Η Λαϊκή Συνέλευση Εξαρχείων μαζί με τους ταλαιπωρημένους κατοίκους προσπαθεί να οριοθετήσει την ελευθερία της απόλαυσης του δημόσιου χώρου στη γειτονιά. Από τις πολλές κίτρινες πινακίδες που μπήκαν σε κολόνες σε διάφορα σημεία παρέμειναν προς το παρόν δυο...
Μπήκαν και κάδοι στη Θεμιστοκλέους και στη Δερβενίων, και παγκάκια στην Πλατεία. Οι κάδοι είναι κομψοί αλλά μένει να αποδειχτεί πόσο θα αντέξουν στις πιέσεις χρήσης.
Ο Δήμος αλλάζει τις σακούλες τους. Δυστυχώς τις τελευταίες πολύ ζεστές μέρες δε μαζεύει τα σκουπίδια.
The banner announces another squat in Methonis Str. in Exarchia. (Photo taken in June 2016)
Housing refugees in Athens before City Plaza:
the case study of the abandoned houses in the southern neighborhoods of Nea
Smyrni and Asyrmatos, squatted by Kurdish refugees (1999-2003) and some
parallels with the squatted housing for refugees today.
Georgakopoulou, architect/independent researcher, participant in ThisIsACoop.
I am happy to be here today anticipating an
interesting discussion on the most central and urgent matter of this Biennale:
the so-called “migratory crisis” and more specifically the new conditions that
arise in European cities from the arrival of migrants/refugees.
Right now, in Exarchia, the most politicized
neighborhood in the center of Athens,
where I live, every day brings news about another squat in one of the numerous
abandoned houses that will house refugees and activists alike, the latter often
of Western and Central-European origin. It’s safe to say that a different
landscape is being formed within a city where until very recently housing
squats were rare, especially when involving refugees.
And yet there is a precedent and I plan to talk about
it today. In doing so I will draw from my experience as a member of an NGO, the
now defunct Voluntary Work of Athens,
back in the late ‘90s, when I met with Kurdish refugees who had squatted empty
and abandoned houses in the southern neighborhoods of Asyrmatos and Nea Smyrni
(where I lived at the time).
In the beginning of the ‘90s Greece had
already met with the massive influx of Albanian “economy refugees” who
dispersed all over the country taking every unclaimed hard job in agriculture
and construction business. The Albanians, predominantly young males, didn’t
squat but managed to assimilate and towards the end of the decade to bring
their families and benefit from the new legislation procedure.
Tracing the route the Kurdish refugees followed at the
time in order to settle in the low-income area of Asyrmatos and its affluent
neighbor of Nea Smyrni (1), is revealing.
But, where did this route begin and in which political
Since the mid ‘90s
there have been Kurdish refugees, mostly from Iraq, predominantly young men, at
the camps of Ayios Andreas and Palaia Penteli, 35 km and 20 km respectively north
of Athens, living in bad conditions, invisible to the city except for the
comparatively few immediate neighbors who protested sporadically against their
presence but also helped materially somehow.
As you may not know Greece maintained for many years an
ambiguous, to say the least, policy towards migrants and refugees. So as a
result, with the exception of one formal reception center in Lavrio, some 60 km
south from Athens,
the aforementioned camps were tolerated but not acknowledged. Even to PASOK,
the social democratic ruling party, that had expressed solidarity with the
Kurdish struggle for freedom, the camps were eventually an embarrassment and were closed or under-operating
starting from 1998. A growing number of these now homeless refugees came to the
center of Athens
and squatted Koumoundourou Sq. near the City Hall where a municipal
soup-kitchen was operating.
All of a sudden the refugees became visible and their
camp a must-visit attraction for the locals before heading to Psyrri, a nearby
old neighborhood under gentrification, and center of the booming “leisure
industry” at the time of the pre-Olympic euphoria. Surely there were many
organizations and volunteers who helped in many ways but as the Christmas
season of 1998 was approaching it became obvious that a police sweeping
operation was to be expected.
At this point I can’t help but recall the Syrian
families who squatted Syntagma Sq. on Nov. 2014, highlighted the Syrian drama and
were removed by mid December just in time for the festive season to kick off.
So in the beginning of 1999
the Kurds moved from the center of the city to somehow less conspicuous areas.
Asyrmatos is near Dafni, also a low-income neighborhood where since the ‘70s
Asian migrants have found affordable housing. Both areas, as well as the upper
part of Nea Smyrni that adjoins them, were at the time characterized by small,
therefore not-worthy-to-develop plots, with architecturally insignificant
houses up to two floors, most of them quite old and neglected – and often
In the beginning some twenty Kurds squatted the
abandoned containers that were in the empty building plot adjacent to a school
complex in Asyrmatos. The plot was owned by the state-owned OSK (School
Buildings Organization) and despite the constant demands of the residents,
instead of hosting a much needed new school, had become a construction debris
and garbage site. Soon the number of the refugees was approaching two hundred
and the local papers were on fire reporting complains: the refugees allegedly spreaded
disease, scared school children and harassed young girls.
