A lot has been written about the self-organised facility housed inside the former City Plaza hotel in Athens, which by now has become a role model in welcoming refugees, studied by the academic world and followed by international media. City Plaza is not just one of the many refuge born all over Europe in order to provide shelter for migrants where the government action cannot reach. City Plaza is a challenge and the result of a common mindset based on self-organisation and solidarity, the outcome of over 20 years of work and experience from DIKTYO (Network for Social and Political Rights). This independent network, part of the Greek far-left scene, proposes an alternative formula of social organisation based on a model of self-coordination and “horizontal” collaboration, rather than the traditional hierarchical one.
Therefore, we spent some time at City Plaza in order to understand its mechanisms and meet the people who created this project and that support it every day.
What is City Plaza
Last April 22nd, the “Refugee Accommodation and Solidarity Space City Plaza” celebrated its first year of life. Over this time span the structure has seen more than 1,700 people coming and going inside its premises, between volunteers and refugees. In its 126 rooms, of which 26 are reserved for volunteer staff, the building is able to accommodate about 400 people, among which there are about a hundred families. The priority over the right to reside in City Plaza is given on the basis of the family’s or person’s previous placement (which most of the times is the street) and depending on the existence of particular problems or difficulties that might affect the family or the single persons. Rooms and beds are instead allocated with particular attention in order to avoid the building up of ethnic or religious nucleus, a factor that is also taken care of on a floor basis, so as to maintain a certain heterogeneity.
The building, which was kept closed for seven years following the business declared bankruptcy, was squatted in 2016 by a group of activists and migrants, including DIKTYO, the former SYRIZA’s Youth and Antarsya, a radical leftist group from Athens. Shortly afterwards, given the advanced self-organisation developed by City Plaza, the three groups decided to take a step back in the management of the structure, passing the lead on to the local team living inside the building, and from that moment on supporting them only from the political point of view.
From that moment on, this self-government experiment has been organised through a series of weekly meetings based on the concept of shared coexistence and work, to which everyone, refugees and volunteers, can participate and bring forward ideas and issues. Doing so, the goal is to put into practice an idea of everyday life which could empower the individual. Therefore, City Plaza lives this way through the active collaboration of volunteers and residents, and is supported economically only through private donations, which come from all around the world.
However, this project lives in a context of uncertainty characterised from one side by the constant risk of eviction represented by the police, and, on the other side, the acts of intimidation carried on by the far-right groups such as Golden Dawn. In this situation, which is equally shared with at least twelve more squats in the Athenian neighbourhood of Exarchia and innumerable refugee camps throughout Greece, City Plaza is trying to create an anti-racist network of solidarity and resistance, also thought to target the migration policies issued by the Greek government. From this point of view, this occupation can be seen as a concrete action towards the claim of social and political rights for refugees and migrants, as well as an act of resistance against the migration policies imposed by the EU in this crisis, first of all the “Europe-Turkey agreement” signed in March 2016. In this way, City Plaza represents a counter-proposal to the housing problem at which institutions respond to by creating refugee camps and hotspots that often lack the very basic services.
“We live together – solidarity will win”
Two years ago the migratory wave coming mainly from the Middle East, but also from the north and central Africa, managed to cross the European borders. This flow of people coming from a context of continuous armed conflict and humanitarian crisis, which at the end of 2014 amounted to about 7 million people, has been recognised as the greatest since the end of World War II.
However, the decision taken by the individual European countries to shut their borders has blocked 62,000 refugees in Greece alone in 2015, a country already stuck by the economic recession and the austerity policies imposed by the EU. It is in this climate of emergency that City Plaza is born and stands, setting up with the slogan “Refugees welcome” a resistance and solidarity network against more than 49 structures between detention centres and refugee camps across the country.
“We live and struggle together, solidarity will win“. This is City Plaza’s “war cry”, which is now no longer a simple hotel but a home for a big cosmopolitan family which came together after the eviction of the nearby Vitctoria Square, one of the arrival points for refugees and asylum seekers in Athens. The duration of the stay is diverse and can range from a few days to several months, and often coincide with the waiting for the necessary documents for family reunification or deportation to one of the central EU countries.
As soon as we arrive we are immediately introduced through the introductory meeting, one of the various collegial moments that regulates community life there. During the meeting, Malik explains the common rules to follow inside the hotel, then passing on to describing the various activities at which new volunteers can contribute to, as well as facing some everyday management issues.
