Athens, Greece – The walls of the Greek capital’s Exarcheia neighbourhood are cloaked in political graffiti, with slogans denouncing authority and others pledging solidarity with new arrivals as the refugee crisis continues to shake Europe.
“Have fun swimming in bloody waters this summer,” one reads, an insult levelled at tourists which refers to the thousands of asylum seekers who have drowned making their way to Europe.
“Solidarity to refugees and migrants,” another declares.
Deep in Exarcheia, where police can seldom enter without prompting clashes with local anarchists and leftists, activists have created a community of collective dining facilities and temporary residence halls for refugees and migrants.
El CHEf, food collective
Tucked away down a shadowy alleyway is EL CHEf, one such food collective whose logo is simply a picture of the Argentine Marxist and Cuban Revolution leader Che Guevara donning a chef’s hat in the place of his beret.
Established by seven activists in 2008, the collective is run on a volunteer basis and feeds hundreds of people each month. Originally created for hungry and homeless locals, EL CHEf changed its focus to refugees as the crisis grew this year.
Niko Stathis, a 37-year-old who also has a day job as a chef at a nearby restaurant, lights a cigarette and takes a seat on a flimsy wooden stool in the kitchen. As one of the collective’s founders, he remembers when they occupied the abandoned government building and renovated it.
“We took a decision to squat in the building and started cooking the first day,” he says. “Then we fixed the place up over time.”
Everyone is invited to participate in the food preparation and cooking, and refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Iran and elsewhere are encouraged to introduce new dishes from their native cuisines.
Not just another soup kitchen in Athens
Stathis says the process and structure are designed in line with “anti-authoritarian” principles.
“This is not a soup kitchen where we just give plates to the hungry. We don’t want to marginalise refugees and throw breadcrumbs at them while they sit on the edge of society. We want to welcome them into our society.”
Both volunteers and refugees who come are invited to participate in the cooking process, as well as in planning the weekly menus. “Everyone can join in every process – from cooking to cleaning to shopping. This is not humanitarian work or philanthropy – it is about solidarity.”
“Everyone is on the same level: We work together and we eat together,” he says.
More than 100 people come to the kitchen each week, he says, explaining that they charge a mere three euros ($3) to those who can afford it. “Food is free for whoever cannot pay and people can eat if they don’t have money. We only use the money to supplement the costs of food and supplies.”
During times when there is a heavy influx of refugees into Athens, Stathis and his comrades head to Victoria Square, a central point for people passing through the city, to provide food to families from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries, who are on their way to other parts of Europe.
EL CHEf is staunchly ideological. As anarchists, the volunteers reject funding from either the government or humanitarian organisations.
“Empty places should always be used as housing for people without it, or as social centres, or serve a good for people who need them,” Stathis adds.
Even the decision to choose this neighbourhood was born from deeply held political convictions.
“Exarcheia is the cradle of new ideas and the political movement that we – leftists and anarchists – all belong to,” Stathis explains. “It was a choice and a means of spreading the word of including collectivism in dining.”
Other refugee services centres
EL CHEf is not an isolated project. It is situated next to a social and health services collective and down the street is another collective kitchen, Nosotros, which invites refugees to join them for cooking and meals.
A few hundred metres away on the corner, the Notara refugee solidarity centre provides temporary housing to refugees stopping over in Athens.
Although they may be small and limited by a lack of resources, EL CHEf and other projects play an important role in welcoming refugees into Greek society.
Refugees continue to arrive in Greece by boat at an average of 3,400 a day, according to UNHCR statistics.
So far in 2015, as of December 29, more than 997,236 refugees and migrants have made it to Europe by sea. Many have fled war zones, crossed difficult terrain and taken to dinghies through wintry waters to reach Greece.
“The conditions of the journey take a heavy toll on refugees,” Daniel Huescar, a Lesbos-based field coordinator for Doctors Without Borders, tells Al Jazeera. “We treat many for respiratory infections, skin infections, gastrointestinal illnesses and trauma.”
He adds that infections and stomach illnesses are often related to the lack of clean drinking water and food along the way.
Seraphim Seferiades, a political science professor at Panteion University, in Athens, says that the surge in refugee solidarity “is not just about anarchists”.
“This is a movement that involves the entire left, including local groups and neighbourhood initiatives, that were given life by the influx of refugees and migrants,” he tells Al Jazeera.
Projects like EL CHEf, he says, have “mushroomed” across the country.
Syriza and rise of Greek anarchists
Seferiades argues that the refugee crisis has revived the Greek left at large at a time when many saw the Syriza government as capitulating to the European Union.
“The Syriza sellout gave life to anarchists and other leftists. That goes back to what I call a ‘disruptive deficit’ on the left – the [mainstream] left hasn’t been on the left for some time now. That vacuum led to the emergence of refugee solidarity groups and initiatives.”
And this refugee solidarity movement is in turn politicising people, Seferiades says. “It teaches people to go against the government, to pressure the government, and when you do that, they are effectively putting pressure against the EU.”
“The people who are active in these movements feel they are substituting for the missing state, where it failed or refused to act,” Seferiades says. “But that does not mean they aren’t outraged that the state isn’t doing what it is supposed to be doing.”
Refugees at home with Greek anarchists
Manan, 30, who gave only his first name as he has family back in Afghanistan, fled home in early 2014 as fighting raged and the Taliban made gains in many parts of the country. He was stuck in Iran for several months waiting for a smuggler to organise his trip, then Turkey for a year while he worked and saved money to continue the journey.
Arriving in Greece more than a year ago, Manan says that the warm welcome he found among solidarity activists in places such as Exarcheia prompted him to change his mind and not go on to other European countries, as he originally intended.
While learning Greek, a group of teachers brought him to EL CHEf several months ago.
“You are part of the whole process, with people from all over the world supporting one another,” he tells Al Jazeera. “Everyone is on the same level.”
He began to come regularly and introduced the activists to a number of Afghan dishes. Manan, whose parents and siblings are still in Afghanistan, says: “The point is not really the food. The procedure is what matters. You feel like you’re part of the family.”
Back in EL CHEf, Stathis cleans the oven with a wet rag and places several pots and pans on the table in preparation. Although the building had been left vacant for years, he says, the anarchists are facing an eviction order due to a legal complaint filed by local authorities.
If they are kicked out, Stathis says that they will set up shop elsewhere and continue their collective dining project. “Refugees are welcome in this country,” he says, smiling. “We will work to make sure that’s clear.”
Follow Patrick Strickland on Twitter: @P_Strickland_