City Plaza is a squat that houses refugees. They don’t accept funding from governments or NGOs and they are entirely supported by donations and volunteers in solidarity, from Greece and around the world.
It’s a seven-story building in the middle of Athens that used to be a hotel. It houses 400 people from 7 different countries. By contrast, most official centers are located either on the outskirts of towns or in rural or industrial areas.
People have privacy in their rooms, they live with dignity and City Plaza operates more like a hotel. Because it is located in a thriving urban environment, the residents live as close as possible to a “normal” life, with access to shopping, services and even work opportunities. They have three meals a day that they cook themselves, and have access to basic needs, language courses, basic health care and legal help.
To deal with EU bureaucracy you definitely need help especially if you don’t speak Greek or English. Refugees and volunteers live and work together taking shifts in the kitchen and cleaning the premises. All decisions are made in group meetings.
“We live together – solidarity will win” is the motto of City Plaza. The hotel demonstrates every day that even in a situation of crisis and poverty it is possible to welcome people with open arms and to create dignified living conditions for all.
The atmosphere of the place grabs you when you first walk in. It’s quite a contrast to the depression you see in the camps. Residents say that “City Plaza is the best hotel in Europe”.
We spent time with Behfar, 24, who left Iran with his parents and younger brother. After their long journey to Greece, they found City Plaza and rested for 4 months. Their goal was to make it to northern Europe, but they got stuck in Serbia and then Hungary. After seven months on the road they returned to Athens and City Plaza. It felt like home and they decided to stay in Greece. Behfar had one more reason to come back. He has fallen in love with an Italian volunteer, “the most beautiful girl in the world”. He is starting a job as a translator this week and goes to school every day. He runs the open air cinema that operates on the roof of the building.
In this clip Behfar talks about his decision to stay in Greece.
Behfar from Bill Megalos on Vimeo.
On June 7th a rumor ran through the refugee community that the order was given to evacuate squats that operate in the city. Later in the day City Plaza published a defiant letter to everyone vowing to resist any attempt to evacuate the building.
Everyone is waiting to see what happens next.
We returned to City Plaza for a few hours shooting. Here are some scenes from the kitchen.
After that, we went for an in-depth interview with George Moschos, Greek Ombudsman for Children’s Rights. He was one of the first people Zaphiris contacted at the beginning of the project and we had been looking forward to meeting with him.
He proved to be all we had hoped for and more. We discussed the special needs of unaccompanied minors, the responsibilities of the state towards children and how his office independently reviews the conditions and measures taken and advocates for the rights of all children, Greek and refugees. He will be featured prominently in the final film. In this short clip you can see what a warm and caring advocate he is.
In the next few days we will see him in action as he visits refugee facilities.
Right after our interview, we left for Rovies in Northern Evia where in our contact with many people, we gained a broader and deeper understanding of our endeavor.
After a bit of a regroup on Sunday in Athens, when we finally met Vicky Leontou (a journalist who has opened so many doors for us and is our Associate Producer) at a wonderful dinner at her home, we were back at it on Monday, at Hotel City Plaza. We will be going into much more detail about Hotel City Plaza, one of our primary locations in the coming days, as we continue to film there and speak to more of the residents. This was our second visit, our first one filming there. (Zaphiri had visited a number of times before we arrived.)
We filmed one interview with a 16 year-old Afghan refugee living there, who goes by the name Abbas. Although he gave us his permission to film him, we seeking to get permission from his mother, as he is underage. Once we have that, we will talk more about him and show some video.
We also spoke with several volunteers, here Maria Karagouni, who works in the storeroom where residents can come for food, coffee, pampers, etc. tells us about why she volunteers and what is different about City Plaza.
We filmed in the kitchen as refugees and volunteers (many of whom live at the hotel, along with the refugees) prepared meals. We also filmed at lunchtime the following day and to say that it was lively is a great understatement. We are hoping to post videos of the common spaces, but are still in discussion with everyone at City Plaza as to what they are comfortable for us to show. Many residents are in legal limbo, they also have fears about retributions to their families back home. We are walking a fine line to show their lives while still protecting them.
