In Syntagma Aquare, 52-year-old designer Anastasis said the response had been overwhelming with around 10,000 people turning up with donations.

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