Squatting in Athens with refugees

The City Plaza Hotel stands a half hour walk away from the Acropolis in central Athens, nestled in an inner-city alley amongst ageing apartment blocks. Few abnormalities can be registered from outside: the building’s windows emit dim light in the grey morning and clothes are strung along half the balconies on its seven floors. The one outlier is a banner that stretches across three balusters: ‘People are dying in the camps’, it reads, ‘Open Borders. Open Buildings.’ In the lobby, where one would typically expect to find a front counter brimming with pamphlets advertising the best way to see Greece’s most famous attractions, a reception desk instead greets visitors with a selection of political manifestoes in English, Greek, Arabic or Farsi.

The City Plaza Hotel was left abandoned over seven years ago. Today, it is one of Europe’s largest refugee squats; for 400 people currently stranded in Greece, City Plaza is home.

I sit down in the hotel’s café with George Athanassakis, an activist of twenty five years who squatted the hotel with a group of fifteen others on 22 April, 2016. If there is one point he seeks to make clear throughout our conversation, it is that the City Plaza project is not humanitarian; it is foremost a political one. Solidarity and self-organisation are the pillars of the hotel, evident in every aspect of how it’s run.

The rules of the squat are decided in common co-ordination, and every week an assembly of refugees meets to discuss proposals they would like to make. Hotel rooms and living essentials are provided to everyone free of charge: everyday commodities like shampoo, conditioner, nappies, soaps and milk are rationed to ensure sustainable distribution. Breakfast ingredients are available to all, and two meals are cooked every day in the hotel’s kitchen. In return, each resident must work a minimum number of hours at one of the hotel’s facilities: its premises include a kitchen, storage room, hairdresser, medical centre, library and café. Activity groups and classes are held daily, teaching a list of skills that is constantly expanding, ranging from languages to pottery.

Like most tasks in the hotel, meal preparation is a collaborative affair. When I visit, a shared effort of refugees and international volunteers prepares lunch for 400 people in the hotel’s industrial kitchen. We crack over 200 eggs for a giant frittata and establish a production line of vegetable peeling, accompanied by a playlist that alternates between Farsi and Arabic music blaring from portable speakers. Residents pop in and out to see how the meal progresses while an elderly Iranian man sits smiling in a corner and occasionally surveys the dishes. When the time to serve food arrives, portions are allocated carefully to ensure there’s a sufficient amount for everyone. What’s left over goes straight to the dinner menu. Wastage is minimal.

While the communal aspect of the process brings a familial feeling to the squat, the ultimate purpose is political. ‘They work with us so they can help us with stuff, but mostly they start to understand what co-existence is’, says George. ‘Work with me, struggle with me, live with me.’ Underpinning the fairness at play in the allocation of daily tasks is a more radical notion of equality. ‘They have exactly the same rights and the same obligation as we do’, says George. ‘For example, I clean the toilet with them. I don’t let them clean the toilets [while] I count the money. The important thing is that they see, they understand, that here, it’s a solidarity project.’

The notion of solidarity is essential to the operation of the squat and an active consideration in its day-to-day organisation. ‘From the first day when 150 refugees arrived we tried to explain to them: this is not a camp’, says George. ‘We are not the [UNHCR]. We are not the government. This is illegal, this is a squat. So we must stay low, we must struggle, we must fight. But mostly, we must do these things together. ‘‘Together’’ – we translated this word in all the languages. Otherwise the project is condemned to falling apart.’

When Judith Butler visited City Plaza in May last year, she lauded the squat’s significance as:

An experiment in democracy, of self-governance, and I like the word ‘co-habitation’ [because] it’s a very important principle here… you’re showing what it is not just to welcome others, but to insist on living with them, and to make a world together which is based on anti-racist principles and radical democratic principles.

Nonetheless, cultivating this ethos amongst a group of people from disparate cultures has presented its own set of challenges. ‘We are not servants, we are not butlers’, says George. ‘It is difficult for them to understand sometimes. For example, every day there are shifts for the kitchen. We divide them up by room. Several times, they don’t come down because they are sleeping, or because they don’t want [to]. We try to tell them, if you do the same thing three times in a row, you are out of the hotel. Because this is not a hotel.’ And while City Plaza’s multiculturalism is a key element that makes the space unique, ‘it’s not easy to manage every day’, says George. ‘But that’s why this is a political project.’

City Plaza encounters challenges on a logistical front as well. It is strictly free from funding by government or NGOs, but this means it relies entirely on donations from Greece and overseas, and its crowdfunding efforts are constant. The maintenance of the hotel’s infrastructure and the sourcing of food and living supplies is costly and labour-intensive. While volunteers flock from around the world – sometimes as many as twenty or thirty visit at a time – they are fewer during the winter months, and securing long-term commitment is hard. ‘We have huge difficulties [finding] people that want to participate every day, or three to four times per week for about five or six hours, just to help here’, says George. ‘This is my third year without vacation. There’s a lot like me.’ The strains incurred by Greek society following the country’s recent financial crisis have made sourcing helping hands from within the existing community more difficult.

