Fighting for freedom

Almost at the end of the blue metro line in Athens,  we find Eleonas. It’s on the same line of metro that many tourists take everyday to go to the International Airport of Athens. In this area, Eleonas Refugees Camp was built as a temporary place to stay for those refugees that, luckily, could stay in the mainland. The opportunities to escape from there are limited and dangerous. The lack of money,  asylum papers problems and the increasing racism have created a smothering environment. Is Greece still a comfortable place to stay? The Athens neighborhood of Exarchia has the answer.

Eleonas refugees camp is pretty close to the city of Athens. In less than 20 minutes anybody could go there and see how sandy and dusty the neighborhood has become. Eleonas, as a city zone, is known for its cement and scrappy plants. All the dust comes from the streets, which are not paved. Everyday, thousands of trucks and cars use these streets to get in the factories, creating a dusty cloud that can bother and disorient you. 1500 refugees are stuck in the middle of this noisy and dirty chaos.

The camp is guarded by two police officers. They are just there to keep the place safe, as there is is no police control over the camp. Eleonas camp is self-organized by refugees and volunteers, using a list to control who comes in and why. There is no list to control who comes out. A rusty European Union sign welcome you to the camp.

Eleonas neighborhood :: Àlex Llorca 

Eleonas camp is divided between the NGO’s zone and the residence zone. In this last part of the camp, some barracks work as shared houses where refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya live together and try to rest despite the heat. Temperatures are as high as 30ºC between April and September, according to climate data. Eleonas has been welcoming refugees since 2007 when the United States started sending waves of soldiers to Iraq, turning the war more violent . Originally, the camp was settled to protect 500 people as European Expression NGO admits. Now, that number has tripled. This organization is in charge of the education of the children that live in the camp. These kids go to three different schools near to the camp where they learn English and Greek. There is also a kindergarten inside the camp for those who need it.

For the United Nations in Greece “there are no refugees camps,” as Leo Dobbs, media officer, explains. Eleonas is conceived as an “open accommodation centre” where refugees wait to hear about the asylum applications. These applications used to get stuck because, as the EU Common European Asylum System (CEAS) laws present, only those refugees who had been “directly affected by the war” could get the asylum papers. This would allow them to work, to find a place to stay and move on. This clause provokes that refugees from countries like Iraq, Libya or Turkey (which are not in war nowadays) being trapped in RICs (Reception and Identification Centres) or open accommodation Centres for years.

Eleonas Main Street :: Àlex Llorca

Ram is a refugee from Syria and he has been living in Eleonas since 2016. He does not speak a word of English but, with the help of an anonymous European Expression volunteer, he explains that everybody there is free to go wherever and whenever they want. As a refugee, he knows Exarchia pretty well. Some of his closest friends are there, but Ram explains, looking, disillusioned to the ground, that he cannot leave. The problem with Ram’s situation is that even if they could leave the camp, they cannot do it because one of the biggest problems in Greece is unemployment, which comes with the lack of money. Athens Council created an office in Eleonas to give everybody a job but, when the economic crisis happened in 2008, refugees became the last ones to get employed. According to the latest data, unemployment  has decreased from 27% to 24% this year, but these results have not affected the refugee community yet, as NGOs like European Expression and Project Elea confirm. This leaves people like Ram stuck in these camps waiting for an opportunity to get out of the barracks and, escape the camp.

With these prospects, the number of refugees has been decreasing since 2015. In that year more than one million refugees crossed the Turkish border to stay in Greece. Now, that number is around 5000 refugees, as United Nations predicts. The pact between the European Union and Turkey creates even more obstacles to get in Europe. With this deal, the European Union, Turkey and Greece agreed that every refugee or migrant who reach the Greek islands by the Aegean Sea illegally would be deported to Turkey.

Athens horizon :: Àlex Llorca

The original plan was designed by Germany and it included a mainland route which connects Greece and Germany across Europe. This plan, as Yiannis Babulias, journalist for the Guardian and Al-Jazeera, describes as having a “flip side.” Every country involved in the route started closing their borders as a demand of the right and far-right policies. Countries as Austria and Serbia, for instance, started a conservative reaction, applying policies to over-control immigration. These kind of policies are very rooted in Greece with parties as Golden Dawn (fourth most voted party in 2015), ANEL (in coalition with Syriza) or New Democracy (major opposition). This paradigm introduces a new space for racism and xenophobia. “They are feeling more comfortable, they can attack now because they feel themselves legitimized,” tells Baboulias.

Even in welcoming places like Exarchia, “self-organized far right groups” have been attacking squatted buildings where refugees live, like Notara 26, since 2016. Recently, the Migration Center Steki’s door was burnt in an attempt to assault the place violently. Hopefully, there were nobody, but this shows an ugly reality: racist hate crimes tripled in 2017 (133 cases compared to 48 in 2016).

