x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Lessons from Greece's meltdown

Greece has become a case study for those studying economy, political science and journalism.

Anna, a French journalism student, takes a picture for her story about stray dogs in downtown Athens.
Anna, a French journalism student, takes a picture for her story about stray dogs in downtown Athens.

ATHENS //Khalid felt "at home" on the streets of Athens and Sheila saw "encouraging signs" of economic recovery in Greece, but Clemence admitted to feeling "overwhelmed" by the "human impact of the crisis."

International students gathered in the Greek capital this spring to take part in field trips organised by their respective universities in New York and Paris.

They were there to observe the effects of the economic crisis in Greece, a country that has become a case study for those reading economy, political science and journalism.

In just a week or 10 days, they were to see, discuss and above all understand what happened in this small country that brought into question the very idea of European Union and shook the foundations of the international financial structure.

"I can't help feeling like a tourist," said 21-year-old Khalid Esmail, frustrated after a week of meetings with Greek political experts and decision-makers.

The young Canadian, a student at the Menton branch of Paris's Institute of Political Studies who specialises in Mediterranean studies, has adopted an unconventional approach to the project.

"I chose to study the country through a very specific medium - street art," he said.

Khalid tried to define the rage he saw sprayed onto walls around Athens, graffiti that bears witness to a crisis that has prompted some Greeks to migrate and plunged others into poverty.

Sheila Lalani, 26, and Dyanna Salcedo, 30, are American MBA students at New York's Columbia University.

Together with their group, they met Greek economic experts and even the finance minister, Yannis Stournaras, who negotiated Greece's entry into the euro zone amid Cyprus's banking crisis.

Their theme was "business strategy during a crisis". They met Greek business leaders who have made their way onto the world stage, a jewellery company that is opening one store per week in China or the chief executive of the world leader in mobile advertising, explained th trip's organiser, Katerina Sokou. She is a former journalist at the Greek newspaper Kathimerini who is now studying at Columbia.

"My sentiment is that the leaders we met are very optimistic" regarding the future and economic growth in Greece, a country facing a sixth year of continuous recession, Dyanna said.

"It seems they don't have any other choice ... the country desperately needs to grow."

Sheila, who was as charmed by the orange trees in full bloom as she was distressed by the Greek capital's dilapidated buildings and streets, said she felt "privileged" to be in Athens during the continuing Cyprus crisis. In Greece, she believed there were "encouraging signs" for growth in the tourism industry and infrastructure.

"The question now is to know how much longer the country can take the recession," said Dyanna.

"Nobody wants to think about what would happen" if Greece cannot fulfil its commitments and has to leave the euro zone, she added.

For a group of nearly 50 students from the Paris-based Centre of Journalism Studies, the trip to Greece was about more than just analysing the crisis.

Each year, they undertake an internship in a different country, where they publish a journal; in Greece, the students are writing for the Parthenon Post.

They all experienced some sort of cultural shock during their trip.

Some, who had the televised images of violent 2012 protests in mind, were pleasantly surprised by Greek hospitality, the shaded terraces and the temperate spring.

Others, fans of ancient history, were moved to find themselves in the cradle of democracy.

"Covering a protest below the Acropolis is no small thing for a journalist," said 23-year-old Clemence Fulleda.

She was nonetheless "overwhelmed" from her very first day, after a student protest that she found to be distressing.

She found herself facing a lost generation - the generation she belonged to.

Greece tops all European countries in unemployment rates, with a general rate of 28 per cent that rises to nearly 60 per cent for those up to 25 years old.

"Students and their parents, all without exception, said they had no future in Greece, that they scraped through, without me even asking them ... People are at the end of their tether. I had not realised ... it is a shock."