We prepped today for our first day of shooting tomorrow, which will be in Athens. We met with Katerina Poutou, a woman who founded the NGO Arsis that does excellent work with refugees and has a passionate and very capable young staff. We hope to film some of their projects http://www.arsis.gr. Once you arrive on the page, click for an English version of their site. (more…)
At the beginning of February I got a phone call from my friend Bill Megalos in Los Angeles, asking me if I would like to make a documentary with him, about the refugees in Greece. I’ve known Bill since 1989, when I worked as his assistant for four years. We’ve stayed close friends and have worked on a number of projects around the world. We had had our first contact with the refugee crisis in 2015 when we covered it in Lesvos, for the International Rescue Committee.
Being in Greece gave me an advantage. I said yes right away and started to prep by calling friends.
The first was Matoula Papadimitriou, senior investigator for the Ombudsman for Children’s Rights in Greece. She started feeding me with information: the number of refugees, where they are located, what the situation is today and pointed me to the three sites we decided to visit. They are City Plaza in Athens, Thermopyles, and Hotel Rovies in Evia.
I visited City Plaza, a squatted abandoned hotel in downtown Athens, first and got the green light.
The second resource was Vicky Liondou, a journalist who helped open the door to the camp in central Greece located in Thermopyles. She introduced us to Ioanni Mouzala, the Minister of Immigration Policy. At that point, I started to believe that we might actually pull off this project.
The third location, Hotel Rovies, I found on my own and went to visit.
We decided to bring as part of our team Michel Bolsey, a journalist friend of Bill’s who had lived in Lebanon, travelled extensively in the Middle East and speaks Arabic. When Bill and Michel had booked their tickets, I started the scouting trip.
In Thermopyles, a camp administered by the prefecture of Central Greece, located in an old abandoned resort next to hot springs I found George Palamioti and Ari Soho running the show. On their desks were the nameplates Baba George, with a picture of a bear and Uncle Aris, with a picture of a dog, gifts of the 400 refugees living in the camp.
People were living 4-5 in a room in bunk beds, where they cooked their meals, passing their days in boredom waiting for their papers to move to the next country.
I drove next to Hotel Rovies, located in Rovies in northern Evia, a hotel that was rented by UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees) to house Syrian families on programs for relocation and reunification. There I met Antoni Grigorako from Solidarity Now, the NGO that administered the hotel. Previously he had been a volunteer in Piraeus in 2015 and 2016, when there were more than 5,000 people living in the port. Together with Andrea Vasiliou, the owner of the hotel, he works around the clock helping 100 refugees have a close to normal life in a safe environment.
We immediately clicked and I saw what a great job they were doing over the next two days.
Driving back to Athens, with these prime locations in my pocket, I realized that I had taken on the task of being a producer for a big project and actually was delivering what I had promised to the rest of the team. I was excited to share my scout experiences in our first skype conference call where I met Michel, whom I liked immediately.
Christos Stefanou, a coordinator of the educational program of Eleonas, a large refugee camp in Athens, with 2,000 inhabitants pointed us to the Tavros elementary school. Some children from the camp attend this school. Vicky again proved her value when she got the permit for us to visit Tavros from the Ministry of Education. Doors continued to open that I could not have imagined when we started.
George Moschos, the deputy ombudsman for children’s rights, agreed to give us an interview, along with Philippe Leclerc, the representative of UNHCR in Greece.
The day after the team arrived in Athens in the middle of May, the telephone rang. It was Katerina Poutou, the head of Arsis, an association for the social support of youth. I had been trying to get in contact with her for two months. We rushed to her office where we had a three-hour meeting with her and her staff and they promised to help us.
Tomorrow our journey begins without us knowing where it will end.