*This article is part of a five-part series, available to read here.
The morning sun is shining on the streets of Athens. All at once the vendors start work. I’ve been invited to a protest organized by refugees, mainly from Afghanistan. About a hundred people are present. They’re trying to point out that Afghanistan is not a safe country, and that the possible deportation of refused asylum seekers from Greece is unjustified. Passers-by stop to discuss the issue with those participating.
Suraya Sahar, a lawyer who now lives in Canada, is the spokeswoman for the protesters. She was awarded asylum there after her family had fled Afghanistan. Together with other participants in the protest, she decided to deliver an official letter with requested changes to the Ministry of Migration.
She’s aware that it is only a symbolic gesture, but defends it on the basis that they want to address the authorities responsible. “Today Trump has announced a change in the war strategy of American politics in Afghanistan. He has declared he intends to increase the number of American soldiers in the war against Taliban. Do you need other evidence? Our country is not safe.” The Americans are also expected to continue supporting the Afghani government against Taliban terror cells.
After the requests were handed-over successfully, Ahmad, her compatriot, guides me to a place that, from outside, doesn’t look like much. A grey building with an inconspicuous sign: Hotel City Plaza. But this is a unique space. “You’ll see, it’s the best hotel in the world”, he tells me.
The best hotel in the world
A year ago local anarchists and left-wing activists occupied a decaying hotel, and moved 400 refugees, predominantly families with children, into one hundred and twenty rooms. The aim was to provide them with a safe and dignified alternative to the reception camps, which have been built in the former Olympic area and Eliniko airport. Through this initiative the activists also demonstrate their disagreement with the EU’s current migration politics.
City Plaza puts the idea of a world without borders and prejudices into practice: it’s a space where nationality and social status don’t play any role. This is a thorn in the side of the local far-right radicals from the Golden Dawn. The anxiety of those occupying the hotel is amplified by the fact that the police regularly try to remove them from the place. Everything in City Plaza works only because of the general solidarity, something the collective of inhabitants pride themselves on.
Usually, after you ask for a visit, you have to wait several days for an answer as to whether they are ready to let you enter the space. Like the whole of Exarchia, they are mistrustful of tourists and journalists. Thanks to Ahmad, I can go inside through two check-receptions at the entrance and on the ground floor, based on “good word.”
Activists Rui and Marie from Germany accompany me to a room where they prepare a film projection for children, through the kitchen where activists prepare meals together with the inhabitants. Then they show me the pharmacy, and Ahmad´s room with a balcony.
Visitors like us are strictly forbidden to take photos and videos. But ironically it is the mass media´s interest in the place that has so far protected the local migrants and organizers from being driven out of the building.
An alternative model for refugee accommodation
The hotel went bankrupt due to the economic crisis. This gave rise to an alternative model for approaching integration, through the cooperation with new arrivals who have become an active part of the city.
Everything is well organised, with a daily schedule of activities, and a gathering of all inhabitants in the house where they discuss every day matters. The place has become a real autonomous zone, the ideal of a fairer world. It doesn’t matter where you’ve come from or what you do. This alternative of social self-organization, based on the participation, shows how society can cope with a crisis situation from below.
“Nobody makes us out to be poor, nobody feels sorry for us. They accept us here as normal people,” says a woman from Syria, who has lived for three months in the hotel. She’s waiting here until she is allowed to leave Greece legally for Germany, where her husband has already been granted asylum. The fact that her husband left first was their joint decision.
Now she feels bitter that she has had to wait so long to be reunited with her family: ”You’re so near and yet so far. If it lasts months, it is really difficult.”
The main thing is not to waste time
While City Plaza provides hundreds of migrants with private spaces, including their own rooms, the Khora centre, another humanitarian co-operative, offers a diverse ensemble of free-accessible activities: language courses (Greek, English, German), a wood-processing and metal-working workshop with practical skills courses, space for women, children’s corners and kindergartens, a dentist´s office, a classroom with computers and a number of hobby circles, which are led either by migrants themselves, or by several tens of volunteers.
We sit on their dining room terrace. According to Christa, from London, an organizer at the centre, it is attended by hundreds of people every day, from mothers with their children to lonely men. Christa mentions the negative atmosphere in certain parts of society. “Many arrivals meet expressions of racism in the streets first. We noticed many cases where they have not been offered sufficient healthcare in government medical facilities, which is illegal.”
A woman beside us helps her son to write English words into his exercise book. She has been in Athens for more than a year, waiting for relocation to another EU country. Ulrike, a middle-age woman, helps her. Ulrike has taught German in three day-courses for five months there. “Many refugees have understood that it is not good to waste time waiting what the future will bring, and that the language is one of the most important preconditions to finding a position.”
Many migrants will remain in Greece longer than they have expected. Days turn into weeks, weeks into months and months into years. However, proper registration allows them to apply for places for their children at local schools. Bad knowledge of Greek is often a big problem, and teachers have begun to stop tolerating it.
* Part 5 of ‘Stories from the Babel Archipelago’ will be published next week.
** This text was first published in Czech on Deník Referendum. It was written with the support of Strategy AV21, the research programme Effective Public Policies and Contemporary Society – Mobility.