There are now around 55,000 people stranded in Greece as a result of Europe’s failed response to the so-called migration crisis – and many refugees are losing hope. Many languish in camps dotted across the Greek islands, and others have decided to stay in Turkey rather than face the bleak conditions in Europe.
But there is a new accommodation project in Athens called City Plaza which is providing refugees with much-needed hope. City Plaza is a disused seven-storey hotel near Victoria Square, which has been occupied by the Economic and Political Refugee Solidarity Initiative. The hotel has been closed for business for around seven years, but the building remains fully equipped and is now being used to house nearly 400 people who arrived to Greece from Turkey in the past year.
Unlike the accommodation provided by the United Nations and its partners, people at City Plaza are not chosen on the basis of their vulnerable status or nationality. The people accommodated on site were purposefully chosen not according to whether they qualified for relocation, and questions about why people migrated were not a factor in identifying those to be accommodated. Instead, attention was paid to ensuring a mix of nationalities, a gender balance, and a combination of religious beliefs.
When I visited in May 2016 there were about 400 residents, including around 20 single parents, six single men, ten unaccompanied minors, four people with extreme disabilities, several pregnant women and three newborn babies. All had to agree to abide by a basic set of rules, such as not drinking alcohol on the premises or acting in a violent way toward others. They also had to agree to participate in the daily activities of the collective, such as cooking and cleaning.
City Plaza is not funded by any external agencies and relies on donations and fundraising. Decisions in City Plaza are made on a collective process which occurs through different assemblies that are held on a regular basis. Each resident agrees on entry to participate fully in the community based on respect for each person regardless of gender and religious or ethnic backgrounds.
Building a community
Though clearly the process of deciding who gets to stay at City Plaza is a difficult one, the activists involved in setting up the site deliberately select a combination of people who require additional support and those who could provide it, such as teachers and translators. This reflects a broader ethos within City Plaza: recognising that people are facing precarious situations but trying to avoid defining their existence according to their vulnerability.
By contrast with the charitable and sometimes victim-centric ethos of many organisations working in the area, the aim is to build a culture of mutual respect. The idea is that residents will then feel able to go out from City Plaza and find their own way forward in the city.
“We don’t want to make a ghetto within the city – even if it is a nice ghetto”, Nasim Lomani, a refugee from Afghanistan who is a long-standing resident of the city, tells me. City Plaza aims to be a place where people on the move in precarious situations can begin to rebuild their lives without being constrained by their status or vulnerabilities.
Clearly City Plaza is just one site and does not meet the needs of the up to 55,000 stranded people in Greece. Indeed, this is precisely why the activist collective seeks to do more than simply provide support to those within the re-used hotel. Members of the collective also work on refugee projects beyond the building.
“We can’t solve the problem”, Lomani tells me, “but we can be ready [to act in solidarity with refugees] when we are needed”. City Plaza has already inspired projects elsewhere, including a temporary residential facility, HOOST, in the east of Amsterdam.
City Plaza offers an alternative to camps – and it appears to be incredibly effective for those whose lives it touches. Many of the people I spoke to living in City Plaza explained how even though they are frustrated at being stuck in Greece, they are in the best place they can be given the circumstances. Having visited several camps in Athens during my visit in May, I can only agree.
Of course City Plaza would be difficult to scale up. Government agencies can’t replicate this model for some migrants according to the same criteria as the collective, while leaving the rest behind in camps. But when we think about the squalid camps that tend to represent Europe’s current approach, the question has to be asked as to whether there is a different way to deal with this problem. Couldn’t the many disused buildings, not only in Athens but across various European cities, be used to foster collective living in a similar way to City Plaza?