Athens' gypsies say they're being hidden
Posted: Tuesday August 24, 2004 2:19AM; Updated: Tuesday August 24, 2004 2:19AM
SPATA, Greece (AP) -- Not far from the new highways, sleek Olympic stadium and spruced up parks and monuments lies an old problem: thousands of impoverished Gypsies who say they've been hidden away in shame for the Summer Games.
"They wanted us far away from the Olympic Village," said Eleni Paraianou, a 46-year-old grandmother of nine who now lives in a settlement built on the site of a former garbage dump in this town east of Athens.
"They call us 'gyps' and say we are dirty," she said. "If only we had electricity and running water -- we would be kings."
The 150,000 Gypsies in Greece face scorn just as they have in the rest of Europe for ages. Most descended from nomadic north Indians who came to Europe via the Byzantine Empire in the 11th century, and their struggle with racism and illiteracy persists. They still largely live on the edge of society as the poorest of the poor.
With the Greeks determined to put their best face forward on their $8.5 billion games, some Gypsies were forced out to make way for such projects as the parking lot at the main Olympic stadium and part of the land used for the Olympic Village.
Government officials have denied any intentional discrimination and say the country is committed to improving the Gypsies' lives. So far, though, pledges made in 2001 to spend $369 million to help them with assimilation, education and housing have been lost in the scramble to prepare for the games.
Asked to comment for this story, government spokesman Evangelos Antonaros would say only: "We respect the rights of every Greek citizen."
Human rights advocates say the plight of the Gypsies, or Roma, as they call themselves, is exacerbated by a Greek attitude of indifference.
"This is not a place in general that Greek society cares to take a hard look at," said Panayote Dimitras of the group Greek Helsinki Monitor, who took foreign journalists to the Gypsy camps. "We have a tradition in Greece to say that Roma have a right to a decent place to live -- but not next door to me."
At the garbage dump encampment, 26 families live in converted freight containers, normally reserved for victims of Greece's many earthquakes. They have cultivated small gardens in front of their makeshift homes, where lately they've been rigging car batteries and generators to televisions so they can watch the Olympics.
"We are proud of our country. But you see here today a part of Greece of which I am ashamed," said 44-year-old resident Spyros Parianos, pointing to a trickle of overflowing sewage.
Most Greek Gypsies deal in scrap metal and sell surplus fruit and vegetables. Some have attempted to hawk blue-and-white Greek flags at Olympic venues, but claim to have been rounded up and shunted out of town.
Some Greeks claim Gypsies have turned to drug dealing and do little to assimilate and raise their esteem among the mainstream population.
"They've always lived in camps. They're nomads -- these kind of people always complain," 25-year-old architecture student Theodoros Stephanides said as he sipped coffee in an Athens suburb.
His girlfriend, Daphne Dedepoulou, added: "If they wanted more respect from us, then they should stop selling drugs."
At another Gypsy camp on the grimy industrial area of Aspropyrgos northwest of Athens, two young men drove slowly through the makeshift plywood shacks in a red BMW.
When their 64-year-old grandmother was asked how they could afford such a sports car, she insisted they were vegetable traders. Andriana Karagouni, who has 10 children and 46 grandchildren, added that eight of her sons had served compulsory Greek military service.
"Why should I send eight sons to the state as soldiers, when the state doesn't care about me?" said Karagouni, who wears the black of a traditional Greek widow.
Her neighbor, Ioanna Aristopoulou, who sells fruit with her husband, fled to the area three years ago when their quarters at a nearby landfill were destroyed by bulldozers.
"Every day when I go off to work, I worry I will come back to nothing."