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Photograph: Anna Marinaki

Greek shipping town devastated by crisis girds for anti-bailout fight

PERAMA, Greece — The town of Perama, in the shipbuilding region of Piraeus, a 30-minute drive from Athens, is one of the poorest areas in Greece. In the July 5 referendum on whether to accept the bailout terms offered by the country’s creditors, 77 percent of Perama’s voters rejected agreeing to the proposed austerity measures — one of the highest percentages of ‘no’ votes in the country. Now, anger is rising here after news of Prime Minister Alex Tsirpras’ capitulation and further belt tightening to come.

In a hot, smoke-filled hall in central Perama, 40 people gathered on Monday for a meeting of Open Assembly, a local group formed after the peaceful anti-austerity demonstrations in Athen’s Syntagma Square in 2011. Each week Open Assembly’s members meet to discuss the community’s needs and find ways to help the poorest. In recent years the group has managed to illegally restore water and electricity to homes where those services have been cut off, persuade bus drivers to allow unemployed people to ride for free and get shoppers to donate food to those in need. Today participants are talking about how to oppose the new bailout package, in which Greece could receive up to $96 billion in exchange for drastic pension and public-sector cuts, a tax overhaul, changes to collective bargaining and other reforms.

We will go door to door in Perama, saying to people that we’re fighting.

“We are strong enough to do what we want. We do everything for the people,” said one man, his shirt unbuttoned because of the heat, a cigar in hand.

By meeting’s end, those present had made a decision. They would take to the streets to drum up opposition to the deal in an attempt to persuade Greece’s parliament to reject the bailout terms. Tsipras has until Wednesday to get the agreement through parliament.

“We will go door to door in Perama, saying to people that we’re fighting,” said Babis, an Open Assembly founder who declined to give his last name. “Then we will reach other communities all over Greece. We will protest by the mayor’s office. We will go to Athens.”

In Perama, residents have staunchly opposed the bailout deal in part because they feel they would have nothing left to lose from a eurozone exit. The financial crisis that began five years ago has taken a huge toll on the community’s formerly vibrant shipping industry. Once filled with cruise ships and shipping containers, the port here is half empty. Approximately 92 percent of workers in the shipyards have lost their jobs since 2010, according to Yiannis Lagoudakis, the mayor of Perama and a member of the ruling leftist Syriza party. Then temporary jobs in the construction business, which had long provided some income to the community’s poorest people, dried up. Perama’s general unemployment rate is 40 percent — twice the national average — and youth unemployment is close to 70 percent.

Nikos Psathas, 45, spent years as a metalworker repairing ships. Four months ago, he lost his job. Now he’s entitled to 400 euros a month of financial aid from the government, for a year. He lives with his wife, who has been unemployed for a decade, and two children — a girl, Irene, 17, and a boy, Antonius, 13. Psathas said he gets by with the help of his mother and mother-in-law. Sometimes he can’t pay his bills. But what really scares him is thinking about his children’s future.

Irene, who wants to go to college next year to study economics, is frightened too. “My future is very difficult. No one can find jobs in Greece,” she said. “There’s no money in my house.”

While Psathas worries about that near future, he is less concerned with what’s happening in Greece right now. “No worker cares if we have the euro or the drachma,” he said. “I already lost everything.”

But others in this community of 25,000 are dismayed.

“These measures are draconian,” said Lagoudakis of the bailout terms announced Monday. “We want another agreement. People in Perama can’t pay for their food, electricity and water. We want dignity.”

Still, Lagoudakis doesn’t blame Tsipras. “He did his best. He was a victim of blackmail. Negotiations were very difficult and I think that he did everything he could do.”

Babis, who runs a tool shop and struggles to pay his bills and put his older daughter through college, called the agreement “tragic.” “There’s nothing for the poor and the workers,” he said.

But perhaps because its residents have helped each other cope amid the economic crisis, Perama did not descend into chaos in recent weeks when banks closed as part of the capital control measures imposed by the government. Elsewhere in Greece, pensioners were photographed crying outside banks when they couldn’t get their payments. Bank withdrawals are limited to 60 euros per day — 1,300 per month — But that didn’t faze residents in Perama, said Babis. “No one in Perama has that kind of money, so no one cares about that. You should have come here two years ago, when the situation was really, really bad,” he said, referring to the time before Open Assembly found ways to help.

Christina, 32, who wished to be identified by only her first name, an unemployed mother of a 2-year-old boy, went to the Open Assembly meeting in part because of that support. She used to sleep on the floor with her baby because she didn’t have a bed, she said. But then she asked for assistance from others. “Now I have a bed,” she said. “We are Greeks. We swim, we swim, we swim,” she added, pointing in the direction of the sea. “Sometimes we go down. And then we come up again. We are strong.”

Babis said that Open Assembly is a community group, not one aligned with any political party, even though some of its participants are Syriza supporters. Last week Open Assembly members went door to door asking people to vote ‘no’ in the referendum.

One thing that Open Assembly members ask of those they help is to reject Golden Dawn, a Greek neo-Nazi party. In recent years it has taken advantage of the high unemployment and poverty rates to exploit anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant sentiments. In 2012, Golden Dawn won 18 seats in parliament. “People go to Golden Dawn to have food. They don’t even know what fascism is,” said Babis. “You can go to the church, to the local authorities, but you can’t go to Golden Dawn. You’re either with them or with us.”

That plea appears to be working. In the 2012 elections, Golden Dawn secured 14 percent among Perama voters, twice the national share. In January in Perama, the party won 9 percent. Babis thinks the 2013 death of Pavlos Fyssas, a left-wing hip-hop artist who was allegedly killed by a Golden Dawn member, was a turning point in the party’s fortunes here. (Golden Dawn denied any connection to the alleged killer.) Before Fyssas was killed, Golden Dawn threatened and beat Communist Party workers in the shipping industry, Babis said, and Egyptian fishermen in Perama.

People go to Golden Dawn to have food. They don’t even know what fascism is.

In the mountains of upper Perama, the situation is even bleaker. There, facing the glimmering sea below, hundreds of illegal houses make up the suburb’s largest slum. Few have electricity, and even fewer have sanitation. The smell of sewage and garbage is potent; the ground is strewn with broken glass and old clothes. People there were poor long before the crisis started five years ago. But many had managed to find temporary jobs in the construction business or cleaning houses. Now most are destitute.

On a recent weekday morning, standing in the middle of a street called Hope, a middle-aged woman started screaming, “How can I get my medicine? I’m going to die! Just like my husband … I’m going to die!”

Stilianos Papadakis lives in one of the slum’s houses with his five children. A carpenter, he hasn’t worked in years. The local church gave him five goats, he said, so he could have milk for the children. But the neighbors complained about the smell, and he had to give them away. “My children eat because there are donors in their schools who give them food,” he said. “If it weren’t for them, they would have to hold their bellies from hunger.”

Papadakis voted ‘no’ in the referendum; regardless of what happens, he feels little hope. “Not even the people who govern us can do anything. What can I do?”

Soula, 60, who gave only her first name, has the word “children” in Greek tattooed on her arm. She had six kids, but one died last year in a motorcycle accident. His obituary, printed in the local newspaper, still hangs on the door outside her home. Her electricity and water were cut off because she stopped paying the bills. “The situation can’t get any better or worse, and this has nothing to do with the agreement,” she said. “I have no bread. I have nothing. I already lost everything. Half of Greece is starving.”

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