City Plaza and Behfar

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.

Skaramagkas and Danesh

All the places we have visited so far have been quite humane and impressive to us, in terms of the compassionate staff and the conditions. We have heard that the government camps are less inviting, especially the ones on the islands. Since February, we have been seeking permission to visit a camp and now, at the end of our trip, we are being allowed inside Eleona camp in an industrial neighborhood of Athens. Our permission was only granted at the last minute, so just to be safe, we visited Skaramagkas (pronounced Skaramangas, with the accent on the last syllable.) It is located in a naval base outside Athens, near the port of Piraeus.

We knew that we wouldn’t be allowed in the camp, but went planning to talk with residents as they entered or left the camp and we found three willing to talk with us. Here’s a little on Danesh, a Kurd from northern Iraq.

Danesh made the trip with his wife and children and is quite the entrepreneur. Unsatisfied with the food in the camp, he set up his own restaurant inside the camp, offering a wide variety of middle eastern food. The camp has a five star review and shows up on Google Maps!

Here are some photos of Danesh and his children and the flag he is holding is the flag of Kurdistan, which I believe was made in the camp, as the flag normally has a sun with rays, his version has a circle.

Danesh has applied for relocation, has been interviewed and accepted and is waiting for his tickets. When applying for relocation, refugees are asked for their first choice (which is in no way guaranteed, they must accept any country they are accepted by.) The authorities must have been surprised when he chose Estonia (which has accepted him and his family.)  He explains his reasoning here.

Danesh from Bill Megalos on Vimeo.



Welcommon and Sayam

We visited Welcommon, a shelter in the middle of Athens run by an NGO catering to refugees. Welcommon refurbished a large public health clinic that had been shuttered due to the economic crisis. Guests are selected by the UNCHR in its relocation program with priority given to vulnerable groups, such as pregnant women, families with children, and the elderly. Here is their website.

We visited Welcommon with George Moschos, who was there in his capacity as Ombudsman for Children’s Rights. We spoke with Nikos Chrysogelos, the head of the shelter and two of the residents. In this post, I’d like to talk about Sayam.

Sayam is an Iraqi Kurd in her mid-twenties who was unique among the refugees we have met. First of all, she did not flee war, or sectarian violence, per se. Growing up in a secular family, she always had support from her parents, which she describes movingly in the clip below. She left Iraq to escape pressure from uncles and the society at large to be a subservient woman. She felt that only in Europe could she achieve her dreams and escape the oppression that she felt. She travelled alone and made it to Greece where she made friends and was living in squats. She recently found out about Welcommon and applied and is now living there, repaying her housing and food by volunteering as a translator. As you can hear, her English is excellent and she conducted an interview in Arabic for us with another resident, which I hope to post soon. She is planning to stay in Greece and is now taking acting lessons in addition to pursuing which she describes in this clip.

Sayam from Bill Megalos on Vimeo.

What Does Austerity Look Like? (Part Two)

What does austerity look like? (Part Two)

There’s another, disarmingly simple way into the austerity story. Yesterday, walking up one of the neighborhood’s main commercial streets, I noticed I’d just passed several empty storefronts in succession. Empty storefronts aren’t unusual, but three or four in a row caught my attention. I realized that I’d been walking by these places for the last three weeks without understanding their significance. I decided to walk the immediate neighborhood and try to get a sense of how many places were out of business.

What I discovered astounded me. It’s easy, in the bustle of a street full of pedestrians, with Athens’ crazy traffic and 6″ wide sidewalks, to never notice what you’re passing. When you look more carefully, what you find is stunning.

Zafiri’s neighborhood, Xalandri, is among the wealthiest areas of Athens. Proportionally, it has suffered far less than most from the effects of austerity. Yet, even in Xalandri, the effects are enormous. Here are some photographs that encompass an area equivalent to about 3 or 4 U.S. city blocks:

Austerity in Greece is hundreds of thousands or millions of people with no hope for today and no expectation of a better tomorrow. It is towns and cities with shuttered, empty businesses on every block. Greece has always been a nation of small shopkeepers and entrepreneurs. Other than the big shipping empires, it has almost no big industry, no multinational headquarters, no vast industrial zones. Austerity has preferentially killed these small economic engines, reduced their owners to penury, and, in doing so, hollowed out the Greek economy from inside. The shell still glitters, but the hopes of millions of families for a better future – the hopes that underpinned the whole thing – have been dashed.

I’m not an economist, but to me this defies common sense. It seems intuitively obvious to me that reducing a country to poverty is not a policy likely to ensure the repayment of debts. Destituting a large part of a country’s population, the vast majority of whom have had no connection with the economic problems that led to the crisis, looks to me like a form of economic warfare with untold numbers of innocent casualties.

When I arrived in Greece three weeks ago I couldn’t really find the signs of austerity. Three weeks later, they’re inescapable.

UNHCR Philippe Leclerc

When we started thinking about who to interview for this project, Philippe Leclerc, United Nations High Commission for Refugees was near the top of our list. A lawyer by training, Mr. Leclerc has worked with UNHCR for over 25 years and assumed his position as representative in Greece in late 2015, so he has been involved in the refugee crisis here since the beginning and was able to give us important background info, as well as telling us about the current situation and practices.

Mr. Leclerc was affable and had an impressive command of the entire landscape. His answer were thoughtful and complete. He gave us a lengthy and wide-ranging interview wherein we discussed refugees movements of the past century, the agreement reached by the E.U. the special issues involving unaccompanied minors, the responses of the Greek government and the Greek people and what our responsibilities are to refugees. Here is a small taste:

Philippe Leclerc from Bill Megalos on Vimeo.

Much of the work we have seen has been supported and/or administered by UNHCR. All of it has come about during his tenure and he oversees all the programs.