Athens, Greece – Around a thousand people march through the streets of the Greek capital, Athens, with flags and banners, eventually stopping in front of columns of baton and shield-wielding police in riot gear.
On this gusty afternoon in mid-April, the police block the anti-fascist demonstrators – or Antifa – from continuing their march to the offices of Golden Dawn, the neo-fascist party with 17 seats in the Hellenic parliament.
The Antifa activists – comprising anarchists, communists and other anti-racists – shout slogans against Golden Dawn in Greek. “Not in parliament, not anywhere,” chants a group of demonstrators carrying red flags. “Smash fascism everywhere.”
On the frontline of the protest stands Masoud Qahar, a 40-year-old Afghan refugee. Wearing a black T-shirt and a threadbare olive baseball cap, he is holding one end of a large banner that reads in red: “Close the Golden Dawn’s offices. Send the neo-Nazi killers to prison.”
Qahar doesn’t speak much Greek, but he joins the protesters in their chants. “Pavlos Fyssas lives. Smash the Nazis,” they holler in unison, referring to an anti-fascist rapper who was stabbed to death by an employee of Golden Dawn’s office in 2013.
Despite never having heard of Golden Dawn before he arrived in Greece in late 2015, Qahar has become a fixture in the front row of Antifa demonstrations in Athens. “I go six or seven times a month,” he estimates. “I’m on the first line, fighting [alongside] the anti-fascists. I love it.”
Back in his cramped tent at the Elliniko refugee camp on the outskirts of Athens, Qahar explains how he left his life as a NATO logistical officer in late 2015, after receiving death threats from the Taliban, and travelled more than 5,000 kilometres to Greece.
“For five years I worked with NATO,” he recalls, explaining how numerous appeals to his former employer for help leaving the country fell on deaf ears.
With no reply from NATO, Qahar set off for Europe.
He describes both NATO and the Taliban as “houses of fascism”, before adding proudly: “Now I’m an anti-fascist.”
In 2012, while Qahar was on deployment in another province, Taliban fighters attacked his home in Kabul, killing his 26-year-old sister Khatira and injuring his father and brother.
He returned home to find only a cousin, who, crying, refused to tell him what had happened, but urged him to meet his family at the hospital.
“I found my mother crying,” he says, tears welling in his eyes as he recounts the moment she told him the news.
“That was our destiny,” he says.
With the help of smugglers, Qahar crossed borders and climbed mountains, walked through fields and took boats, evading border guards and bandits.
Upon arriving in mainland Greece, he took a train to the northern town of Idomeni, where an impromptu camp was home to thousands of people stranded after Macedonia closed its borders to refugees and migrants.
After sleeping there for three nights and clashing with police while trying to pass through the barbed-wire border fence, he returned to Athens and found a spot to sleep outside the Elliniko camp.
“Six months I slept on the [pavement] without a tent,” he says, adding that a camp resident gave him a blanket. Later on, somebody lent him 12 euros to buy a tent.
Becoming an anti-fascist
Qahar first connected with Greek anti-racists and refugee solidarity activists in the run-up to February 6, when they helped refugees and migrants in Elliniko to prepare for a large demonstration against a visit to the camp by Migration Minister Yiannis Mouzalas.
The residents blocked Mouzalas and his police escort from entering the decrepit camp until he was forced to listen to their demands that conditions be improved there.
Qahar subsequently became close to organisers from Keerfa, an anti-racist and anti-fascist group based in Athens, and started to help them with translation projects as well as joining them at protests against far-right groups.
Two years ago, 69 Golden Dawn members first appeared in court to face charges of running a criminal organisation. Although the trial has progressed slowly, it has ostensibly hindered the party’s ability to make gains during a refugee crisis that has seen hundreds of thousands of people fleeing war and economic devastation pass through the country.
Yet critics argue that some people who are part of the party or close to it continue to engage in violence. After Antifa activists took sledgehammers to the windows of Golden Dawn’s office one morning in late March, a group of men attacked and hospitalised a university student who they believed participated in the vandalism.
Nikolaos Michaloliakos, the founder and leader of Golden Dawn, denounced the violence, but police later arrested a 42-year-old party member – and former employee of Michaloliakos – over the attack.
Electra Alexandropoulous of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation and Golden Dawn Watch explains that recent attacks demonstrate that the hardline party’s claims to reject violence aren’t credible.
“They cannot change … their violence comes as something natural,” she says. “They are clearly still neo-Nazis. They fool only those who want to be fooled.”
Petros Constantinou, the national director of Keerfa and a city councillor in Athens, explains that before the ongoing refugee crisis Golden Dawn built its base by attacking immigrants, leftists, trade unionists and critics and building small pockets of support in neighbourhoods where police tolerated their presence. “But we’ve always been an absolute majority against them,” he says.
“The Golden Dawn tried to [expand] in some neighbourhoods and in the islands … in all of these campaigns, they’ve been defeated through thousands of demonstrations, one by one,” Constantinou adds.
“Refugees and migrants are not just visitors, but they are a powerful part of [our] movement. We are organising with them to fight.”
‘I am not afraid’
Despite Golden Dawn’s history of violence, Qahar says he isn’t afraid of drawing attention to himself. In March, he showed up at their headquarters in Athens and asked for a job application as a prank.
“I wanted to see their faces when I asked,” he says, laughing. “I went in. This big guy with a big neck was there. I said, ‘Hi, I’m a refugee and I need a job.’ They yelled at me to get out.”
Displaced, impoverished and marginalised, many refugees and migrants in Greece feel unable to play an active role in protest movements.
Qahar, though, says he considers his participation in the anti-fascist struggle to be a duty. Well-connected in the camps, he views himself as a bridge between the refugees and migrants on the one hand, and Greeks on the other.
“I want to fight for all humans,” he says. “I can’t see someone sleeping on the side of the street, for example.… Why would you sit quietly? Try to help.”
Qahar insists that refugees and migrants “cannot fight alone” because “this is not [our] country”.
“We are like a hand. If your hand is open, anybody can break your finger; but if you close it in a fist, no one can stop your punch,” he continues.
He argues that refugees, working-class people, religious minorities and other marginalised groups share a common interest in preventing the spread of far-right sentiment as well as in challenging the state’s policies towards austerity and migration.
“I am not afraid,” Qahar concludes defiantly. “Firstly, I can defend myself. Secondly, I am not alone. Behind me I have a thousand people, Greeks and refugees … I have a lot of friends and a lot of comrades standing like a wall behind me.”
Follow Patrick Strickland on Twitter: @P_Strickland_