Since April the 22nd 2016, the “Refugee Accommodation and Solidarity Space City Plaza” is an occupied hotel, managed by a group of activists and refugees, currently home to about 400 migrants. It is located nearby Victoria Square, a meeting place for migrants in Athens, which came to the attention of the news in March 2016 when the police evicted hundreds of people camped there, leaving them without accommodation.
During our stay in City Plaza, we had the opportunity to meet the activists who gave birth to the project and who are still directly involved in the daily life of the squat. Here is an interview with Olga Lafazani, from Athens, who has been working there with the organisation she is part of, since the first day of squatting. Her experience make up the evidence that it is possible to give life to such a project, also providing the chance to understand the ideas, the values and the strengths that characterise it and allow it to survive.
Q: Who participated at the opening of City Plaza?
A: It was mainly an initiative called “Initiative in Support of Economic and Political Refugees“, which was a coordination of more or less four different groups belonging to the Greek far-left. Two of these groups were mostly made up of young people and students active in universities, but not only. The other group was an anarchist-unionist group, while the fourth one was a kind of anti-racist and anti-fascist network. Thus, when the refugee crisis (as they say), or the summer of migration (as we instead call it), began, we formed this project in order to intervene during significant situations, but also, as an alternative to NGO or government initiatives, to emancipate people and help them in their self organisation to fight racism and aggressiveness from the local society.
Q: How many refugees participated the first day of squatting in City Plaza?
A: On the first day there were more or less a hundred people from our group and about 120 refugees. Actually, we started meeting them time before the execution of the action, also in order to participate on the first day of occupation. So we already knew them for some time. Indeed, we conducted some assemblies with them, in which we discussed a lot about what would have happened, but without discussing too much the details.
So, the where, when and how, were only known to very few people, five or six maybe, and revealed only at last, as well as the name of the place to squat. This was because we were worried that the police would have showed up stopping us. However, everyone knew that we had this project in mind and that the building was going to be a hotel. On this regard, the decision to squat a hotel was intentional, as there are a lot of occupied buildings in Athens such as schools, which indeed have large classrooms where to host up to ten families each. But instead, it was important for us to offer a better housing condition in order to dignify these people, ensuring them a certain level of privacy. So it was important, for example, that each family had its own room, bathroom, balcony and closet, thus offering a residential project with a guaranteed level of privacy and tranquillity.
Q: In Greece, particularly in Athens, the borders closure has blocked thousands of migrants that were travelling to other parts of Europe, promoting on the other hand several squatting initiatives. These projects, far from being a reproduction of the government’s reception system, place the focus on the freedom and autonomy of all those who are involved in the initiatives. Is there a particular way for Greek people and Athenians to think about the urban space and its re-appropriation?
A: This is actually a quite recent phenomenon in Greece. Traditionally, the Communist Party, the KKE, was the most organised party in this context and that is, I think, where somehow the intervention of the Greek left in social spaces comes from. However, especially after the uprisings happened in December 2008, I think the squatting practice has become much more used. Furthermore, the housing issue has recently become a real imperative for refugees, so the use of this practice has especially flourished in the last two years. However, in Greece, this is also closely related to the Syriza government, since it does tolerate, even though not completely, this kind of practice.
Q: What kind of people live here in City Plaza? I mean, if they are long term residents, from which country they come from, if they already have documents or are waiting to receive them.
A: We do not demand papers when people come to ask for a bed, it’s irrelevant either they have them or not. Actually, we prefer to accommodate people who do not have documents because they are the first ones to fail to find other solutions. At the same time, however, this also entails some risks, because if the police come to evict the building, these people would almost certainly be arrested.
So, when there are people without documents coming to ask for a room, we explain exactly what the situation is, in order to let them understand that we are more than happy to accept their request, but there are also some risks. On the other hand, we are also quite confident thinking that even if the police come one day knocking at our door, we would be able to negotiate and even be able to leave without being arrested, both us volunteers and residents.
