The derelict City Plaza hotel in Athens was taken over by activists in 2016. Since then, it has housed refugees without a cent of government funding
On 26 April 2016, the same month the EU-Turkey deal trapped 60,000 refugees in Greece, migrant solidarity activists broke the locks on City Plaza, a shuttered hotel in Athens’ anarchist Exarchia neighborhood, and gave 400 stranded people a home. Over the next year, City Plaza grew into the best known of over a dozen squats that house refugees in Greece’s crisis ravaged capital. It has been covered by Time, Al Jazeera and the New York Times. Volunteers pass through from all over Europe.
City Plaza boasts a clinic, a delicious cafeteria, language classes, a café. Families live in private rooms. Some have jobs. Their kids attend Greek schools. Most of the work to maintain City Plaza is done, and decisions made, by its residents, who hail from a dozen countries and abide by a behavior code that has zero tolerance for sexism, racism or abuse.
When I visited City Plaza last November, its rooms sang with activity – activists painted a protest banner, a Spanish hippie taught a kid chess, women held a group therapy session, a young man from Aleppo prepared traditional Arab coffee behind the bar. “Life is very beautiful [there],” Mahmoud, a 21-year-old photographer from Baghdad who has been living at City Plaza for three months, told me over Whatsapp recently. Around 4,000 refugees are waiting for places in the squat.
But despite everything it has accomplished, City Plaza is under threat. Though the hotel had been closed since 2010, its owner, heiress Aliki Papachela, spent the last year attempting to evict the refugees – even going so far as to sue the Greek Chief of Police for “dereliction of duty” because he had not shut down the squat.
Her efforts finally has delivered results. On 17 May, the Athens prosecutor’s office ordered three refugee squats evicted – City Plaza among them. The squats only learned about the orders weeks later, when articles ran in the Greek press.
These are no idle threats. Right-wing Greek press and politicians have long demonized squatters, and in March, police raided two other squats. A Syrian woman who experienced one of these raids told me about police who kicked in the door at 4am, detained her for 11 hours, and left her and a hundred other refugees homeless. They were not even allowed to collect their clothes. “The threat [of eviction] endangers the lives of many people, including women and children, who have no place to sleep,” Mahmoud said.
Refugee squats are fighting back. Since the threat, they have launched petitions and called for a citywide demonstration on 23 June. Solidarity protests sprung up around Europe – many involving refugees who once called City Plaza home.
Refugee and volunteer-run squats provide a stark alternative to Greece’s government run camps, most of which are squalid, dangerous and degrading. In camps that I visited last November, refugees slept on concrete, sheltered only by cheap nylon tents. They queued for hours for food that might be infested with maggots, and had little access to education, work, or respite from the endless, pointless wait to continue their lives.
Squats like City Plaza accomplish their work without a cent of government or NGO funding. In contrast, despite the 3m euros that since 2015 have flowed to the Greek government and NGOs to help them deal with the refugee crisis, refugees froze to death in camps last winter. Desperate, several more have tried to burn themselves alive. Even the best camps isolate refugees from cities, keeping them quarantined like carriers of a disease.
Perhaps the squats’ real crime is breaking this barrier, and bringing refugees from the urban periphery to its heart. City Plaza is just one prominent member of a network of squats, festivals, social centers, bars, solidarity kitchens and community assemblies that form the multi-ethnic, politically radical fabric of several Athens neighborhoods. Walk through the streets of Exarchia and you’ll see walls scrawled with the vocabulary of Anti-Authoritarianism, in Arabic and English, Pashto and Greek.
You’ll find ads for queer Syrian dance parties, Dari protest flyers, Arabic newspapers filled with Mahmoud Darwish poetry and skepticism towards the nation-state. Step into a bar and you will meet people speaking 15 languages, many of them poor, many of them undocumented, many of them in trauma, but still living together, in one vision of a post-borders future.
In a world that is ever more interconnected, ever more vulnerable to climate change, war and economic rupture, 2015’s mass refugee migration is a warning of things to come. More people will take to the road, and we must find ways to live together, whatever passports we may hold. Squats like City Plaza show one direction we might take.
“As long as they try to evict the squats, as long as they build camps and detention centers, as long as there are borders – we will also be there to fight back and fight for a better world!” the Coordination of Refugee Squats wrote in a post on City Plaza’s Facebook. “We will show them again what we already proved, we live together, we struggle and we resist together – to defend the dignity of each individual, to defend our principles of solidarity.”
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