There is a neighborhood in Athens that has taken in more refugees than the entire United States has. That’s right, a neighborhood Exarcheia in this tiny, broke country has housed, fed, and protected more refugees than the wealthiest country in the world. I want to be proud to be an American, but truths like this make it hard.
I’d heard about this neighborhood for months, but didn’t think I’d ever get access to visit. Exarcheia is an incredibly creative, defiant, intellectual, and hospitable community in downtown Athens. The police don’t go inside, or else urban warfare with Molotov cocktails breaks out. Exarcheia is unlike anywhere I’ve ever been. Its an alternative community that stretches over several blocks and has been around since the 1970s. Anarchists and other leftists have allied with refugees and created several safe living places in abandoned buildings they’ve taken over, or “squats.” There are free language classes, libraries, clothing and food distributions, gardens, and ubiquitous graffiti art. This neighborhood is the beating heart of the network of activists, community leaders, musicians, artists, and underground organizers of squats and demonstrations. I probably wouldn’t have felt comfortable walking in alone as a gaping tourist, but my new amazing friend (and AirBnB hostess of the year) Esra took me under her wing and introduced me to this world.
A resident family in one of the squats.
We spent yesterday inside of “City Plaza,” the newest of these squats, which until last week was a long-abandoned hotel. It now houses and feeds over 300 refugees who previously had been sleeping on the streets or in awful conditions in nearby camps. Here though, families could live in dignity again, while they wait to try to claim asylum in a broken system. Having seen conditions in various camps, this place is incredible. Families each have their own hotel room, free of charge. The residents cook food for everyone using recipes from the homes they’ve left. Kids color and run around with huge smiles, and parents are finally able to relax. There’s an infirmary staffed by volunteer doctors, a women’s group, and mental health services. The top few floors still have to be opened and cleaned, but soon even more families will be able to live here. The need is too great though, and emotionally exhausted organizers are turning away 100-200 people seeking shelter each day.
Graffiti art decorates a community garden in a reclaimed parking lot in Exarcheia.
Lunchtime in one of the squats with a family seeking asylum from Afghanistan.
Over a plate of fruit, a resident family shows off photos of their life before the war destroyed what they knew in Syria.
Of course, there is controversy around occupying buildings like this and quietly siphoning off electricity from the grid. It’s not a black and white issue. But when squats allow families like the one above to live in a place that is warm, safe, and dignified, I’m inclined to rethink my bias against activism at this level.
I felt like I was meeting a celebrity when I got to meet Ahlaan. He fled Aleppo, Syria, with his wife and 11 month old daughter and have been stuck in Greece for months. At the City Plaza squat he will be teaching accounting, economics, Kurdish and Arabic alongside his wife to residents of the squat and volunteers. He speaks five languages fluently and is quickly learning Greek. When I asked him where he hopes to go, he said “I don’t care, anywhere. Anywhere that’s safe enough for my family to have a future.”