Q: Does City Plaza provide legal support to refugees who want to get their documents?
A: We do provide legal advice, but in many cases they cannot have documents, that’s the point, it is not a legal support issue.
A: Because people who arrived in Europe after the signing of the agreement between the EU and Turkey do not have the right to obtain any kind of documentation unless they prove they are “vulnerable”. But this is a very delicate topic, which makes me think how this concept of vulnerability also creates a bias in the asylum assignment process. Therefore, it happens to see people coming to ask for a room with a long list of medical records, trying to convince you that they are the most sick. So the housing right is no longer tied to the struggle for human rights and social justice, but is linked to the ability to prove to be subjectively in a worse situation than others.
Q: And now, what are the reception policies in Greece, what does the government offer to refugees?
A: Especially after the signing of the Europe-Turkey agreement the situation has changed a lot, to such an extent that a second category of citizens, or rather non-citizens, has appeared, which is in fact excluded from the political life of the country. The refugee camps and hotspots are isolated from the cities, and obviously do not provide any kind of participation in the organisation or management of the spaces for their residents. This, in turn, causes the rising of the level of violence which, in such large settlements with little or no social organisation at all, means that a lot of people become exposed everyday to dangerous situations. Obviously, here in City Plaza, we do not support this kind of policies, but instead we think that migrants must live inside the city, stay with the locals and be included in the social structure of the society. This is one of City Plaza’s main goals, and we want to demonstrate that we it work.
Q: After their stay in the camps, what are the integration policies for asylum seekers?
A: In Greece this is actually a quite peculiar issue. There are, for example, some housing projects for refugees in the towns, which is a good thing in my opinion, but at the same time people are allowed to stay in these apartments for only three months, after which they either have to leave or ask for their housing plan to be reconsidered. So, on the basis of these regulations, the housing issue does not become an acquired right. The logic behind this mechanism, according to the government, is that three months would be enough to settle down, learn the language, find a job and live independently. But if you just think about all the people that do not have any kind of paper and thus remain completely helpless, you can understand how this thing will never work.
Q: And is there a job integration program?
A: This is another fairly complex topic because of the economic crisis. There are no jobs in general, so it is very difficult to find a job even “informally”. During the past years, migrants could count on a sort of unofficial social participation process. So, for example, once they had arrived in Greece they could rent an apartment even without documents. It is illegal of course, but it is still a very common practice and still represents a form of social integration. Likewise, it was possible to work even without the necessary documents, maybe not the best paid job, but still a way to have a small income. But with the economic crisis this process has become much more difficult. Some people who live here have sometimes been able to find a job, but those who actually succeeded in finding one are really few compared to all those who would actually like to work. So, in the end, it is a really hard situation for them. I think that a social policy should be set up with better and more articulated integration plans, otherwise it is useless to let houses for only three months.
Q: We know that according to the new European regulations, if you begin your asylum process on an island, it is not possible to follow the procedure in some other place.
A: That’s right, this is one of the most absurd rules imposed by the Europe-Turkey agreement: since it was signed, borders have actually multiplied. Now we have a first border between Greece and Turkey and a second between the islands and the mainland, with the islands being used as a kind of buffer zone. Also, when the agreement was announced an ideal “time limit” was also automatically set by the treaty itself, determined by the day when it would have come into force. Therefore, March the 18th 2016 was a decisive day for people who wanted to enter Europe. According to the agreement, people who arrived before that date would have indeed had the right to apply for asylum in Europe, while those arriving after that “time limit” would have been returned to Turkey.
Q: Going back to City Plaza, let us talk about how refugees’ daily life is organised.
A: Well, first of all I must say that City Plaza is an experiment for us as well, because when we squatted the building we did not know how we would have kept it running. Some of us had a long experience in anti-racist and anti-fascist movements, in organising events, but no one had any idea about how to organise a living space for people.
