By THEO EMERY, The New York Times
WASHINGTON — As Greece’s turmoil deepened, Alex Batistatos fumed. In phone calls from Athens, his 83-year-old grandmother told him how her pension was slashed and neighbors were forced to beg. She gives medicine to a friend, she said. Hungry Athenians pick over street garbage for food.
Frustrated, Mr. Batistatos, a 19-year-old student, returned to his Virginia home from college determined to help. Last weekend, he, along with his brother Chris, his parents and friends, organized a fund-raising walk at the National Mall — one family’s effort to offer help in the face of what many Greeks see as a calamity.
As the ramifications of Greece’s financial problems have spread, Americans of Greek descent have been struggling with how to respond. For many, the crisis represents an emergency as acute as an earthquake or a tsunami, with the same wrenching consequences of hunger, poverty and displacement.
The crisis has spurred clothing drives and church collections, but it has also revealed uncertainty. Many worry that aid will not reach those in need. Others balk because of the Greek government’s instability.
“If there was leadership, we would overcome this ambivalence and this hesitation,” said Lefteris Karmiris, 68, of Bethesda, Md., a retired World Bank employee who joined the march last Saturday. “We could give a message to say this is what we should do, but there is a leadership problem.”
In general, man-made disasters do not garner as much largess from outside donors as natural disasters, “because there are humans to blame,” said Sam Worthington, president of a consortium of aid organizations based in the United States called InterAction. Moreover, Greece is relatively affluent, and its fraying social safety net is a symptom of a broader structural problem.
“People tend to focus on the degree to which they can make a difference in a tangible way, and Greece is a challenging environment to do that,” Mr. Worthington said, adding that he was not aware of any recent international relief efforts around a financial crisis, although he noted that emergency aid went to Zimbabwe when soaring inflation put food prices out of reach.
Nonetheless, aid groups have watched in alarm as social and health problems mount because of austerity measures in Greece. An article in The Lancet last fall warned of a potential “Greek tragedy” as the public health care system is stretched thinner and thinner. Unemployment is soaring and suicides are rising. Doctors Without Borders has reported spikes in H.I.V., AIDS and malaria cases.
Andrew S. Natsios, former administrator of the United States Agency for International Development, said that Greece’s safety net is disintegrating along with its health care system, and hunger is forcing families to return to depopulated islands to grow food.
“I don’t think people realize how serious this is,” Mr. Natsios said. “We know that families are breaking up now over this, people can’t support their children. I’ve never seen anything like this, actually, since World War II.”
For Greek-Americans — particularly older ones — that time represents the only comparison to the country’s situation today, albeit on a much larger scale then. During the Nazi occupation, hundreds of thousands of Greeks starved to death, and Greeks abroad responded by pouring relief money into the country.
The failure to quickly mobilize in the current crisis led to finger-pointing last winter when Gregory C. Pappas, owner of a Chicago marketing firm and founder of the Greek America Foundation, wrote an online column castigating Greek-Americans for not doing enough to ease the crisis.
“I upset some people, and I know that I upset some people, because they came and told me,” he said. “Well, if that’s what it takes to feed some people over there, then I’m glad it happened.”
The column appeared to touch a nerve. One organization he singled out, the American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association, published a response defending its record and pointing out that there was no “silver bullet” to address the country’s growing needs.
Within weeks, however, the organization announced a charitable drive, and reported that it raised $150,000. Basil N. Mossaidis, the association’s executive director, said his group had been helping Greece long before Mr. Pappas’s column appeared. But he acknowledged that many Greek-Americans are hesitant to lend a hand.
“You have to address that first,” Mr. Mossaidis said. “You have to tell them first this is not a game, we’re not just going to point fingers at people and say these fat cats stole our money. This is a humanitarian issue.”
The archbishop of the Greek Orthodox Church in the United States, Demetrios Trakatellis, also issued an appeal. Churches responded with extra collections during Masses and assembled emergency kits for children and the sick. International Orthodox Christian Charities, the church’s relief arm, shipped medical supplies and equipment in April.
In an interview, the archbishop said Greek-Americans were worried about where their donations would go, a concern he called “very serious.” He hand-delivered a $500,000 check to the church in Athens several weeks ago to allay those fears.
“We have full transparency and accountability,” he said. “The archbishop of Athens is personally offering a report with details about the last dollar sent from here.”
The chaotic political situation, as well as humanitarian needs, provided lively debate among the two dozen or so people who gathered at the Lincoln Memorial on Saturday for the walk.
They set out, following a bobbing Mylar balloon festooned with blue and white streamers and with “Stand by Greece” printed on one side. Steven Martnishn, Alex and Chris Batistatos’s father, pointed out Doric columns along the route, and his wife, Ergini, led the way with an unfurled Greek flag.
They raised about $600 for families on the island of Kefalonia, the Batistatoses’ ancestral home. Alex Batistatos admitted it was a small gesture, but hoped it would be an example for others to follow.
“Hopefully there are more things like this going on — I really don’t know,” he said. “There’s a lot of dialogue, but few organized events. Hopefully things will actually happen, instead of just talking about it.”