PhD, Department of Geography, Harokopio University, Athens
Member of City Plaza Squat
https://hua.academia.edu/OlgaLafazani, [email protected]
The idea of a large-scale housing squat for refugees was first proposed in September 2015 among the “Initiative of Solidarity to Economic and Political Refugees”–a grassroots coalition of groups of the radical Left in Athens. At the time, the “summer of migration”, as it would later be called, was continuing. Most migrants passing through Athens were in transit, as the “Balkan route” was still open and the borders could still–more or less–be crossed. This meant that the need for decent housing was not yet imperative. In this context, the Initiative decided to organise different mobilisations and actions of solidarity in various public spaces in Athens.
However, in the months that followed things would change. The signing of the EU-Turkey agreement on 18 March 2016 and the gradual closing of the Balkan route led to the entrapment of more than 50,000 migrants in mainland Greece, while effectively transforming the Aegean islands into a buffer zone between Turkey and Greece. These developments meant that housing quickly became an emergency issue, especially in light of the statutory response being confined to the creation of refugee camps and “hotspots” in remote areas under harsh conditions.
At the same time, the presence of solidarity movements–previously celebrated in the media all over Europe and rewarded with Nobel prize nominations–gradually diminished in mainstream discourse and was repressed by the state. Solidarity groups were increasingly forbidden from entering the camps, and control over the volunteers was enforced, even in informal spaces such as the Port of Piraeus. Furthermore, groups were systematically accused of inciting demonstrations and riots, leading to members’ arrests in certain cases.
In these circumstances and after a month of intensive preparations following the signing of EU-Turkey agreement, on 22 April 2016 we took over City Plaza, an abandoned eight-floor hotel in the centre of the city, transforming it into a housing project and hub of struggle. The decision to squat came as a “radical answer”, activating a multi-scale response to the re-establishment of borders. What we proposed–namely, co-habitation in dignified conditions in the heart of the city–went against the social and spatial exclusion of the camps. It was also a counter-attack against the illegalization of the antiracist movement by mustering an excess of solidarity and grassroots self-organisation.
The City Plaza squat offers an experience to its participants that is very different from other political and activist projects/movements. It brings together and unifies seemingly disparate struggles and themes on social, political, and ideological levels, such as social solidarity and political disobedience, offering a counter-example and making concrete political demands. It organises everyday life while furthering the broader struggle for rights and freedom.
If you can’t do it, we can
Drawing on the experiences of radical unionism and self-organisation, City Plaza is a counter-example that stands in stark contrast to the dominant policies of managing the “refugee crisis”. Day to day, City Plaza proves that if the antagonistic social movement–with access to limited resources; without any institutional or organisational funding; reliant only on donations; without employees and “specialists”–can run one of the best spaces for housing refugees in Greece, then the model of the “camp” becomes a question of political choice. Through the counter-example of City Plaza, we challenge the dominant narrative that “there is no alternative” to camps, within the discourse of the “emergency” and “refugee crisis”.
The City Plaza project contains a double movement. On one hand, it articulates a wider demand for social and political rights–for proper housing and provision of basic needs, and for free access to education and healthcare. At the same time, however, these rights are also produced in City Plaza from “below”. Those who were deprived of their right to dignified housing, to healthcare and education, can now exercise these rights within a self-organized structure. In this sense, City Plaza is not just a counter-example contrasting the dominant policies around the “refugee crisis”, but an example of how self-organization can function and produce social rights from the ground up, thus exemplifying emancipation and solidarity.
However, City Plaza does not simply pose questions around migration or self-organization and rights. It also touches upon multiple dimensions of the social and the political. For example, squatting in private property is an action that challenges a core value of capitalism, which sees ownership as the most “sacred” of all rights. By taking over City Plaza, we pose the question: is the right to own an unused eight-floor hotel more important than the right to use this property as a house for 400 people who are in dire need of accommodation? Squatting in private property for social purposes challenges the co-relation between legality and social justice.
