A place of peace in a land of crisis

I’m in the basement of a building which from the outside looks like any other Athenian flat. A woman named Sotiria is giving me a guided tour when suddenly three people stand before me, surrounded by piles of garments in a dimly-lit room. When asking them what they think of the volunteer group, called Mirmigki, all of them get a puzzled look on their faces. They then answer: ”We are the Mirmigki. They help, and we help”.

Mirmigki is a solidarity meeting group which has been active since 2012, in a time right in the middle of the Economic crisis. The group’s headquarters is located in Kipseli – an Athenian neighbourhood with immigrants and refugees from all over the world. The volunteers collect food from the supermarkets every Saturday to give to the people who need it, and they also give away clothes that other people have donated. Occasionally they organise movie nights or bazaars which are free for anyone to join, and they make sure to choose their films carefully so that they have good political messages. At this particular moment they’re helping around 500 families in Athens.

Since the minute I arrived in the flat I’ve had a hard time identifying the volunteers. I’m sitting down in a café area, with the radio playing softly in the background. It’s quite small and there are people walking in and out of the bright room in a high tempo. I’m surrounded by 20, maybe 30 people from different countries who are all there for the same reason – to collect free food and clothes from the weekly distribution. One of them is circulating the flat with a piece of cardboard which has a list of names on it. He reads out the names in a loud voice whenever it’s someone elses turn to pick up their own clothes- and food-bag. A young boy who stands near the door to the office, where the distributions take place, acts like a translator for some of the people who don’t speak Greek. Other people are heading down to the basement to help organise the donations.

Suddenly a man in his 20s walks up to me and introduces himself as Thomas Menidiatis. When I express my fascination over the fact that everyone in the room seems to be getting along so well he nods and says: ”Except the food that we distribute and the clothes, we also want to pass a bigger message. A political message that all people are equal, and we’re trying to get them to understand the concept of solidarity, that they can help us too.”

Thomas explains with a lot of enthusiasm that this is the reason why they’re called Mirmigki, and then points towards the white wall opposite us where several silvery ants are painted. Mirmigki is Greek for ant, and since ants work together as a group, Thomas and his friends thought it was suitable to name the solidarity group Mirmigki.

What Thomas and Mirmigki are doing isn’t unusual in Greece at this point of time at all. In fact, there are hundreds of similar groups, whether they are non-profit, volunteer-runned or non-Governmental. There are groups to help refugees, to give free education for children and groups which provide people with basic needs like food or clothes, like Mirmigki. This is a positive outcome of the Economic crisis, which was a result of the Global Financial Crisis in 2008. Since the major consequences of the crisis involve massive unemployment and poverty, volunteer groups started forming quickly.

Sotiria says: ”In every crisis situation the thing that people do is actually face it, especially when the state doesn’t do anything about it, or just do so little that the people who are affected can’t go on with their lives. The thing that people do and what we do is stand together. We stand together as a whole and try to make the best of the situation, help each other and communicate mostly. That’s the biggest step there is.”

Even if Mirmigki is one of many groups which are helping people in Athens, something makes them stand out from the crowd. I’m struck by the amazingly kind atmosphere, where everyone, no matter what background or age, are engaging and helping in some way. A boy sits peacefully next to me and plays with his new toy from his mothers newly picked-up donation bag, his eyes are sparkling and he occasionally lifts his head and gives me the biggest smile. When I start talking to the woman next to me, she tells me the same thing I was told from the people in the basement: ”No one works here”. I look around and realise that is it. I’ve hard a hard time identifying the staff since I got here. Everyone seems to help in one way or another, and by doing this, the concept of solidarity shines through in an almost unrealistic way.

After discussing this with Sotiria, she says people who are part of Mirmigki have a relationship with each other and with the volunteers. They don’t just come there, pick up their donation bags and leave. They respect each other and open up to eachother, but not immediately.

”It’s really hard to get them involved and you can’t expect that immediately. You can’t expect from a refugee to come from another country with nothing and then be there for you and have a strong relation in Mirmigki. But it’s the biggest step there is, because people who come here, they don’t get involved immediately, but they know that there is another way of doing things, of coping.”

Sotiria is one of the volunteers who’s doing the food distribution this evening. Together with Thomas and their other friends, they have built a cheerful, friendly team and I’m constantly impressed by their enthusiasm and intimate relationship with all the people in the flat. They’re all in their mid twenties, and once in a while they all make sure that I still understand the idea that no one actually works at Mirmigki. It’s clear that they have a personal relationship with most people in the room. They sit down next to the people, catch up and joke with them in Greek. Sotiria and Thomas tell me that the group of people do solidarity economy – an alternative economy which does not involve money at all – just solidarity efforts to support people. This is part of the positive results that has grown out from the economic crisis. The people of Mirmigki also keep their message strong by participating in political movements such as demonstrations and strikes.

When I’m asking Thomas how he has been affected personally by the economic crisis he says: ”I finished the university and I was searching about eight, nine months for a job. I just found a job but the wage is too low. .

”They’re telling us that things are getting better but we don’t see it. The people continue to need help, to starve, they don’t have jobs.”

While the last few people are picking up their bags of donations, Sotiria is setting up the movie projector for the film night. It’s half past nine in the evening, and it’s getting darker outside. The room, which was a café and waiting area only half an hour ago, is now transformed to a small cinema. When the lights are turned off and the screening starts, a peaceful silence unites the people, who calmly sip their drinks. For a moment I forget that this group was born in a massive crisis, it just feels like people are hanging out. In a country where the a crisis like this has been ongoing for over ten years, to provide a neighbourhood with a space of solidarity might be exactly what people need. I’m still curious about something though: Is the climate improving at all?

Sotiria says: ”The first few years were a huge shock, i think that in the last few years, we have learned to live with it. We don’t expect much. There are many solidarity projects and many places like Mirmigki, but that doesn’t mean that the whole community is involved in all that.

I think that many of us are just resting on that thing and that it has become some kind of routine, that’s all.”