KALPAKI, Greece – Another school year began, with the students arriving on the first day after graduation, but when a mother took off her first year student and watched him take his place, she wondered: where were all the children?
"There were so few of them," said Vasso Harisiadi, who had attended school in the same city. "I thought the yard was full of kids."
By contrast, the youngest class of children in Kalpaki Elementary was a reflection of Greece's increasing demographic problems. For 2018, there were only 13 first-graders. Some students lived in villages where they were the only children. Half a dozen other schools in the area had recently closed. More and more prospective parents moved away or were reluctant to have children – because they were unemployed or because Kalpaki's teachers did not do enough in first grade to afford it.
"At the moment I can not even consider children," said the 33-year-old teacher Maria Bersou, who earns $ 18,000 annually. "I can not save money at all."
The Greek economy is no longer threatened by the bailout, threatened by the Euro-Imperil danger over Europe, but the country begins only with the next danger phase: a baby bust, which increases the likelihood of a shrunken, weakened Greece for years.
During the country's deep and prolonged fall, which began in late 2009 and worsened in 2011 and beyond, the already low birth rate continued to decline, as was the case in the troubled economies of southern Europe. Greece was also affected by a second factor: half a million people fled the country, including many potential young parents. Although Greece was at the front of the wave of migrants from the Middle East and North Africa, the majority of new arrivals have moved to other parts of Europe, and the new arrivals are not compensating for the losses.
As a result, the country's recession has helped produce the smallest generation of Greek post-war history – a group of young children who have now reached primary school age. Some of them come to school with used shoes and backpacks and are only in the earliest stages of dealing with the horrendous time they were born.
"The children do not know that we used to get better," said Sotiria Papigioti, mother of a first and second grader at Kalpaki. "But when they ask for things, I tell them," We are unable to afford this. "
The birth rate of Greece (about 1.35 births per woman) is one of the lowest in Europe and well below the 2.1 required for a stable population without taking into account immigration. The birth rate in Greece was on the upswing before the crisis, reaching 1.5 births per woman in 2008. This progress has since been erased and the birth rate has dropped to the depths of the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Due to the emigration of would-be parents, the number of children born in Greece has fallen more drastically than the birth rate – reaching historic lows. In 2009, just before the worst parts of the crisis, there were 118,000 births in Greece. The number has steadily dropped since then and is dwarfed by the number of deaths. The birth rate of 2017, at 88,500, was the lowest ever recorded.
In some countries, after the economic crises, there has been a rapid recovery in fertility rates. But this is unlikely in Greece, said Byron Kotzamanis, a demographer at the University of Thessaly, as the average woman in Greece had no children before the age of 31. Some women who had postponed the pregnancy during the recession have completely lost their chance. According to Kotzamanis, the recession has permanently reduced the size of the youngest generation in Greece – and reduced the pool of parents in the coming years.
"We will have fewer and fewer births in Greece over the next few decades," Kotzamanis said.
Demographic changes have clouded Greece's prospects for a resurgence after the Great Depression of the 1930s or the Asian financial crisis of the 1990s. The Greek economy is still 25 percent smaller than it was a decade ago, and over the next six decades, the European statistics office estimates that Greece's 10.7 million people will decline by 32 percent – a rate that only a few Eastern European countries Low income people have seen their own withdrawal from workers to more prosperous parts of the continent.
For the Greeks, changes are taking place across the country. In the cafés of Athens, childless women in their thirties complain about the lack of care and the weak family support programs of a government now competing for savings and pension costs. In rural areas of the country, prospective parents say that even if they give birth, they would find it hard to find doctors, many of whom have moved abroad. Stefanos Chandakas, a gynecologist who founded a non-governmental prenatal care organization, said that on a Greek island of 1,000 inhabitants, no children were born in the middle of the crisis for at least three years.
"We have pictures of islands – there will be big moves and there is only one child [participating] hold a flag, "said Chandakas.
In Kalpaki Elementary, a two-story school building on a main road in the mountainous northwest of the country, some of the routines seem almost unchanged when the school opened in 1996. The days begin with a Greek Orthodox prayer. Children play soccer during the breaks. Parents say the school has done a great job in recent years, despite repeatedly cutting salaries and cutting spending by 30 percent. The headmaster says Kalpaki Elementary was lucky: unlike other schools, the heat did not have to be turned off.
However, demographic change has left its mark both at school and in the lives of children. Twenty years ago, the school had 100 students. Because neighboring schools are closed, today it attracts students from a much wider area than before. Meanwhile Kalpaki counts only 70 pupils of the 1st to 6th grade. Of these, 20 are ethnic Albanians whose parents mostly moved to Greece in the decades before the crisis. Another 20 children are newly arrived Syrians whose families live in a camp on the hillside and apply for asylum.
"What we are seeing is a shrinking of the local population," said director Miltos Mastoras. "Without the Syrians it would be half more than 20 years ago."
In Grade 1, this year's students learned how to pronounce syllables, triangles, and words describing the weather in English. The walls are provided with peeling paint, and the technology comes closest to the radiator.
"We're a bit back," Bersou said.
She sometimes wondered how the crisis could affect her 6 and 7 year olds. At the beginning of the year, she had asked parents to buy some staple food for their children. "They see their reactions when they get this stuff," Bersou said of her students. "You will be happy with a marker."
The Greek children in Bersou's class usually come from families where at least one parent has a relatively stable job – as a farmer, policeman or worker at a nearby bottling plant. These families are part of the group that can afford to fund children, if only barely. Some first-grade parents are in their late 40s and say they could not wait for the crisis if they wanted to have children.
Bersou is still waiting for a chance to feel stable enough to have her own children – something she said she desperately wants. She lives in the nearest town, 30 minutes away by car, where she has created a life that feels temporary: a one bedroom apartment, just a few friends. Her parents, who saw their own revenues cut back from the crisis, are still helping her with car payments and phone bills. As is typical for young Greeks, she is waiting for something better. She fears that she will kick water and doubts that much will improve.
"It's about your psyche," Bersou said. "Years pass, and it's like, what have I done to my life?"
She tries to make amends by doing what she can with her class. With her own money, she bought construction paper for art projects and stickers to pass on to the best-behaved students. This year, she has effectively taught two classes: one for the three Syrian first graders who speak little Greek, the other for the remaining 10. She has brought her own laptop for a few days, showing songs, short films or lessons to the students.
One of Bersou's quieter students is Chrysa Papigioti, who likes to draw and become a veterinarian. Chrysa lives in a mountain village 10 miles from Kalpaki, where she and her brother are the only primary school children. Her dad is not much at home since he took on a job as a traveling salesman selling mattresses and other household items across western Greece – the only job he could find after a period of unemployment.
"She's good at doing her own thing," her mother Sotiria said one evening when she saw Legend's Chrysa build a store, build a counter, and add a cash register.
Chrysa and her brother are not allowed to see the news, and her mother said they never asked her a direct question about any emergency in the country. They did not yet need to know what pay cuts she'd made in her job as a police officer, or the big family loan, or how she and so many other parents in the area had helped each other looking for clothes and other objects for their children.
For Chrysa, learn everything about what might wait.
"Children do not have to know everything," said Papigioti. "I do not want you to have bad thoughts. I want you to have a childhood. "
Elinda Labropoulou contributed to this report.