Every refugee who wants to reach Europe has to cross the Turkish-Greek border, be sent to a RCI and pray for asylum documents whiledealing with xenophobia and racism. This process includes one more step in the worst case, which is getting stuck in the Greek Islands. As a journalist, Baboulias has covered many stories in Lesvos, Chois, Samos, Leros and Kos. “Inhumane, shitty camps with no organization, no health service, ruled by just three or four volunteers and fed once a day,” admits the Greek journalist.

In May 2018, Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president,  announced a law that forced more than 10 million Syrians to claim their houses or risk forfeiting them to the state. The majority of Syrians in Greece are unable to prove the ownership of their properties, so now their houses are property of Syrian state, leaving refugees in a tough situation. They are trapped in Greek camps without any hope or chance to come back to Syria.

Greece is introduced as the only chance for the refugee community and Exarchia is playing a key role.

The neighborhood of Exarchia was created in the last years of the 19th century and is a place where many intellectuals and artists have lived and grown up. The neighbourhood is painted from top to bottom, full of graffiti and urban art that beautify every street and building. It gives Exarchia a unique style where political messages overwhelm every wall and little porch. Exarchia is also a green space plenty of trees, parks and plants that swallow the little stairs, connecting different zones. It is a place where the immigrant population implies the majority of the neighbourhood. Baboulias and Leo Dobbs explain this place is a common destination for those who are afraid and are looking for safety.

Window broken in Exarchia’s Polytechnic University :: Àlex Llorca

“Exarchia is a neighbourhood where you can feel safe, we always have been like this. Probably because of its political behavior, which is very open minded,” tells a neighbour. It is a neighbourhood full of student life, where political behavior is present in every corner, street and building. It is a different lifestyle which was influenced by the student movements and especially by the anarchist groups who settled here in the late 70s. Exarchia is remarkable by its constant intention of helping immigrants and refugees. “Here they [refugees] are a community, they feel comfortable. That is the main point. Building a strong community that faces racism, xenophobia and fascism. This is what makes us different, none of that has room in Exarchia,” explains one of the anarchists involved in Embros. It is a self-ruled anarchist group creating urban farms to feed themselves “without depending on huge corporations.”

Greece lived in a military dictatorship from 1967 until 1974. This government abolished civil rights, dissolved political parties and tortured politicians and citizens based on their ideas. In November of 1973, students of the Athens Polytechnic University, located in Exarchia, striked and started protesting against this situation. During the protests, the military junta sent a tank to the Polytechnic, crushing through the gates of the university. This battle between the students and the soldiers was terrible and 40 people were killed and countless were injured during this conflict. The Greek military junta stopped the riots and demonstrations, but, after eight months, its popularity was really low and the political environment was claiming a new way of state: democracy and republic. But Exarchia and the students faced the government and the injustices one more time, in 2008.

Alexandros Griogoropoulos was a 15-year-old Greek student. On December 6th, 2008 in Exarchia, he exchanged swear words with two policemen in a patrol car that was passing by. Suddenly, one of them pulled out his gun and shot Alexandros, who died a few minutes later. The officers came back to the police station reporting that they were attacked by anarchists. They did not report the shooting.

The reaction of the neighbourhood was uncontrollable.  The anger took control over the neighbours, who attacked the police station and burnt hundreds of cars and trash containers. Fire broke out Athens and the rest of Greece, starting a guerrilla battle against the police. Outside Greece, more than 70 cities worldwide joined them in crowded demonstrations of solidarity. Armed groups of anarchists tried to revenge the death of Alexandros, becoming Exarchia into a battlefield. 10 years later, the anarchists have calmed down, still ruling Exarchia and kicking out the police.

Squatted building in Exarchia :: Àlex Llorca

These lefty groups have found a solution for refugees- squatting. Social activism movement is huge in Exarchia, where groups as Void Network, Embros or Rouvikonas, all of them anarchists, are making tasks of integration for the refugee community. These tasks include squatting, giving them a place to stay. That is why now places like schools or derelict buildings (Notara 26, for example) are places to live. Graffiti, urban art and paintings are the main decoration of these buildings. Exarchia has been abandoned by the government, its buildings are a refle of that. In Spyridonos Tripouki Avenue, derelict buildings distill the leftovers of a neighborhood which is fighting not only against the passage of time, but against the political and historical injustices from which the refugee community has always been a victim.

Exarchia has become a chance for those who were chased by the war, by their thoughts, by their race or by their nationality. Exarchia has become a place for the real integration and for solidarity. Exarchia is fighting for the freedom.