Q: So what is the most important difficulty you have to face in this process?
A: I do not know, perhaps the biggest difficulty lies in the general management and organisation… We tried to experiment with different participation strategies, because one of the main ideas has always been that concerning people involvement. So we never thought of projects solely organised either by volunteers or refugees alone, but instead we always sought an idea of common organisation and cohabitation, and this is very complicated because City Plaza is a very peculiar meeting place. Here in City Plaza there are people, like us coordinators, who participate in the project because think it is a wider part of the struggle against neo-liberalism, capitalism and borders implementation, and of course there are refugees coming here because they need a safe space where to live, but they have never thought about fighting sexism and racism for example.
Also, the project is made possible thanks to all those people who come to help even from far abroad. For example, we currently have refugees coming from a dozen different countries, and the same happens for volunteers, who indeed come from all over the world too. Besides, beyond the country of origin, each migrant also has a different story, different perspectives and plans for the future.
Q: For what concerns nationalities, have you ever had problems among refugees, moments of tension or conflict due to different ethnicity or something else in here?
A: Look, in a way I think that City Plaza is able to keep these tensions under control, and anyway we have explained to people many times, through meetings and discussions, that human beings differ between each other not so much on a nationality basis, but rather in their social position. For example, inside the refugee camps, a very big problem is represented by conflicts between groups of different ethnicities, where instead, here in City Plaza, we never had any fight. In a year and a half we only had one incident, between two guys, but due to private problems, and they were even from the same country. So, thanks to the fact that we are always present in the building, we are able to always keep the situation under control and understand the moment when tensions may rise, so to be always able to bring people to dialogue and avoid dangerous situations. Of course then, when a new family arrives in City Plaza, we explain how everything works and at the same time we tell them the three main rules of this place.
Q: What are the rules?
A: The first is no violence, problems are solved only through dialogue, not through violence. Obviously, the second rule is no drugs and no alcohol allowed in the building. Out of here everyone is free to do what he wants, but not in here, as this is closely related to violence.
Q: So there is no alcohol at the bar…
A: No way, not even at parties. It is a bit weird for us volunteers too to throw a party without beer, but since we live together, everyone has to follow the rules. Finally, the third rule is the respect towards other people and towards the place where we all live.
Q: Is there a rule to follow in order to participate in the City Plaza management? For example for cleaning or preparing the meals?
A: We have done many different attempts to organise everyday life. In the first period we left the latter based on spontaneous participation and in fact many people joined. Then, however, people started complaining because not everyone was participating and doing something, so we had to find a more effective way to manage the shifts.
So, after several attempts, we now have a rotation system based on the room number, according to which residents must attend the common organisation plan at least once a week for five hours. These five hours can then be divided between various shifts, which are: the kitchen shift (breakfast, lunch and dinner), the shift for the cleaning of the common spaces, the warehouse management and finally the security and bar shifts. Then of course it is not as easy as it sounds, there is always someone who tries to skip his turn by bringing all sorts of excuses.
Q: Are the rooms cleaned by their occupants or volunteers can enter private spaces?
A: No, never. It is the residents’ responsibility to keep their rooms clean. If we see that a room is really dirty, and as in any community usually the heads up comes from the neighbours, then we kindly ask them to clean their space, for their good and that of the City Plaza community. Otherwise, we never go in their rooms to clean up.
Q: Olga, tell me one last thing about you, how old are you and what kind of education do you have?
A: I am 38 years old and I hold a Ph.D. in Social Geography from the Geography department of Harokopio University. When we decided to squat City Plaza I was working here in Athens on behalf of the University of Barcelona. So, when it was time for me to go back to Catalunia, I chose to stay and quit the job. But now I have been awarded a scholarship and in the meantime I am looking for a job in Athenian Universities.
I am very happy because when I left my position in Barcelona I expected to face years of unemployment here in Greece, but actually now I’m good for at least a couple of years.