The basic rules of coexistence are few, clear and mandatory: 1. No violence, no discrimination, no alcohol and drugs allowed; 2. Things must never escalate in order to keep the place safe and running smoothly in respect for everyone; 3. Everyone who’s able to has to take over one shift at least once a week on a 45 hours weekly schedule.
The respect for these rules is ensured by the active participation of all residents to the community life, in this way changing their condition from a position of being passive subjects of a supportive approach, to becoming actively involved in a process of change. It is amazing in this regard for an external observer, to realise how over 400 people of different ethnicity, age, and personal issues can indeed live in an absolutely well-organised and peaceful context.
Day-by-day management is ensured by few but fundamental activities organised in shifts of mixed teams made up of volunteers and residents, especially with regard to preparing and serving meals, cleaning the premises and supervising the whole building both during daytime and night-time. For this reason, those who live at City Plaza have two cards: one for identification, which allows the access to the building, and a second one which is used for the collection of daily meals in the common dining hall.
Decisions are always taken through the democratic instrument of collective discussions, which are called in dedicated meetings such as the coordination meeting and the solidarity meeting, the latest specifically dedicated to volunteers, also called “solidarians”. In addition to that, City Plaza is kept in top shape by the constant presence of long-term volunteers and a group of activists belonging to the collective that supports the occupation.
Giovanni, 23, is an Italian volunteer. He comes from Turin, where he studies Anthropology of Migrations at university. After reading several articles about City Plaza, driven by curiosity and the desire to help out a bit, he arrived in Athens about 10 months ago thinking about staying for just a week. Eventually, postponing month after month, he is still there, where he mainly organises and manages the activities of the Kid’s Corner, the space dedicated to the children living in the hotel.
Giovanni tells us that most of them are of Afghan origin, but many of them have been refugees in Iran. Unlike other squats or refugee camps in Athens, there are here only five unaccompanied minors. This is because City Plaza feels it is best for them to be hosted in structures that are more appropriate to their needs.
The Kid’s Corner is a space created out of a big room at the first floor. Not only that is a place where it is given the children the opportunity to play in a safe and controlled environment, but is also a space where educational activities take place, which then extend to the basic English classes held upstairs for the more grown-up. Furthermore, this area was also created with the aim to provide a nursery to those moms who, being not accompanied or engaged in other activities, cannot therefore take care of their children on a full-time basis. Doing so, it is given them the chance to have part of the day only for themselves and their needs. For example some of the young mothers use this kind of help offered by City Plaza to go to work. Finally, the activities of the Kid’s Corner also comprehend visits for children, and therefore their families, to museums, trips to the seaside or mountain hikes, and last but not least ball games at the park, indeed demonstrating a broader family context-specific attention.
Vittoria too comes from Turin. She is 22 and in Italy she is studying to obtain her master degree in Psychology. She came to City Plaza together with Giovanni in 2016 and, as she explains, at the beginning the impact with reality was a bit harsh and it took her a while to get used to the different cultures and ideologies that one can encounter in there. However, the most difficult part, Vittoria says, is to understand that the calm and jovial environment that you can find in City Plaza and the pain and the private suffering of the people who live there, are just two sides of the same coin.
As volunteer, she mainly takes care of the Women’s Space, the space she has created and developed, exclusively dedicated to the women of the hotel. Vittoria’s approach shows the constant complexity of articulating the activities on the basis of the emerging and ever-changing women’s needs, also by identifying and experimenting with new forms of organisation. Speaking from this point of view, starting the project was for her a real challenge, made up of mistakes and attempts. Eventually, and in spite of everything, it took off with a series of workshop on how to make facial masks with material available in the kitchen. From there inspiration has come, also driven by linguistic difficulties and therefore limitations in communication (unlike men many women have received little or no school education in their countries of origin) and the fact that it is difficult to meet women outside the dining hall during meal times.
“If there is a way to make them more confident, more open, that is exactly following their line of thought”, Vittoria tells us. Hence the decision to support their needs and requests rather than make pre-packaged proposals about the activities. Thus, for example, English classes have been organised but exclusively dedicated to women, so allowing them to overcome the shyness to attend mixed classes due to cultural reasons and lesser schooling than men.
