Tuesday, 26 May 2015

The Other Human

Athens is tired and unwashed but wears a warm, resilient smile. Greeks have it tough right now: the crippling hand of austerity has inflicted almost irreversible damage. In January this year the socialist Syriza party won the election and now change is in the air, but it’s hard to distill from a fog of desperation.

Around four years ago, in the wake of austerity-driven devastation, Greece’s solidarity movement was born. Volunteer-run foodbanks, soup kitchens and health clinics sprung up all over the country, almost over night. Where the government failed, people stepped up. 

One such person was Kostas Polychronopoulos. Sick of seeing people rummaging through bins for titbits of anything to eat, he founded a social initiative called The Other Human. The aim: to provide free meals for anyone who's hungry.

Kostas at his Name Day party. © Ryan Chapman

Kostas is a bearded Athenian oozing character. His twenty-four carat heart bears overwhelming compassion and empathy. If the ancient Greeks had a god of charity - like they seem to have had a god for everything else - Kostas would be the modern day equivalent. Every day, since starting out in December 2011, he has taken his stove and a small army of volunteers to the streets to cook. "Free food for all" he told me, "for solidarity, respect and love for all people".

I went along to a few cook-ups to share his story and spread some inspiration in the name of Destination: Utopia (films coming soon - more here). He chooses busy locations - usually bustling with pigeons as well as people; often public squares - and prepares the meals in a large steel pot, rhythmically stirring the contents with a wooden paddle as he has done a thousand times before. 

When the meal looks close to ready his first patron gingerly approaches and gratefully receives their foil tray, usually containing potatoes and beans in a tomato sauce, always accompanied by a chunk of bread. In turn, others come forward; those who have been observing from afar and those who seem to appear from nowhere. Young and old; male and female; even a guy in a suit.

The Other Human's banner in central Athens. © Ryan Chapman

Greece is far from becoming some kind of socialist utopia, despite the best efforts of people like Kostas. The radical left's recent election triumph speaks volumes but the voice of the far-right is so loud and abrasive that Golden Dawn, the neo-Nazi party - whose flag is eerily swastika-like and whose leader openly admires the F├╝hrer - received nearly 400,000 votes. We’re not talking Nigel Farage-like casual racism delivered with a cheeky grin: Golden Dawn are all for violence-led extremism. Blood, honour reads their slogan.

Syriza received over 2.2 million votes, significantly more than Golden Dawn, but the friction between far-left and far-right is constantly threatening to boil over. This was highlighted during a chance encounter with a local legend called Tom, known for maintaining a street art gallery of sorts, comprising of left-leaning slogans and symbolism in central Athens.

When I tracked it down however, only ‘Make Tea, Not War’ was eligible through the hastily applied layer of blue paint covering his work. The reason for the cover-up? Fear. "I've had enough" he told me, "Last week they vandalised my home. Next time they said it would be Molotov cocktails. Enough is enough".

The Acropolis. © Ryan Chapman

Greece, the much-touted birthplace of democracy, is at a political cross-roads. Held over a barrel by the European Union, Syriza are struggling to forge the changes they promised, much to the disappointment of many voters. So far, only symbolic gestures - such as the removal of security fences around parliament - have come to pass. They have an Olympus-sized mountain to climb.

The ball, however, is rolling. Greeks chose socialism; they chose to fight austerity; and more than that, they chose a new brand of politics: that of grassroots initiatives, creative activism and taking matters into their own hands.  For as long people like Kostas are out there - nurturing a desire for social change, reminding us that we're all human beings - there is hope.