Eyewitness Greece: Solidarity in action -- a visit to a Solidarity4All clinic

Volunteers at Solidarity Clinic in Peristeri.

By Vivian Messimeris, Athens

January 25, 2015 -- Green Left Weekly and Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- Vivian Messimeris is part of the Green Left Weekly and Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal team covering the January 25 election in Greece. You can read more of team's eyewitness coverage of Greece HERE and HERE.

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Today we visited one of the solidarity clinics that operates in the suburb of Peristeri. We met with some of the volunteers that work in the clinic that included two doctors as well as other activists. The clinic is staffed by 60 volunteers, including 20 doctors, and offers free medical consultations and pharmaceuticals.

Peristeri is largely a working class suburb of 400,000 people and is located in west Athens, which has a population of 1 million. Before the economic crisis most residents worked in blue-collar industry or were self-employed in small businesses.

Now many of these people are unemployed, or have had their wages and pensions significantly cut. There are high levels of poverty in the area and many residents are living without basic services, such as electricity or running water.

The solidarity movement was born out of the No Pay campaign, a mass resistance to rising tolls and to the growing cost of public transport. This was built on by the Occupy movement of 2011. After the mass occupation of the squares of Athens and throughout Greece, the solidarity movement was strengthened in the neighbourhoods in a rejection of the unfair property tax.

These struggles helped communities organise and work together through democratic structures. The solidarity movement now has hundreds of self-organised collectives that assist people with health, food and education needs.

In September 2012, there were about 180 self-organising initiatives. Now there are about 400. Most activists in the Solidarity4All movement are unemployed and 60% are women.

SYRIZA plays an important role in this campaign. Each SYRIZA MP donates 10-20% of their wage to the solidarity campaign. Manny SYRIZA members are also active in the campaign and volunteer to assist those most disadvantaged by the austerity measures.

In 2012, the solidarity movement created groups that included educational programs where retrenched teachers tutored children and established trading cooperatives with farmers. The absence of middlemen meant that farmers could get a better price than supermarkets offered and people could buy the produce for less than supermarket sold.

They are expanding into new fields, such as campaigning against foreclosures and assisting people who are in debt as a result of unfair taxes. They provide free legal advice and representation, and protest at the courts to stop foreclosures from occurring.

The Peristeri clinic operates by appointment and assists people with a range of health needs including access to GPs, psychologists, dentists, cardiologists, peadiatricians, and other specialists. Medicines are all donated to the clinic and are given to patients for free. The clinic has an MRI machine, which was donated to them from supporters in Germany.

Volunteer doctor Olga Kesidou said: “Doctors are the front line and our hearts bleed. The first thing to suffer after the memorandum [agreement that forced austerity on Greece] was the notion of public health. It was impacted by underfunding and understaffing, while at the same time there was a private health blow out.

“Doctors decided not to work alone, but to create a nucleus of resistance in order to keep the health system alive. We do not want to create beggars but want people to know that public health is a right, and as doctors we preserve this right.”

While providing these services is essential, Solidarity4All is not a welfare project. Christos Gevganopoulos described it as “a political movement, not a charity or NGO. It challenges the capitalist way of doing things.”

The notion of solidarity is central. They do not accept cash donations, but rely on a system of trade and donation of goods. This ensures that this movement maintains its political clarity.

Gevganopoulos explained how, through the action of helping and supporting each other, people see how public services can be run by the community with the support of people. He described how through this process, “democracy is exercised and deepening. [It is] engaging people with the movement of solidarity and expanding the program of self-management.”

Flora Toutoutsli from the Solidarity in the West, in west Athens, described how her solidarity group consists of 20 volunteers who support 50 families. They work in conjunction with the Peristeri clinic and provide food and clothing.

She described how there were some families who had gone three months without electricity and water. Heating costs had quadrupled over the past three years and last year, 80% of apartments in the area went without heating.

She said depression was a major problem and that when they meet with people they “tell them it is not their fault for the situation they are in”. The group’s slogan is: “Solidarity, Resistance, Overthrow.”

Solidarity in the West organises a weekly stall outside of the local supermarkets. The stall targets a different supermarket each week. They hand out leaflets to people as they enter explaining who they are and what they do.

Most people make a food donation as they exit the stall. She said that it was not uncommon to see people carrying one bag of their own groceries and donate two or three bags to the group.

Toutsouli emphasised the solidarity aspect to their work. They cook dinner for retrenched Ministry of Finance cleaners and take it to their protest. On November 17, 2013, to commemorate the Polytechnic uprising in the early 1970s, they organised a solidarity action with the retrenched cleaners, ERT workers, school guards, the Coca-Cola factory workers, and the Thessaloniki BIOME workers.

She said they “build solidarity and encourage people to get involved. We engage and mobilise.”

