Words: MARIA LOUKA Photos: ALEXANDER KATSIS
In Monastiraki, one of the most emblematic neighbourhoods in the historical centre of Athens, amongst a noisy and colourful mass of people that moves around constantly and sometimes with anxiety, a group of activists stand out. They are really energetic in cooking in big stew pans and invite you to have a meal with them. Today, they have prepared chicken güveç and its flavour spreads around like a pleasant and unexpected wake up message in a crisis-ridden city. Homeless, immigrants, and the “new poor” accept with mixed feelings of timidity and gratitude this gesture of solidarity. They stand under the winter Athenian sun, and take a serving of food. Some of them hurry to leave, after expressing their satisfaction, and move aside to eat their meal. Others, those that are used to this, sit around a makeshift table. They eat and talk together. They talk about how they passed their day, their problems and make plans for the future. It seems like a family supper. Besides, this is the message of the people that organized it. “To eat and live together”.
This is the “Social Kitchen – The Other Human”, an initiative for collective cooking in the street. It seems more like a solidarity caravan and started its journey on December 2011. At that time, Athens was going through the third year of economic recession and harsh austerity and gradually it was being transformed into a shadow of its own self, full of lonely human wreckages that used to be citizens with a decent standard of living and lost everything in a sudden twist of fate and became invisible. Costas Polychronopoulos was one of them. He had worked for 25 years in the marketing-advertising business and enjoyed a good life. On September 2009 he was given notice. And this is how it all started. “I found myself unemployed at the age of 45 and felt finished. I started sending my CV around, but without any success. Any attempt to find a job was unsuccessful. I had to leave my house and return to the house of my parents. We were living on the 660 euros of my mother’s pension. I fell into depression. I did not want to see anyone,” he remembers.
However, this thin, vigorous and energetic man that I have in front of me shows no sign of resignation. He is the soul and inspiration of the “Social Kitchen”. Almost everybody knows him, they greet him with his first name and he smiles back at them in a generous way. Even those that do not know him stare at his actions with admiration. This is the truth. Constantinos Polychronopoulos has become indeed “another human”, following Mahatma Gandhi’s saying that “you must become the change you want to see in the world”. Faced with social disaster and with his life in ruins, he created out of the ashes a new vision not only for himself and was reborn.
I asked him how he found the courage to start this effort, what moved him and led him to the decision to be more active. Here is his answer: “One day, on December 7, 2011, to be more exact, I went on a small walk to clear my mind. As I was walking, somehow absentminded, I noticed two children, not older than 14, to fight over a dustbin for some leftovers. This scene left a deep mark on me. I think I will never forget it. I was shocked by the desperation of these children and the indifference of the people passing by. The next dayI decided to make some sandwiches and pass them around for free. In the beginning people were suspicious. No-one was taking. It seems logical, I said to myself. Perhaps, even I myself would not take food from a stranger, if I did not know how it had been prepared. Consequently, I decided to cook in the street and invite them to eat with me and not just pass food around. This is the way to overcome fear. This is the way to overcome the shame that the hungry person feels and come together”.
In the beginning it was not easy, since he lacked resources. He would ask farmers in open-air markets to offer him some of their produce in order to be able to cook. He would take his small mobile kitchen, stop in the various points in the center of the city, cook and distribute food to those in need, without any discrimination of ethnicity, religion, social class or social orientation. You could find them in the old blocks of flats of Alexandras Avenue, in the poor neighborhoods of Piraeus, in the poor neighborhoods of Athens.
Costas became the unexpected surprise of the city. His example quickly became known. Some decided to follow and help him and so the group grew larger. Thousands of people offered support by giving material for cooking or money to a special bank account created for this purpose. One year later, Antonis Vardis, a popular singer, shortly before his death, asked that instead of wreaths at this funeral money should be given to the Social Kitchen.
Today, the basic group is comprised of 10 persons and a wider circle of around 150 volunteers that help occasionally. They offer more than 150 meals every day. They stick to the principles they set from the beginning. Despite the offers made by big supermarket chains, they have refused because they consider these offers “suspicious” since they might lead to the commercialisation of their effort and its exploitation for publicity reasons. They draw a clear line of demarcation with any form of “hand-out” or “charity”. “We do not think that the poor are second-order people that you can just throw a piece of bread at. They want you to hear them and respect them. We feel that we are organizing a banquet of love, a feast in the street and we invite our friends. These people are our friends”. They work in complete transparency. Whatever sum remains they divide it between them, since most of them are unemployed. We talk about 30-40 euros per month. “I am only buying cigarettes. I have no expenses any more. I eat at the Social Kitchen and I stay at my mother’s or at my partner’s”, Costas explains. They have rented a space in Metaxourgeio, establishing “The Other Person’s House”, a place where the homeless can take a shower and have breakfast.
When the refugee crisis erupted, Costas had to be where the heart of humanity was beating. He spent more than two months on the island of Lesvos, offering refugees the first meal after they set foot on the West after their risky journey. A local chapter of the Social Kitchen was set up, and is still working there, even when Costas returns to Athens. During October alone these people gave out more than 9000 meals.
For his exemplary work “The Other Human” was granted this autumn along with the Metropolitan Community Clinic of Ellinikon the 2015 “European Citizen Award”. However, both initiatives refused to accept the award. Costas Polychronopoulos explains the reason for which he declined this award: “What does it mean European Citizen? The others are not human beings? How can I accept an award from the European Union that includes as members countries such as Hungary that treats refugees in a humiliating way? I cannot accept this Europe of austerity and cannibalism. I want the Europe of love, respect, solidarity and culture. I believe that this Europe exists. I’ve seen this Europe all these years in the Social Kitchen, with the people that would give half of their load of bread to their fellow-citizens, with the tourists that stopped their vacation and stayed to help the refugees in Lesvos and Kos.”
The truth is that although an award can recognize the contribution of an effort, it cannot compensate for the tragic social consequences that have been inflicted upon Greece, during the six years of the economic crisis. According to a study by the Budget Office of the Greek Parliament 3.8 million persons in Greece live near the poverty threshold. According to data by the Prolepsis Institute 54% of the parents that took part in the study are facing food insecurity, six out 10 students at the 64 sample schools studied have a nutritional problems, and 406 schools all over Greece received aid in order to cater for the nutritional needs of their 61,876 pupils.
This is the harsh and inexorable Greek reality, expressed in the grey background of numbers but also reflected in the gazes of the people. In this depressing scenery, the work of the “Social Kitchen – The Other Human” is invaluable. It is not that it offers a meal to those in need; it also offers a warm embrace and an example to follow. A glimpse of light through the pulled down blinds of our houses.
You can help! The “Social Kitchen – The Other Human” is online.