The right to stay and the freedom of movement in Europe
Germany is the main destination country for most of migrants and refugees stuck now in Greece. In 2011, the German Constitutional Court decided to suspend the Dublin III Regulations (Regulation 604/2013) for five years, thus allowing asylum seekers to reach Germany from Greece, despite the fact that asylum applications should be evaluated in the first European country in which the person arrives. But times change, and Germany has announced that it intends to reintroduce the Dublin III Regulations and in the meantime it has already identified more than 400 people to “return” to Greece.
Subsequently, the European resettlement program for asylum seekers arrived in Greece and Italy has been applied with such restrictive eligibility criteria, that the number of people who have been granted access to other European countries has drastically reduced since the first projections. In fact, only those people coming from Iraq, Eritrea and Syria, were contemplated as vulnerable, this being the term used in the program, and thus made eligible for asylum procedures. In the meantime, the resettlement agreement ended on September the 26th, with results far from being satisfactory. According to data recently released by UNHCR, of the 160,000 asylum seekers envisaged by the program, of which 106,000 only from Greece and Italy, only 29,144 have been relocated, of which 20,066 from Greece and 9,078 from Italy. UNHCR therefore calls on Europe to renew the program by modifying the eligibility criteria currently considered too restrictive. To date, however, no response has been received.
In short, the European policy, made of border closures and restrictions on the possibility of asylum seeking in its countries has created a stalemate in which at least 62,000 asylum seekers are trapped in Greece alone.
In this sense, Greece itself has been used as a testing laboratory for the latest European policies on managing migratory flows, the purpose of which, which is by now becoming day after day more clear, is to dramatically reduce arrivals in Europe. This is one of the few causes that can today justify such a situation of overcrowding in the Hellenic islands, which have become home to dozen of hotspots and refugee camps. In this way, the EU quietly pursued a policy of creating a buffer zone in which to confine the “migrant” issue, leaving it out of the walls of the fortress called Europe, as it is already happening in Libya according to the recent agreements taken with Italy.
That is also the reason why in the political and social context of Athens activists and residents of City Plaza are constantly seeking moments of encounter with the community. Doing so, and by actively participating in the significant events, they can make their voices heard and make their condition evident. Examples of this plan of action are the two demonstrations held on September the 5th at the Acropolis and in the Monastiraki tourist district, in addition to what happens by now almost weekly in front of the asylum offices in the Athenian neighbourhood of Katehaki.
We met many families at City Plaza that were waiting for the necessary documents needed for the process of family reunification. Karima, 27, is there with his brother Hamed and his two sons, 10 and 5 year-old. She is Afghan but was born in Iran, from which she fled because of the conditions of serious discrimination to which Afghani people are subjected to. In the Persian country, Afghani emigrants do not have the right to have the Iranian citizenship and can only have documents with temporary validity, which must be anyway renewed every six months. Furthermore, access to public services, such as schools, is extremely limited and possible only in exchange to expensive payments. This condition is even more arduous for women, who often find themselves isolated due to the cultural context in which they live. Karima refused a marriage with a cousin and because of that she was persecuted together with her current husband and forced to flee.
She has been living in City Plaza for about a year and a half now and she is still waiting to get reunited with her husband, who eventually made it to Germany to receive some medical treatment which could not have in Greece. Speaking about the current situation, she thinks that it is not right that Europe discriminates between the nationalities of those who seek asylum, she just would like to have guaranteed basic human rights for herself and her children.
Many people at City Plaza are in this situation. For someone this is something that has been going on for days, for others weeks and even months. For these people, this place represents a safe harbour where they can recover their energies and prepare for a new chapter in their life after having had to leave everything behind, sometimes even the most loved ones. Despite the many positive results reached by City Plaza, the eviction threat is always around the corner, with the owner of the building, Aliki Papachela, going so far as to sue the Greek chief of police for “dereliction of duty” for not having shut down the illegally occupied property.
Her efforts eventually delivered some results and on May the 17th, the Athens prosecutor’s office issued a request of eviction for City Plaza and two other squats in Athens, of which occupants were informed only weeks later when the press released the news.
In Greece, in line with the current conditions set by European policies, City Plaza remains the best alternative to refugee camps and hotspots where tens of thousand of migrants live in extremely precarious situations, not only for what concerns health and hygiene conditions, but also regarding safety under every aspect and poor sheltering against bad weather (especially now with the winter coming).
This is why the people from City Plaza want Europe to be informed about what is happening and the human value of this project, asking to spread its message of solidarity.