The volunteers at the clinic believed that a SYRIZA government would restore public services. They explained that the process was not going to be easy and straightforward, however, they hoped that they would be able to close the clinic in about a years time.

They believed that the solidarity model provided a new way of doing things. They did not want things to go back to what they were but wanted to create a new democratic system.

[Vivian Messimeris is a member of Australia's Socialist Alliance in Sydney.]

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Interview with SYRIZA activist Sissy Vovou

Sissy Vovou on a SYRIZA stall in Monastiraki, Athens. Photo by Vivian Messimeris.

By Vivian Messimeris, Athens

January 25, 2015 -- Green Left Weekly and Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal

What impact have the austerity measures had on you?

I am a pensioner with a medium sized pension. I lost 25% of my income and we are facing more cuts to the pension. I also had a very big increase in taxation like everybody of course, so my income fell by more than 25%. This is the economic side; there are so many social factors that made our lives very difficult. For some people their lives have become hell. Fortunately, I am not in this category. We see people sleeping in the street, we see people who do not have anything to eat, we see families who have had their electricity cut because they cannot afford electricity, and some occasions even water. We have created many solidarity structures in order to assist as many people as we can. This is solidarity it is not a church charity, or welfare approach. We expect SYRIZA to win and turn the page. The situation is very terrible and SYRIZA has to proceed carefully because the conditions, infrastructure and everything is very difficult, but we expect to be able to turn over a new leaf.

Why did you become an activist with SYRIZA?

I am a one of the founding members of SYRIZA, which was established in 2000. I was a member of the Renewing Communist Ecological Left, it was a Eurocommunist party, small but very strong in its ideas and presence with a lot of respect. This party collaborated with SYNASMISMOS in 2000. SYNASPISMOS was elected to parliament with 3.2% of the vote at the time. Without this collaboration they would not have been elected to parliament because the threshold is 3%. The next day we started working on the collaboration of radical left groups and individuals and we created the conditions for SYRIZA that became a reality. Less than four year later SYRIZA ran in it’s first elections as SYRIZA radical left in 2004. Since then, of course I am a SYRIZA activist but even before that at a very young age I was an activist in the extra-parliamentary left, in the Trotskyist movement, in the magazines that we were producing and so on. In all of this time I have always pressed the issue of women’s rights, not alone of course we have groups of women that try to ensure that women’s issues and feminist politics are incorporated into our campaigns. We don’t always have a lot of success but we do always try, and we are always active. We have to always think about how we can press the case for women’s rights.

What challenges do you think a SYRIZA government will face?

We know that there will be sabotage from some economic forces and the market, the so-called markets. We don’t what degree of sabotage we will face and we know very well that many personalities in the European Union have understood that the repayment of this debt is impossible. So, we are going to try really hard as we have said to cut this debt and arrange the conditions of repayment of the rest. We have conditions of our own too; the Greek economy must be restarted. This is the economic side; of course we have many social issues. I must stress very much that here in Greece we have more than 4000 immigrants and refugees imprisoned, detained only because they do not have papers. We have detention camps in terrible conditions all over Greece. There are camps with 400, with 1000, with 200 people imprisoned everywhere. Only recently we visited a camp, one small camp for women, it has about 80 women. We held a celebration for the New Year, which was not allowed before, it now is allowed. One of the very important priorities of SYRIZA will be to give legality and relief to these people. We will also give shelter, assistance, food and things like that because most of these people have nothing. So, this is one priority, there are other priorities that concern democratic rights, like women’s rights. We have many laws that are good but equality in real terms does not exist. We need institutions, we need assistance we need quotas and so on. I must say, only 21% of Greek parliament is made up of women but 51% of voters are women. Where are the other 30%? So we try really hard to get more women elected to government and we in the left need to have women supporting women’s rights. Because some women once they are elected do not defend women’s rights. There are other priorities like the humanitarian crisis. SYRIZA has proclaimed that it will give assistance to 300,000 families who are living in poverty by providing them with free electricity; food and they will help to address unemployment.

There are some criticisms that SYRIZA no longer has left politics, but now has centrist politics. How do you respond to those criticisms?

I am one of the militant cadre of SYRIZA and there are thousands of us. We see that we have some signs of reconciliations with the existing political system, which is a totally bourgeois political system. We can see that some signs are very worrying. We are fighting and we are winning some battles and losing others. Now that we will become the government, well we hope that we will become government; we will try very hard to implement the priorities that will assist the working class and the unemployed. As for socialism this is a road, this is not tomorrow but a process that we have to work through. I want to say to the people who make these criticisms; we should be working together to achieve these things. If not for socialism, then at least for a more humanitarian situation and for a fairer distribution of income between rich and poor and between men and women. We must be inside the game. I beg these people, make your criticisms that’s fine, but we need your solidarity and support.

[Vivian Messimeris is a member of Australia's Socialist Alliance in Sydney.]

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From GLW issue 1038