A volunteer’s account of two refugee camps, and how Athens anarchists provided a solution to a crisis in their city.
Humans move and drift and migrate for all kinds of reasons. From life to death we cross borders, thresholds and crossings and we hope for safe passage. People are travelling to flee chaos, poverty war and climate disasters and are boarding boats for south Europe they know could be their coffins. This is not a new problem as migrants have been drowning in the Mediterranean for decades. The warning signs of today’s disasters were there for a long time.
A friend of mine recently volunteered in Greece to help with the refugee crisis. I was struck by an emotional post he wrote on social media. “Dahlia with her infectious smile, even when she tells you how her husband has been in Germany for two years and she is stuck in Athens waiting to try to join him. I’ve seen children of aged eight regress themselves and behave like infants, just making animal sounds, as if regressing to a simpler more innocent time might help wipe away the things they saw. I remember Hamid, a greying frail old man from Iran waiting, praying and hoping for the magic ticket to go to join his wife in Norway. A frail old man shouldn’t live his life in a squat.”
I was also astonished by what he said about his contradictory experience of volunteering, with, in his opinion, the cobbled together shambles that is the response of governments and NGOs to a altogether different solution offered by Greek anarchists. This is Tiff Griffin’s tale.
A tale of two camps: the NGO camp
The first time I realised what I was about to face was when someone taking me to my classroom said to me; “Has anyone told you the children are quite violent?” Well no…no-one had told me anything because there has been no induction and no co-ordination of the volunteers. The volunteer leader always turned up an hour late for meetings like some Norah Batty figure in her dressing-gown with curlers in her hair.
I had showed up at this strange holiday camp that had been converted into a refugee centre. It was filthy with rubbish everywhere. It wasn’t a prison but it was isolated and there was nowhere for the residents to go.
At my first class all these angel-faced Syrian children were peeking through the windows and around the doors. Then I discovered the first problem when, despite the rules, they all trooped in with toddlers and younger siblings. It took me twenty minutes of the lesson just to send the children with the toddlers out. It was madness. I wondered where the parents were.
I am an experienced English teacher for refugees and asylum seekers in Glasgow but these classes were a nightmare. I had no-one to help with over forty children who were out of control because the parents kicked them out with the young ones early in the morning yet didn’t get out of bed till mid-morning . All the doors and windows were smashed or broken so the moment you threw any children out they were straight back in and there was nothing you could do about it. And they were violent, if anything started between them, it instantly escalated to full blown fighting.
The social and cultural bonds were utterly broken. The lack of respect for elders is out of place in Islamic culture and, whatever the rights or wrong of that, for a young Syrian Muslim girl to spit on an adult man tells you something. The parents had lost control of their lives and were institutionalised, depressed, some of them traumatised. They were infantalised, reduced to passively standing in queues waiting for handouts and food supplied by the Greek Navy that were basically pasta and about a tablespoon blob of tomato sauce. This was the refugee racket of the EU grant chain. The EU gives the Greek government four euros per refugee and these meals must have cost the Greek Navy about 50 cents each. The food and the trays were thrown everywhere…I can only imagine it’s like in prison where the inmates throw their food on the walls as the only way to show defiance. I was depressed by the food and I had only been there three days. The NGO leaders never seemed to wonder or ask why the food trays were being thrown about..
Nothing happened until mid-morning because Norah Batty was asleep, and then we all stopped work at 3 pm. The volunteers were miserable and bored because nothing was being achieved. What was shocking was that two charities ran this camp but they never met to discuss anything and I am fairly sure they never sat and ate with the refugees or asked them what they wanted, or how they could help make the camp a better place. There was no specialist skills or real organisation. My offer to help the teachers in the other charity was never passed on even though I later discovered they were desperate. The refugees hated the place; for them it was temporary before they could move and build their lives. They just couldn’t or wouldn’t accept they were stuck. You could tell the affect the camp was having on people because when we took the children for a trip to the beach they were much better behaved and much happier.
There were some amusing moments though. Like trying to explain to a volunteer that for children who had arrived via a traumatising Mediterranean crossing maybe building a play boat was not a good idea. Or discovering that I could access the wi-fi of the local Greek navy base because it turned out they don’t bother with passwords! So I sat by their office, streamed the Old Firm football match on my laptop and introduced a bunch of Aleppo boys fleeing sectarian strife to the joys of Glaswegian sectarianism.
But after four days I couldn’t take the camp anymore. I left and made my way to Athens to find something entirely different.
A tale of two camps (or an abandoned hotel): the anarchists solution
I was a bit nervous about going to Exarchia, a neigbourhood of Athens. It’s infamous for leftwing politics, anti-austerity riots and burning down banks. Greek friends told me it was far too dangerous to go, there was too much violence and crime, too many anarchists burning cars.
Within a couple of hours of arriving in Athens I was walking through Exarchia’s dark streets. They were full of anti-capitalist graffiti and had a real energy about them. There seemed to be meetings going on everywhere. I found the address for my contact which turned out to be an abandoned hotel. It seemed quiet until I stumbled onto the roof and there was a party happening with a mix of anarchists, refugees and volunteers. It was a happy atmosphere with children bouncing on knees. A boy from Aleppo was cheered on as he joyfully played air guitar to an AC/DC track on a water tank. I thought: this is just superb. The refugees sang traditional Aleppo songs and I represented Scotland with a bit of King Creosote.
I found out that Omonia Square, one of the main squares in Athens, was once a sea of desperate refugees sleeping rough. The square is not so bad now although when I passed through there was the grim sight of African women offering sex for food. The government couldn’t or wouldn’t do anything so the anarchists came and took the refugees back to Exarchia where there are all these buildings abandoned because of the 2008 crash. They took over the hotel, cleaned up the place and illegally hooked up to the utilities. But after that the anarchists, of course used to communal squat living, said to the refugees you need to sort yourself out. You need to sort out security because this building might get attacked by fascists. You need to sort out kitchen shifts because no-one’s here to cook for you. So they did. The anarchists buy the food cheap from Greek wholesalers so it benefits the local economy and not the government. The squats also refuse money from governments and NGOs because they say it complicates and corrupts things. They even put sign on their front doors.
I was amazed. It was like night and day with the NGO camp. The hotel was clean, well run and the children were much better behaved. The parents were in control and getting up at 8.30 am. The volunteers worked, cooked and ate alongside the refugees together in solidarity and the food was healthy, traditional Syrian and Greek food. I taught children that were much better behaved and I had support from the parents. I was exhausted and my hands were blistered from cutting for carrots for 400 people and I loved it. I was achieving something.
The squats in Exarchia are not all happy communal living. The refugees are still in a precarious transient state of living. There are tit for tat murders with Golden Dawn, the Greek far right movement. The squats and the refugees are also vulnerable to traffickers and mafia groups, especially those still owing smuggling fees and whose families are under threat.
Nor is it just about the suffering of refugees. Greece is in a real mess. I saw middle class Greeks in suits going through the bins. I met many young Greeks, Spaniards and other Europeans who are just lost. They have suffered most from austerity and have no jobs, no home and not much of a future.
But I was inspired by what was possible and how people can break a loop and sort things out. There’s no easy solution but when I look back I’ll be grateful I did what I could.
I will probably return later in the year and hopefully I won’t see any of those people such as Dahlia or Hamid again because they will have moved on and started re-building their lives.
Further information and reading
Where on Earth are you? – a brilliant a brilliant and powerful essay on the journeys, crossing and security.