By  Ian Birrell

PUBLISHED: 17:27 EST, 22  June 2013 |  UPDATED: 20:04 EST, 22 June 2013

Laughing children play in a pine-scented  courtyard on a warm summer’s evening.

Excitement rises to fever pitch as a creamy  chocolate gateau is sliced. It appears a timeless, idyllic scene – but in  reality it is a very modern Greek tragedy.

For this cloistered red-brick building in a  wealthy suburb of Athens is a children’s home. Yet many of those youngsters are  not orphans or the products of dysfunctional families.

Alexandros and Olga Eleftheriadou visiting their children Nicholas and Victoria at the Zanneio Child Care InstitutionDesperate: Alexandros and Olga Eleftheriadou visiting  their children Nicholas and Victoria at the Zanneio Child Care  Institution

Instead, they are forgotten victims of the  Eurozone crisis, handed over by parents who can no longer afford to feed  them.

The financial meltdown in Greece has caused  pain and suffering throughout the country. But in a nation where the idea of  family is central to everyday life, its youngest citizens are bearing some of  the heaviest burdens of the crisis.

Scores of children have been put in  orphanages and care homes for economic reasons; one charity said 80 of the 100  children in its residential centres were there because their families can no  longer provide for them.

Ten per cent of Greek children are said to be  at risk of hunger. Teachers talk of cancelling PE lessons because children are  underfed and of seeing pupils pick through bins for food.

At the Zanneio Child Care Institution, I was  proffered a piece of cake by nine-year-old Nicolas Eleftheriadou. When I asked  him how he was, he replied with a shy grin: ‘I’m as tough as a walnut.’

His parents, Olga and Alexandros, had arrived  to take their three oldest children home for the weekend; the children attend  the unit from Monday to Friday. The friendly couple both lost jobs in catering  two years ago; he delivered pizzas, she worked in a sandwich shop.

Alexandros and Olga Eleftheriadou can no longer afford to feed their children after the Eurozone crisisTough decisions: Alexandros and Olga Eleftheriadou can  no longer afford to feed their children after the Eurozone crisis

With five children, they struggled to  survive on social security of £400 a month, boosted by odd jobs in the black  economy. They want proper work, but there are few jobs.

Olga’s widowed mother tried to protect the  family, providing food and funds from her own meagre benefits as a cancer  patient. Sadly, it was not enough – and so for more than a year Nicolas, his  eight-year-old brother and seven-year-old sister have been sent to Zanneio, an  hour from their home on the other side of Athens.

The couple admitted it was incredibly  painful. ‘It was so hard, incredibly hard, especially at the start,’ Olga says.  ‘I could hardly bear it. The children have got used to it. The one consolation  is they seem happier now and their teachers are very kind and  caring.’

The Eleftheriadous’ story highlights the  harshness of life in modern Greece, where the economy is in freefall – it is  still shrinking at five per cent a year – and the unemployment rate is the  highest in Europe.

Almost a third of adults are jobless, along  with two-thirds of under-25s. But even those in work struggle. Private sector  wages have fallen by 30 per cent in four years and painful new taxes have been  imposed as the country is crucified by its adherence to the euro.

In the few days I was in Athens, Greece was  demoted by the financial markets from ‘developed nation’ to ‘emerging market’  status, a human rights group condemned the appalling scapegoating of migrants  and the state broadcaster ERT was switched off by the government to cut costs.

The closure of ERT shocked Greeks and  reminded outsiders of the scale  of the country’s crisis. The move   shattered the fragile three-party governing coalition with the smallest   pulling out – and could force the third general election in just over a  year.

Olga Eleftheriadou holding two of her five children, who live at the home from Monday to FridayStrain: Olga Eleftheriadou holding two of her five  children, who live at the home from Monday to Friday

Under the EU-imposed austerity programme,  Greece must lose 150,000 of its 800,000 public sector jobs, many the product of  political patronage and a key cause – alongside rampant tax evasion – of the  huge debts dragging down this nation of 11 million.

Such is the scale of the crisis that Greece’s  economic contraction is already twice as deep as Britain’s during the Great  Depression of the 1930s.

Little wonder staff at Zanneio – which sits  amid the beautiful villas of film stars, financiers and even a former prime  minister – have seen so many heartbreaking cases.

One family was forced to put four children  aged between six and 14 in the home after the father’s restaurant went bust with  such big debts he was jailed under hardline new laws and their mother was unable  to cope.

An angelic-looking 11-year-old girl told me  how much she looked forward to seeing her mother each Friday. Her father was  dead, her mother unemployed and unable to afford her upkeep; she had been there  two years already. Such cases upset those involved in childcare. ‘It is not in  the Greek culture for families to split up,’ said Menelaos Tsaoussis, 45, the  foundation’s former director. ‘These  situations are so traumatic for the families.’

Another charity last year reported four  children, including a newborn baby, dumped on its doorstep. One toddler was  found holding a note saying: ‘I will not be coming to pick up Anna today because  I cannot afford to look after her. Please take good care of her.  Sorry.’

The Child’s Smile, a Greek charity for  families in crisis, said it helped 10,927 children last year with emergency  supplies of food, clothes, shoes, school books and psychological support. The  previous year, the number was 4,465.

‘We used to have people only from the lowest  economic level but now we are seeing people from upper middle levels when they  lose their jobs and have nowhere to go,’ said Tania Schiza, a social worker with  the group.

Often these ‘new poor’ are reluctant to seek  support, worsening their plight.

