Urban sanctuaries for Athens’s overlooked refugees
From being a place of transition to a de facto destination, Athens is home to an increasing number of urban refugees. Amid new challenges, two grassroots organisations stand out for their innovative responses to a humanitarian crisis that the state is unable to handle.
The traditional image of refugees living in flimsy tents no longer tells the whole story of refugee movements. More than 60 percent of the world’s 19.5 million refugees and 80 percent of all internally displaced persons today settle in urban areas. Mainly because, compared to the camps’ poor living and security conditions, cities allow refugees to find income generation activities and avoid being dependent on aid rations.
In Greece, where more than 60,000 women, men and children remain stranded in limbo as a result of the Balkan route closure and the failure of the EU relocation plan, cities are increasingly at the forefront of integrating new arrivals. Athens has moved from being a place of transition to a de facto destination, with refugees abandoning their makeshift settlements in Victoria Square or the ‘Pedion tou Areos’ park, and moving into hostels, looking at ways of learning the language and of enrolling their kids in school.
While such a change is understandably welcomed by refugee agencies, it entails significant challenges: refugees living in cities are dispersed, keep a low profile and often pass under the humanitarian radar, making it harder for aid agencies to protect and support them. They are also exposed to harassment, intimidation and discrimination, and live with the constant fear of being detained and returned forcibly to their home country.
Amid these challenges, urban refugee approaches remain limited. For so long organisations like UNHCR have been used to working in camp settings, and so the shift to providing assistance outside that zone has been a steep learning curve. Meanwhile, uncertainty makes it difficult for the debt-stricken capital to plan for the refugees’ temporary accommodation and integration, while overlapping responsibilities between the government and the city’s municipalities have frequently led to slow reactions or unnecessary spending. And, well, let’s face it: spending most of the time on resource planning and policy implementation isn’t exactly the ideal way to come up with the most inventive solutions.
In the midst of all this, citizens’ initiatives sometimes offer their assistance in refreshing ways. What they lack in resources or experience, they make up for in creativity and enthusiasm, finding their way into Athens’s chaotic effervescence. Amongst many, two have recently caught my attention, not only for their original approaches but mainly because of their efforts to assist refugees by promoting their social integration and allowing them to actively participate in their projects’ conception and implementation.
An Elephant’s journey in the heart of Athens
Being a journalist myself, I was naturally intrigued when, a few months ago, I first learnt about Solomon.gr, an online magazine that is run by a team of 25 people, both locals and refugees, with the aim of helping them “communicate and shape society together”, as noted on their website. Solomon Magazine’s name comes from the main character of the book “The Elephant’s Journey” by the Portuguese author Jose Saramago, in which an elephant named Solomon travels from India to Vienna, through Portugal. During his journeys on foot, Solomon is perceived differently in each place, making him a symbolic representative of refugees and immigrants.
The idea behind Solomon was conceived back in 2015 when Fanis Kollias, a 25 year old graduate of the Athens University of Economics and Business and humanitarian worker, met an Afghan refugee who had many skills and creative ideas but didn’t know where to turn to. He soon decided to create a magazine comprised only of refugees and immigrants, which was “the worst idea ever” as he later recalls. “I quickly understood that by making a project for the refugee you don’t allow him (or her) to integrate into society; instead, you show him that he will always need you”, he says during an interview at the Impact Hub’s small interior yard. “But if you sit down with him and tell him ‘listen, the society we’re both part of faces this specific problem — help me find a solution for it’, then we can start talking about integration”, he adds, urging the need to remove his ‘refugee’ label and see him as a human being.
Because of bureaucratic hurdles, the magazine’s first issue was published with a two-month delay, in March 2016. Since then, it has undergone multiple changes, such as the replacement of payable issues with separate articles free of charge. “The first three issues took too much work and we couldn’t have tight deadlines when most of the team’s members are not professional writers and have to get to work every day. We also didn’t have any designer to help us out”, explains Fanis, who used to spend his days and nights double-checking every little detail before the publishing deadline. To make it happen, he quit his job at Greenpeace and used his savings from his salary, until they ran out.
Even though Solomon’s current survival depends mainly on external funding and volunteering, Fanis hopes to turn it one day into a sustainable social enterprise. “I think that for a lot of people the word ‘enterprise’ has a negative connotation. There has been, for example, an experiment where children were asked to draw an entrepreneur, and they drew monsters and scary creatures…The same goes with journalists; they’re often resented, even though we need them”, he says.
If entrepreneurs and journalists are far from being worshipped, Solomon’s efforts to provide them with a joint social cause have been met with a great deal of positive feedback from Greece and abroad. Volunteers from all over the world, even Chile, have recently joined the team, giving Fanis the time to develop ideas for new projects or activities, such as the pairing of migrants and refugees with freelance journalists.
An ex-printing building turned into a haven for refugees
If you happened to go up Asklipiou Street over the last two months and you noticed colourful walls and irregular hammering sounds at some point on your right, you were standing next to Khora’s freshly established community centre. The Khora cooperative was created last spring by a group of international volunteers who met on Lesvos while working with Skipchen and the self-organised camp Better Days for Moria.
After Lesvos, the team decided to move to Athens and spent the summer providing more than 1000 meals a day to migrants and refugees, and running a shower block in Piraeus Port. It took them nearly three months to find and rent the eight-storey building and ex-printing shop that today provides refugees and migrants with meals, sanitation facilities, language courses and asylum case work. Self-defence and jewellery making classes, soap-making and puppet workshops, movie projections, computing seminars, cooking classes and many other activities are run in the centre.