When the residents started blocking the street in
front of the makeshift camp it was time for the 3 involved mayors (of Dafni,
Nea Smyrni and Ayios Dimitrios where Asyrmatos belonged to) to cooperate with
the Deputy Minister of Public Order.
Miraculously at the same time OSK announced the
construction of the school complex that had been claimed for twenty years. In
the beginning of 2000 the excavations for the new buildings began while the
refugees were still on the premises. In the end the camp was dismantled when
the riot police was called and the refugees left without protest to disperse
over the wider area.
Since 1999 the Social Services of the Municipality of Nea Smyrni were trying to locate the
owners of the abandoned houses that the refugees had already started to squat,
in order to rent them. The VWA worked with the
only social worker of the local KAPE (Open Centers for the Protection of Senior
Citizens) in order to compile a catalogue of the abandoned houses and organized
weekly visits. Usually the visiting team consisted of a social worker, a health
worker (both employed by the VWA), one or two volunteer members and an
immigrant translator (also a volunteer). The idea was to meet with the
refugees, write down their problems and facilitate their interaction with the
neighborhood. Generally neighbors were tolerant with some of them even
volunteering to share electricity, bring clothes or food. There have been a few
violent incidents mostly with Albanians who were by then the established majority
among the immigrants.
The refugees were usually open and eager to make
contact with our teams although they lived in very bad conditions, crammed up
from 8 to 22 people in 3 rooms and with very little money since only 4 or 5,
who could find heavy and unskilled work, supported the rest. The most common
problem was sanitation because the houses were used as collective dumpsters
particularly for bulky items, before the refugees came. Social Services
reconnected the water, provided the houses with cleaning supplies and removed
the garbage, something critical, mostly during the hot summer months. Almost
everybody was suffering from skin diseases while those with chronic health
problems were referred to the Doctors of the World, usually accompanied by a
volunteer or translator.
In reality though the biggest frustration among
refugees was being stuck in Greece
and not being able to continue their travel to Western
Europe. As long as they couldn’t obtain residence permits
they would remain marginalized and at the mercy of police in the event of
identification, also at the hands of their employers.
Our teams were trying to assist in many practical ways
but after all there were few things we could do and often the feeling of
inability to help was overwhelming. Furthermore the mobility of refugees made
the maintenance of contact almost impossible and this had a serious impact to
any lasting improvement of their living arrangements.
Not all squatted houses were open to our teams’
visits. A few had a reputation of being under the control of traffickers and
for reasons of safety were “off-limits”. Possibly the same people controlled
the access of refugees to work by establishing an informal job market along a
specific street where employers would pick up workers among the refugees who
waited in line.
All in all the limited efforts of the “center-left” Municipality of Nea Smirni, although strictly within the
humanitarian scope, provoked the ultra conservative local papers just before
In the end the Kurdish “problem” got “solved” almost
by accident. As the mayor of Nea Smyrni proposed restrictive measures regarding
new building licences, his effort to curb the appetite for residential hi-rises
up to 12 floors, backfired. Even landlords who until then were indifferent or
unwilling to “develop”, rushed to build and soon almost all the abandoned
houses were demolished while apartment buildings sprouted in their place.
At this point I’ll try to focus on certain aspects
outlining the few similarities as well as the many more differences between the
squats of Kurdish refugees and the squats now.
Recently the demand for refugee housing within the
urban fabric found its place on posters propagating demonstration marches,
actions and events for refugees, next to other mainstay demands. This is
crucial indeed. In both cases the location of the squatted houses was proved and
is essential in order to include refugees in the daily routine of the city and
thus achieve a minimum of normalcy. In order to do so the positive interaction
with the immediate environment is very important otherwise the squatted houses
will end segregated from, or even worse, targeted by their neighborhoods.
This takes time though and that’s what the young and
easy to move Kurds couldn’t or wouldn’t afford on their way to their countries
of destination. On the other hand extended refugee families today find it
increasingly difficult and expensive to travel. They have risked everything so
far and now they may be forced to stay in Greece indefinitely. This restriction
of movement though, abhorrent as it is, it may allow for a prolonged period of
adjustment for both sides.
Attitudes towards both groups also differ
significantly: the group of young Kurds was perceived as “tough” to deal with,
while the refugee families are more easily accepted mainly because of the children.
One can never stress enough how crucial it is to provide a safe environment,
health care and education for children refugees. The City Plaza Hotel squat for
example hosts approximately four hundred people and almost half of them are
children. A couple of weeks ago it was announced that forty children were
enrolled to elementary schools in the vicinity of the hotel, a first step in
the right direction (2). Still, until recently the deprived area was regarded
as a hotbed for racism and the neo-Nazis of the Golden Dawn party.