Nine-year-old Nicholas with the other children running to the backyard of the orphanageStaying cheerful: Nine-year-old Nicholas with the other  children running to the backyard of the orphanage

‘We have some cases where families who used  to donate money have become victims of the crisis. ‘Now  they come to us for help,’ said Schiza.

‘All of these families are deeply  disappointed. They feel whatever they do, nothing can be done to change their  circumstances in the crisis.’

Other charities told similar stories. SOS  Children’s Villages helped 47 families five years ago; today it is helping 900  and opening new centres across Greece to stave off family breakdown amid soaring  poverty.

Many turning to them are from formerly  prosperous middle-class families; among the restaurant owners, shopkeepers and  businessmen was one senior executive with a major company who had lost his  job.

Like all such groups, it strives to keep  families together. Despite this, with financial pressures growing more intense  by the day as savings dwindle and firms collapse, a handful of children in its  homes have been given up by impoverished parents.

Eight-year-old Vallia Georgitsi's mother Metaxia is struggling to cope
Threat: Eight-year-old Vallia Georgitsi’s mother Metaxia  is struggling to cope

‘This is a major shift in Greek society over  the past three years,’ said Pavlos Salihos, a teacher and trained psychologist  at the children’s village in Vari. ‘We never had cases like this before; it was  just social problems such as drug abuse.’

Another official with SOS Children’s Villages  said some youngsters were in such bad shape they could barely talk. One school  said one in six of its students suffered malnutrition. In others teachers have  started handing out fruit, sandwiches and milk. A public health body believes  food security levels in Greece have fallen to those of some African countries.  Social workers said they look out for children who simply give up on school  work, the first sign of mental trauma caused by the crisis.

Suicide rates and mental health problems  across all ages have risen sharply over the past three years; on my previous  visit, I came across a woman who had lost her job and was threatening to jump  from her office. One newspaper has said Greece was a ‘society on the verge of a  nervous breakdown’.

Ironically, the image has grown of Greeks as  feckless and lazy, although studies have found more entrepreneurs per head and  longer working hours than elsewhere in Europe.

But to make matters worse, as demand soars  from desperate parents, the maelstrom that has engulfed Greece is making it  harder for cash-strapped charities to keep such centres open.

On Friday, the day I visited, the foundation  that runs Zanneio was marking its closure and merger with another group; the  buildings have been bought by the church for training priests.

Although its 19th Century founders endowed it  with dozens of properties, the foundation’s rental income fell in the financial  crisis from £1.3 million to £850,000, while new taxes imposed by a government  scrabbling around for funds took an extra £300,000 a year.

The centre has been taken over by Hatzikonsta  – the oldest children’s welfare organisation in Greece, founded by a family of  wealthy traders 160 years ago. Hatzikonsta has already seen the number of  children it is supporting rise more than four-fold since the crisis began – and  four-fifths of children in its residential care are there for economic  reasons.

Yet it, too, is struggling to survive. It is  owed more than £850,000 from property rentals; already its 72 staff have taken  substantial salary cuts. ‘I feel I must have been Genghis Khan in a previous  life for such punishment,’ joked Leonidas Dragoumanos, the director trying to  juggle the finances.

Metaxia Georgitsi, 40, a single mother of  three, put her oldest child – a 14-year-old boy – in full-time care after seeing  her income from cleaning work fall by nearly two-thirds, then losing her job and  trying to survive on benefits of £300 a month.

‘We both cried every day to begin with,’ she  said. ‘I tried to visit him every day, which made it a bit better, but it was  hard.

‘Without a husband, what else could I do – we  had no option.

‘It was very difficult – I had loans to pay  and did not have enough money for food. But at least they helped him with his  homework there and he ate properly.’

After one year, the family was reunited last  autumn when the boy came home. But now her unemployment benefits are due to stop  after a year without work and she may have to rent out her home, which she  retains only because her elderly parents pay the mortgage.

Ian Birrell went to Athens where he heard middle-class families' concerns that they could not look after themselvesSpecial report: Ian Birrell went to Athens where he  heard middle-class families’ concerns that they could not look after  themselves

‘I just don’t know what I can do in the  future,’ said Metaxia, who believes single-parent families have been hit  especially hard. ‘The crisis has undone us. I fear I may have to put my boy back  in the orphanage, send my girls to live with my mother and I will stay with a  friend. Then the family will be completely split up. It’s the worst possible  scenario.’

Amid the soup kitchens, shut-down shops and  scavengers on the streets, there is one sliver of good to emerge from this Greek  catastrophe: the rediscovery of self-help and communal values as the welfare  state is gutted and people pull together.

In Marousi, a suburb of Athens that has had a  70 per cent cut in state funding, mayor Giorgos Patoulis has led a drive to open  a health centre treating 6,000 uninsured patients, food kitchens, clothing banks  and even a pharmacy staffed by volunteers and stocked with  donations.

‘The mentality had to change and there are  signs of a new solidarity,’ he said. ‘But if this crisis extends much further,  how will we be able to take care of all our people?’

It is a question many more Greeks are asking,  especially those thousands of parents teetering on the edge of the abyss. Most  would echo the words of Amalia Ntougia, 46, a widowed mother of three from  Marousi whose shop closed in the crisis. Although living off handouts and crumbs  from her disabled father’s small pension, when asked if she would give up her  children to a care home, she replied indignantly: ‘No, I am a Greek  mother.’

Tragically, for many Greek parents, even such  intense family pride is no longer enough.

Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2346622/Orphans-EU-meltdown-The-shocking-picture-shows-middle-class-parents-Greece-dumping-children-orphanages-wont-starve.html#ixzz2X0Ck6nsq Follow us: @MailOnline on Twitter | DailyMail on Facebook