But Khora is not only about charity. “Our main objective is social inclusion. It’s not about international volunteers helping out refugees. Everyone is involved, and in the end we want refugees to run their own projects, with us acting as their facilitators by raising the necessary funds for example”, says Becca, a 25 year old volunteer from London who first came to Greece in April. Self-defence and belly-dancing classes, first-aid courses, as well as Arabic and Farsi language courses are therefore run by refugees, while Hassan from Syria and Aziz from Senegal are helping out in the kitchen by cooking vegetarian meals and bringing a little taste of their home. The cooperative also plans to provide work for refugees by next summer, even if at the moment most of them don’t have the right to work.
Local residents are also involved in Khora’s initiatives, either by volunteering or by participating in the open meetings that take place every two weeks. “Slowly, there are more neighbours and people from the local area showing up at our door and asking if we need any help. And by being receptive to help and support wherever it comes from can a major difference. We listen to them, try and find out how they want to be involved so that the minute they walk through the door they feel like they’re part of it already”, she adds while smoking her cigarette in the building’s small yard. And it seems that the message has been spread across quite quickly, with volunteers of all ages coming in not only form neighbouring districts but also from Canada, Denmark, France, Iran, Morocco, Portugal, Syria, Switzerland, UK, the USA and other corners of the world. Some have stipends while others get by on their savings or the money they raised through their crowdfunding campaign. Those who stay more than one or two months can sometimes live in Khora’s volunteer flat, near Omonia, which can accommodate up to 16 people.
As enriching as it is to work with people coming from so many different backgrounds, coordination can be quite challenging. “During the first couple of weeks we held meetings for hours every day, but they were really necessary because communication is the key to everything, especially if you want to keep a flat hierarchy”, says Liska, a 27 year old Swiss founding member of the cooperative, before leading us to the children’s playroom.
The absence of hierarchy is one of the main reasons behind the team’s choice to form a cooperative instead of a non-governmental organisation. What’s more, the failure of so many humanitarian NGOs in Greece has made it very difficult, from a legal point of view, to create one, according to Liska. Although managing a cooperative has of course its bureaucratic challenges as well, especially if you’re accustomed to Switzerland’s order of things…“It’s ridiculous how complicated everything is. I’ve spent weeks in tax offices and even paying the electricity bill is complicated if you don’t have a Greek business bank account”, she sighed. With a bachelors in political science and a masters degree in International Development and Humanitarian emergencies, Liska seems modest when speaking about her past humanitarian work in Serbia or Lesvos. “She’s a veteran!”, says Becca with enthusiasm.
Compared with short term volunteers, who mainly take care of Khora’s day to day activities, volunteers who stay for an extended period of time, like Becca or Liska, are usually the ones handling most of its strategic activities, including looking for grants and donations that help finance the projects. Some of the biggest grants were received by the “Help Refugees” and “Giving for a better future” humanitarian organisations, as well as volunteer-led fundraising groups: 50.000 euros were raised last June from the UK based volunteer group “Thighs of Steel” who cycled from London to Athens in just six weeks. Khora refuses however to receive any support from the local authorities. “We’re a group of people with many different political ideologies and religious backgrounds and in some ways working with them would mean we’re accepting their political measures and the fact that they’re not doing that they’re supposed to do”, says Becca. Next to her, Jungle, Liska’s dog, lays indifferently on the floor with his eyes half-opened.
It’s nearly 7 pm, time for Liska and Becca to join an open meeting and for me to explore the rest of Khora’s universe. I slowly make my way up to the first floor where blue and yellow tiles surround what looks like professional cooking equipment. Behind it, a smiling woman prepares pasta in red sauce and a green salad for tonight’s dinner. Where is everyone? I wonder, but my thoughts are quickly diverted by two loud bangs coming from upstairs. The noises grow stronger as I walk up the stairs and I soon find myself in the middle of a self-defence class, hosted at the cooperative’s popular ‘social café’ where everyone can sit down, eat and relax. As I later found out, the café is also used for performances and events such as the Khora Cinema Club, music nights and open meetings.
Things get a bit more serious on the third floor, occupied by three classrooms, a library and a soon-to-be computer room. Dozens of students are leaving the classrooms while their teachers repeat their homework for the next time. “We should not interrupt the teachers, we should do our homework, we should not arrive late to class…” says the classroom’s wall, next to freshly conjugated verbs on the blackboard.
Sitting on a sofa next to a small wooden table, 15 year old Hazara Gatsalov has just completed his Greek language course. Hazara and his family spent 24 days traveling from Afghanistan to Turkey, where they were immediately arrested due to the simultaneous Balkan route closure. They remained in Turkey for more than a month before reaching Hios, and then Athens. “We’ve been in Greece for seven months now, and we want to join my brother in Germany through the family reconciliation program”, he says.
Despite their uncertain future, Hazara spends hours learning Greek at the cooperative every day, by taking the bus from Elliniko station. “Hazara is one of the best students in my class”, says Maria, his 28 year old American teacher, smiling at him proudly. It’s been three weeks since Maria started volunteering for Khora through the Refugee Language Initiative organization, although she has already worked with refugees in South Korea and the United States. “I find it difficult sometimes to explain concepts and ideas but once you’ve passed a basic level, it gets much easier because you have more vocabulary to work with”, she adds, with books in her arms. On her left, the floor’s small library is patiently waiting for its next visitors, offering foreign language textbooks but also gripping reads, such as Agatha Christie’s detective novels, Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 or Jack London’s White Fang.
As for the cooperative’s top floors, which I wasn’t able to visit, they host a women’s space, a private meeting room for legal or psychological support, the community centre office, a music room as well as a dentistry, made available through donated time from dentists in Athens.
Report by Myrto Vogiatzi.
Myrto is a journalist based in Athens, Greece, having previously been based at L’Orient-Le Jour in Beirut, Lebanon. She has contributed her work to publications in France, India and Greece, and in particular focuses on sociopolitical issues, developmental issues and international relations.