After six years of financial and social crisis, will the refugees trapped in Athens destroy the city or spark a rebirth?
Athens, Greece – The roar of children’s laughter erupts as they play tag and chase one another through the corridors, while several adults prepare the tables in the City Plaza hotel’s dining hall in preparation to break the fast for Ramadan, a holy month for Muslims.
Tucked away down a side street in the Greek capital, the previously deserted hotel was occupied by left-wing Greek activists and turned into a squat for nearly 400 refugees and migrants – half of them children – in late April.
Sitting in the hotel’s cafe, Lina Theodorou, a 27-year-old Athens-based lawyer and member of the Solidarity Initiative for Political and Economic Refugees, explains that the activist group was inspired to take action shortly after neighbouring Macedonia sealed its borders in late March.
The closure was in response to the agreement between the European Union and Turkey to halt the flow of refugees and migrants seeking to reach Western Europe by crossing through Greece, the Balkans and central Europe.
The hotel is now home to Syrian and Afghan refugees and, to a lesser extent, families who fled Iraq, the occupied Palestinian territories and several countries across Africa. The squat is administered by the refugees themselves, as well as between 30 and 40 solidarity activists who volunteer informally on a daily basis.
“We wanted to demand this public space because the mayor tried to throw all of the refugees out of [Victoria Square],” Theodorou tells Al Jazeera, referring to an area in central Athens that has become a meeting place for those hoping to continue their journey.
“It was a gesture to reclaim the right of the visibility of refugees because we feel that [the Greek government] is trying to hide them on the outskirts of the city.”
Fleeing war and economic devastation, more than 57,000 refugees and migrants have been bottlenecked in Greece since Macedonia’s border closure. Stuck in refugee camps across the country’s mainland and islands, most endure difficult humanitarian conditions in both formal and informal camps.
In City Plaza, families live in hotel rooms and have access to refugee-run and activist-administered healthcare, education and dining, among other services. Most residents play a role according to their own abilities.
Sculpted on principles of self-organising and democracy, decisions about the squat’s operations and activities are taken when a general consensus is reached through discussion and debate between the residents and activists.
Wael Alfarawan, a 26-year-old father of two and Palestinian refugee who fled Syria’s Deraa, volunteers as a barber in the hotel. A group of children gather around as a young man sits in the chair and asks Wael to trim his beard.
“We feel like one family here,” he says as he turns on his clippers. “I contacted several NGOs and nobody helped me. They helped me a lot here [at City Plaza]. They help us and we help each other.”
The City Plaza squat is one of several similar activist-led initiatives in Athens and elsewhere, most of which reject the assistance of the Greek government and humanitarian organisations.
More than one million refugees and migrants reached Europe by boat in 2015, according to the UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency. More than 223,000 have made the trek across the Mediterranean Sea so far this year.
Theodorou argues that refugee response initiatives have to be politicised in order to make a tangible difference. “We are leftists and anarchists – and we want to change the system that creates inequalities and this kind of refugee crisis,” she says.
In the capital and elsewhere, solidarity activists and refugees have also staged several demonstrations to raise awareness about the plight of displaced people who ended up in Greece.
“We are anti-capitalist; we are against imperialism and great stuff like that. We believe that if your action doesn’t connect with real-life improvement … it’s an empty gesture.”
Since the EU-Turkey deal, refugees and migrants have been left with the option of applying for asylum in Greece or returning to Turkey.
With the Greek government’s efforts to register asylum applicants stalling, anger and tensions have grown in the camps. In the Greek islands, more than 8,400 refugees and migrants are barred from travelling to mainland Greece without police permission until their applications are processed.
Rabee Abo Tarah, a 26-year-old Syrian, works in City Plaza as a translator for residents who don’t speak English or Greek. He worked in Istanbul for a period and sent money back to his family in Damascus, but decided to move on to Europe when his father died earlier this year.
After spending a month staying with people who opened their doors in Athens, activists informed him of the City Plaza squat. “This is a good project,” he tells Al Jazeera. “It is the occupation of a building towards political and humanitarian goals. I support it.”
Thirty-seven-year-old Abdoulaziz Sall, a chef in the squat, left Senegal for Greece back in 2010, long before the eruption of the present refugee crisis rattling Europe.
Although he lives in the nearby Exarcheia neighbourhood – a hotbed of leftist and anarchist activism and a key area for the Greek refugee solidarity movement – Sall comes to volunteer at the hotel five days a week. Sitting on a balcony, there is a steady chorus of pots and pans clanking behind him in the hotel’s kitchen.
Explaining that he was inspired by a sense of solidarity with people making the same journey he made six years ago, he says: “I quit my job and now I do full-time solidarity work. For me, my project is to help as much as possible.”
Seraphim Seferiades, a politics professor at the Panteion University in Athens, argues that initiatives like the City Plaza squat play a crucial role as government-run camps experience worsening living conditions and a growing number of illnesses among their residents.
“The whole refugee camp business is untenable,” he says. “The general goal is to keep refugees where they are now and conceal the problem.”
Seferiades concedes that managing the influx of tens of thousands of refugees and migrants is not an easy task. “But there are more than 11 million unoccupied buildings across the EU.”
Back in the squat’s kitchen, a group of women and men chat in Arabic and Dari as they prepare food for iftar, the meal with which Muslims break their fast. A man whistles softly while watching over a steel pot of coffee boiling on the stovetop.
Nasim Lomani, a 35-year-old member of the Solidarity Initiative who fled Afghanistan as a child 23 years ago, sits in the cafe and lights a cigarette. He says the squat’s location is significant because the Greek government has tried to restrict the movement of asylum seekers, attempting to coerce them to relocate to official camps.
“The camps have two very clear-cut features: All of them are outside of the city, in the middle of nowhere, with no access to social services,” Lomani says. “The other thing is that almost all of them have tents.”
The activists often go to Victoria Square and other refugee transit points to inform those looking for accommodation of City Plaza and other squats.
“We wanted to set a good example of housing in order to say no to the way they are building the camps,” he says. “There is an alternative – treating [refugees] like humans.”
Follow Patrick Strickland on Twitter: @P_Strickland_