The defining difference lies in my opinion in the
political approach: while the Kurdish refugees were addressed institutionally
(through the Social Services of the Municipality) or from a humanitarian point
of view (the VWA), today’s activism, often radical, has risen to the challenge,
tackling the emergencies and at the same time offering an operative model which
is clearly anti-hierarchical and mutually emancipatory, in principle at least
As I mentioned in the beginning more and more squats
for housing refugees in Athens
accept gracefully the physical presence and especially the material support of
the so-called “voluntourists” and/or “holidarians” (4). These activist tourists
arriving from their Western and Central European countries mean well and
provide short-term relief for the stressed solidarity structures they came to
help, even when occasionally overzealous: there have been at least two squats initiated
by foreign activists in Exarchia, in old houses deemed possibly unsafe for both
activists and refugees. On top of that, one of them attracted the riot police’s
On another level the “revolutionary” buzz that is
generated in the city brings more conventional tourists who want to experience
the excitement from a safety distance, benefits the economy/state, and paves
the way for more gentrification.
Among all squats City Plaza
-by no means the first; it started on the 22/4, that is less than three months
ago- got so much publicity worldwide that while this may shield it from
attacks, one wonders how all people involved can handle the pressure. There is
no way to compare the lucky guests of City Plaza
to the Kurdish and Syrian refugees at their makeshift camps, and yet there is a
degree of exposure as so much is at stake.
Although it may seem risky I reckon that in the
current state of “Fortress Europe” these efforts of the solidarity movementcould
serve as a new paradigm.It may look fragile,
teetering on the verge of collapse, but every day that it holds on, makes its
cohesive action stronger, its immediate and greater influence more prevalent.
I guess we could consider this paradigm the glue that
holds together the shredded fabric of a society in a state of ongoing crisis, sealing the cracks where racism and
fascism could spring from anytime.
That said I’ll try now to sum up my talk going back to
those thirteen-year conclusions and expand on them. I must confess that it’s
somehow unsettling to revisit one’s proposals, and realize that they seem more
than ever up-to-date, which of course means that they remained a wish-list whereas
the political landscape got much bleaker.
The introduction of a self-organized Housing Network of
reclaimed abandoned houses for homeless and refugees owes its inception to the
VWA and personally to Spyros Psychas.
Since the ‘80s the center of Athens had been quietly emptying from the
inside only to gain momentum after the Olympics. When the crisis hit the
country, a whole trove of deserted state buildings, closed stores and business
spaces was added to those empty residences. The fading to black was
counterbalanced only by the spreading of self-organized open spaces, rented or
squatted, downtown as well as in the neighborhoods. After the Squares’ movement
retreated it was the collectives behind such initiatives who defended the
public character of the city against degradation and “development”.
Among the abandoned houses in the center of Athens, often of
considerable architectural merit, a special reference needs to be made
regarding the impressive residential complex of Alexandras Av., built in 1936
in order to house in eight units and two hundred and twenty eight apartments, refugees
of that lost Greek war of 1922. Although it is a mature work of Modern Movement
and witness of the city’s historic memory, lack of maintenance and neglect made
of it a perfect candidate for demolition. Specifically six out of eight units
would have been flattened long ago to make way for more profitable investments
if not for a residents’ petition that was supported by the Architectural school of Athens. Finally in 2000 the whole
complex was registered as a listed monument. Nevertheless only fifty one
apartments were occupied when the “displaced of the city”, the refugees (from Afghanistan, Syria, African countries) the
homeless and the unemployed moved in. In 2011 the Assembly of Squatted Refugee
Settlements started operating a collective kitchen, a bakery and a health
structure. Since 2014 one hundred and thirty eight
apartments have been transferred to TAIPED (Hellenic Republic
Asset Development Fund SA) and put up for sale. The
integrity of the settlement complex is once more in danger and soon residents
and activists may have to join forces in protest (5).
The state of decay that characterizes almost all of
the abandoned buildings would be motive enough for the architects and engineers
to step-in and offer their expertise. The architectural profession is still in
shock due to the free fall of the building sector since the crisis and
unemployment is rampant. What better way to rehabilitate ourselves than
expressing solidarity to refugees by undertaking collectively the initiative to
transform those empty shells into homes, create open and functional social
spaces, and benefit our city?
1.Interestingly enough Nea Smyrni
originated as a garden-city plan catering to wealthy migrants from Smyrna (today the Turkish Izmir), after the Greeks lost the war against
the Turks back in 1922
As borders close and public hostility in onward countries mounts, Greece will be forced to acknowledge proposals for the semi-permanent/permanent housing of refugees. If we manage to avoid ghettoisation, as a result of failed integration models, and we opt for inclusion instead, we may be able to bet on a hopeful, rather than ominous, immediate future.
from the Roof Tactics! project by Maria Kassola-Foteini Georgakopoulou for This Is A Co-op
Σκηνή στο δώμα της κατάληψης της Δερβενίων που συγκεντρώνει προμήθειες για πρόσφυγες και λειτουργεί συλλογική κουζινα.
Απαίτηση για κατοίκηση προσφύγων μέσα στον αστικό ιστό.