Poverty-stricken Greek town hits new low

PERAMA, Greece Fri Mar 30, 2012 2:14pm EDT

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PERAMA, Greece (Reuters) - A "humanitarian crisis" is unfolding in an impoverished Greek city where a deepening economic crisis has left thousands seeking food from an international charity more used to helping refugees and bringing aid to famine or disaster zones.

Once home to a thriving shipbuilding industry, the port city of Perama near Athens has seen its fortunes wane over the years as buyers abandoned it for cheaper options outside Greece.

The country's financial crisis is the latest blow - pushing up unemployment in the area to 60 percent, triple the national average.

Without health insurance or money for fees at state facilities, many of the town's 25,000 residents have begun flocking to a free clinic set up by Doctors of the World seeking medical care and, lately, staples like milk and bread.

The clinic was set up two years ago to treat poor immigrants. Instead, it now finds that 80 percent of its patients are Greeks struggling to get by. Doctors say many of them cannot even afford the bus fare to the local hospital.

"We tell a lot of people that come here: 'Your child needs to go the hospital, we can't treat the problem here,' and they tell us: 'I don't have the 1.40 euros to take the bus and go to the hospital,'" said Liana Maili, a paediatrician at the clinic.

A large chunk of the town's residents live on less than 200 euros ($270) a month, the agency says.

"There are some families that have not had electricity for five, eight months, who spent the winter burning pieces of wood to keep warm and whose children eat from the garbage."

Lately, the clinic has been overwhelmed with vaccination requests for Greek children whose parents cannot afford booster shots - something the agency has only ever seen in the developing world, said Nikitas Kanakis, head of the agency's Greek arm.

"We will need the help of other organizations as we are in a humanitarian crisis," he said.

FOOD PARCELS

Greece is struggling through a debilitating debt crisis that has forced it to accept financial aid to keep afloat. The aid comes at the price of painful wage and spending cuts that have helped push the country into its fifth year of recession.

Most Greeks have felt the pain of salary and pension cuts and higher taxes, with towns like Perama showing the extremes of a crisis that social workers say has punished the weakest sections of society.

In the clinic's small waiting room, patients outnumber the available seats as they wait to be seen by a doctor or pick up a free meal box of beans, olive oil, pasta and condensed milk.

Unable to find a steady job for five years, Antonis Giatras relies on the clinic to feed his family of five. He recalls once being forced to live in his car and in a cemetery for months when he was homeless with a pregnant wife.

"There are some days when we have no bread, or food," said the 50-year-old Giatras. "My young daughter who goes to school is forced to go some days without taking any food with her."

In a one-room shack with a ceiling damaged by water and held together with bits of rope and wood, 36-year-old Spiridoula Firlemi lives in fear her electricity will be cut off because she cannot pay back power bills of 1,250 euros.

"They'll cut it off. We'll see, maybe I'll get electricity from a neighbor," said Firlemi, who has a 45-day-old baby.

"I can't leave the baby in the cold." ($1 = 0.7509 euros)

(Writing by Deepa Babington; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

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