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Cypriots seek support as unemployment spikes

NICOSIA, Cyprus--“I would never have thought we'd come to this,” sighed Chris, collecting a bag of free food from a Nicosia church as the economic crisis in Cyprus bites.

“I was a carpenter, my wife was in the catering industry. We had two cars, our life was easy until we lost our jobs” earlier this year, he said.

“Now we use a candle at night because we can't even pay the electricity, and I come and take food here” — something that would have been unthinkable in what had for decades been an affluent country.

The east Mediterranean island, whose economy thrived on tourism and as a financial services center, has been dragged down for the past two years by recession.

It was rescued from the brink of bankruptcy in March by an EU bailout that saw its banking sector drastically downsized while imposing an austerity regime and sharp curbs on public spending.

Unemployment which had long hovered at around five percent has shot up this year to a record 17 percent and is still rising.

Adding to the squeeze, many employees have at the same time been forced to take pay cuts, along with civil servants and pensioners.

“I have no other choice as no one is working anymore in my family,” said Eleni, a healthy-looking woman in her 50s picking up a bag of oil, flour and other basics from the Red Cross.

The supplies will have to help feed three sons who have come back home to live because like her, a former van driver, they are jobless.

Once the maximum six months of unemployment benefits have run out, more and more Cypriots are having to turn to charities that previously served the island's large number of foreign workers.

“Since March, the number of Cypriots has increased dramatically,” said Red Cross director Takis Neophytou.

“We used to have mainly migrants. Now the number of Cypriots has increased to 50 percent” of the thousands of families receiving aid from the Red Cross.

According to the Cyprus Statistical Service, 48,000 people — almost six percent of the population — now depend on food banks run by the Greek Orthodox Church, municipalities or individual donors.

The crisis has given risen to a spirit of solidarity likened to the shock of the 1974 Turkish invasion of northern Cyprus that displaced tens of thousands of people who lost everything overnight.

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Eirini Ioannou, a Greek-Cypriot citizen, walks home carrying bags containing food items distributed to the poor in Nicosia, the capital of the east Mediterranean island of Cyprus, on Dec. 16


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