But even in an external environment racked by economic anxiety, the imperative for City Plaza to remain is clear. The situation in the camps in Greece grows increasingly unviable each day. The Greek winter brought heavy snow and sub-zero temperatures to many of the camps, which were already tested by pressures of fear and violence, of overcrowding and precarious resources. Photos of tents caving in and forced to near-collapse by snowfall circulated social media in an attempt to attract the world’s concern. There were high incidences of illness, and reports of people ‘literally freezing’. Five people died in Greek camps during the final week of January this year alone.

When ‘the camps’ arise in conversation – as they are inevitably wont to do – the atmosphere becomes palpably tense. I am told stories of men peeping on women with cameras and asking for a look in exchange for euros, and of spending countless sleepless nights on the floor. The refugees’ experience has been one of insecurity and indignity. With regards to policy, there is no sign of change.

Conventional wisdom around the world holds that these measures, regardless of how dire and inhumane, are the only option in the midst of a crisis that no government has the capacity to navigate adequately. Perhaps City Plaza’s most striking feat is that its practices operate to vigorously dispute the adage that ‘there is no alternative’ to the punitive policies of the present.

Herein lies a crucial aspect of the squat’s resistance: it houses refugees inside city centres where they have access to facilities that include healthcare, education and relocation services. An ‘out of sight, out of mind’ approach – facilitated by locating refugee camps on the outskirts of cities or on islands where they are isolated from community networks and access to basic rights – is actively countered. ‘Squats can act not only as a means for claiming rights but also as a factual exercising of rights precisely by those who are deprived of rights’, according to one of the pamphlets I acquire at the front desk. It is through this praxis that one of City Plaza’s major contributions is to provide a counterexample for how the issue of housing that faces refugees can be dealt with.

In this context, it is tempting to see City Plaza and envision a blueprint for successful solidarity and the realisation of leftist and anarchist ideals. Certainly, the pamphlets make bold statements about the squat’s role as an act of resistance to current migration policies, and as a model for implementing self-organisation in everyday life. Sceptics may raise the question of scale, but the squat does not harbour unrealistic ideas about its feasibility. It is sure to make a key distinction: City Plaza is an example of possible alternatives to camps and detention centres, not a solution to the crisis.

Its future prospects are not certain, although for the time being, at least, it operates safely. The government’s vested interest in mitigating the impact of ‘the migrant crisis’ means it overlooks the fact that the squat is an illegal endeavour. ‘I’m not sure what it’s going to be in one month, in one week, or in one day’, says George. ‘But for now, all the information you can get from the government is that they won’t touch the squats.’ Whether the same situation will fare if Greece finds itself under the government of an increasingly confident right wing is another story. ‘Maybe we will have problems’, says George, ‘but for now, it’s calm’.

And so City Plaza is here to stay. ‘Not because we want to do nothing else in our private lives except living and working here’, says George, ‘but because the conditions are not ready to be changed’. Approximately 60,000 people are stranded in Greece with no clear way out. ‘Some Syrian people [may get asylum], but the Afghani people, or the Pakistani people, all these people will not get asylum, that’s for sure’.

As plans to deport some asylum seekers back to Turkey are articulated, the squat’s resolve hardens. ‘We don’t want to send them back to Turkey, so they will live here’, says George. ‘This is why this is here to stay. Because I really cannot imagine how we shall overcome this problem. Maybe we squat five, six, seven other buildings. I don’t know.’

In an uncertain climate where it seems like the left is constantly losing ground, City Plaza’s perseverance in uniting people from around the world, bringing principles that challenge the status quo to actuality, is an admirable achievement. The following passage, taken from a leaflet titled ‘What is City Plaza?’, encapsulates the goals of the squat at its most ambitious:

It is through fighting for practical demands and through common struggles, not through general humanitarian declarations, that societal configurations change, that dominant authoritarian policies change, that the action Space of the far right becomes limited, and that a common front against racism is constituted.

For the activists, it is an effort that they are dedicated to. ‘Three days ago, I drove a family to the airport at 3 o’clock in the morning for the unification of their family’, says George. ‘Their hugs and their words; for me this was the biggest reward. The woman, when she walked out to the boarding gate, she said to me: ‘I have a new brother here’, because we collaborated in the kitchen and all of this. That is the biggest reward. Because this is what we are looking for. This is solidarity.’

Natassia Chrysanthos

Natassia Chrysanthos sells books and studies in Sydney.

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