This is the third of five articles in the series “Athens: The Crisis Within the Crisis” (click here)
In an abandoned hotel, local citizens have created the self-managed Refugee Accommodation Centre City Plaza. Excitement was felt at all the social centres when, during one weekend, nearly all of them congregated, to appropriate one large building. Two days later we go there, walking through the worker and migrant neighbourhood to the northeast of the National Archaeological Museum.
The migrant neighbourhood
The alleyway is elegant, but has not been maintained for a decade or two. Here are shops offering “halal” and Indian restaurants with signs that none of us can read. My friend tells that this used to be a prosperous area, but then the middle class moved out, while workers and migrants moved in. We conclude that here we observe the reverse of the much-debated “gentrification” (the process when city quarters becoming more upper class and less diverse). We cross through a square with trees and flowers, where many newly arrived migrants meet, to exchange news and find contacts. Groups of people with various skin colours and ways of dress are talking silently together. Security guards are hanging at corners. Native retirees sit at benches, watching the spectacle. Children on a carpet make drawings with blonde volunteers. Below the peaceful surface, however, are personal dramas: families trying to find jobs, or to organize their way further away from war. At the middle of the Victoria Square is a sculpture, showing a centaur abducting a woman.
Reclaiming a hotel building
We turn two corners and find ourselves in front of the former City Plaza Hotel, a tall building. At the entrance we meet a group of Afghani asylum seekers, who are assisted by Nasim, a Greek political activist of Afghan origin. He greets my friend, and brings us through the entrance hall, where many local youngsters are hanging around, then up one stair to a shiny lobby. The polished decoration is intact, but the fountain is turned off. Sheets with hand written information in Arabic and Farsi are hanging on the wall. In the stairs we cross by some of the new inhabitants: families with small children, young women in fashionable jihabs, and grandpas in traditional Bedouin kirtles. At the second floor, Nasim proudly opens the door to a large catering kitchen, but the Bulgarian chef angrily chases us out – he is a professional, keeping strict hygienic routines. The hotel building has everything: reception, dining hall, cafeteria, catering kitchen with a qualified chef, and of several hundred bedrooms. The owners got bankrupt during the crisis – without paying the employees. Their trade union claims ownership of the building, the real capital of the hotel. When the squatters installed themselves and the refugees in the building, they promised to hand it over to the trade union after use. Later that evening we would hear that the trade union club of the local hotel employees had issued a formal declaration of support for the refugee accommodation. They say this is an inspiration for their own struggle to gain the salaries that they have earned.
My friend goes to volunteer at the improvised nursery, and to take some photos. At the former hotel cafeteria, Nasim introduces me to the journalist Yannis. All three are comrades in a social movement coalition led by the Solidarity Initiative for Economic and Political Refugees. The journalist talks about integration: “We say to the neighbours: The question is not to have or not to have refugees in the neighbourhood, but how to have it. It is better to have refugees with rights, who are integrated into the neighbourhood. This is safer for everyone.” While starting to squat the building, the movement also made a newspaper, in a plain language, without activist jargon, in order to communicate with the neighbours. Yannis is enthusiastic. “The solidarity movement doesn’t want to be seen as people giving gifts, or charity. We also refuse to receive any gifts, or donations, from governments, church, NGOs or big business. Our goal is to restore human dignity for all, so that everyone can claim their basic rights.” City Plaza is a self-managed housing community, where inhabitants participate in everything from assemblies and decision-making, to logistics and practical tasks. Thus, migrants become integrated with local people, while activists become integrated with non-political people.
Between Attiki and Exarchia
The solidarity movement claims that the government creates social distance between locals and migrants, when it tries to “accommodate refugees far away from the centre”. City Plaza is part of urban life. It blends well into the worker and migrant neighbourhood. This is located in-between two other neighbourhoods, where we find two opposing political movements. Exarchia is the home of radical left-wing social centres, while in Attiki, the radical right-wing party got many votes. The anarchist movement and the fascist movement take opposite political stands to the refugee crisis. Nasim and Yannis are used to navigate in this local terrain: “We could have had 500 people in this building, but 300-400 are enough, because we need to set up a nursery, a school, and take care of security – and the first floor houses solidarity people, for security reasons.” After I had been outside the building, I tried to return, but the youngsters at the entrance did not accept me, until I found Nasim. The youngsters outside City Plaza, as the retirees at Victoria Square, were not only idling about. Local people prevent aggression by close contact and gossiping – social integration.
More info: https://www.facebook.com/sol2refugeesen/
Helge Hiram Jensen