The location of the building, in the Aghios Panteleimonas area, was also a political decision. This Athens neighbourhood was where the far-right party “Golden Dawn” first came together and holds a strong social base to this day. In such a neighbourhood, City Plaza forms a space of everyday encounter and intervention. It also exists as an organised space that acts as a barricade to fascist action.
Organizing everyday life, or, Challenging the border between host and hosted
Everyday life in City Plaza should not be romanticised as an easy or smooth process. In some ways City Plaza is a “peculiar” transit village, comprising 400 migrants from around ten different countries, living in 110 rooms. Every hotel room is home to a family and every floor is a neighbourhood of people who until recently were strangers to each other. There are common spaces: a cafe, a big kitchen, a dining room, a storage space of basic personal hygiene items, an assembly hall, a children’s room, two schoolrooms, a women’s space, and a healthcare clinic. Another 15 rooms are provided for people who work in solidarity with City Plaza, both those from the initial collective and those from all over the world who come, for shorter or longer periods, to participate in the project.
City Plaza is “peculiar” in that it has no “social structure”: its residents don’t share the social or ethical codes that are created elsewhere through commonly held religion, education, language, or sets of social relations. The residents of City Plaza come from diverse places, have had different life experiences, speak different languages, and have different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. At the same time, they also face different challenges, have different opportunities, and different plans and dreams for their future. Last but not least, it is a “transit” village because the vast majority of its residents dream of leaving Greece and reaching Northern Europe.
City Plaza stages a “meeting”: while the solidarity group is involved because it is part of a wider struggle against racism, exclusion, and capitalism, refugees themselves first and foremost need safety and a dignified space in which to live. In this sense, City Plaza is very different from other political social centers or squats as it is not composed of a more or less homogeneous group that has actively decided to participate in a self-organized and collective project. Rather, it is the meeting of many different experiences, practices, backgrounds, languages, and expectations.
This actuality renders it a challenging but also a fascinating political project. What for other projects would be the ground agreement, such as anti-racism or anti-sexism, in City Plaza is part of the everyday struggle: it is the goal and not simply the starting point. In this sense, the solidarity collective that participates in the project shoulders a lot of responsibility. Ranging from the very material but demanding work of raising donations of goods and money (and the interminable difficulties involved in this endeavour), to the maintenance of the building, to raising awareness, solidarity, and political support for the project and its wider political claims, to the most challenging aspect, the organisation of everyday life. Different working groups form a structure for sharing this responsibility: reception; the kitchen; storage; the financial, medical, and security groups; the children’s activities; and the teachers. All these different groups consist of people from the solidarity group but also of the refugees themselves. The project demands a lot of commitment: some of us were here on the first day and we will be here until the last.
For every person or family that comes to live in City Plaza the process begins with an exhaustive discussion with the Reception Group. The purpose of this discussion is to explain the project’s nature, to clarify that the squat is not an institutional space but an occupied hotel supported by donations, that the people involved are not paid but are there voluntarily because they believe in the project, and that new people themselves have to actively participate and share responsibilities. However, the way this discussion is understood depends on the context of one’s lived experience. People unfamiliar with similar political and social spaces often struggle to translate into their own experiences the reasons and motives that drive us to participate in such projects. For many people solidarity is something expected by family or close friends but not by strangers. In this sense, “understanding” does not come from words but from actions. It also comes with time, by living together, by sharing food, responsibilities and struggles, difficulties and problems, relaxation and joy. This was illustrated the day that all of us gathered to stop the water company from cutting off the supply. This collective action was much more “convincing” for the residents, as it exemplified how City Plaza is not a given, institutional space, but a space that can only be supported and maintained by standing together and fighting side-by-side.
Everyone needs to participate in the everyday life of City Plaza. Among the people who live here are chefs, translators, teachers, and doctors. An established rota system ensures that adults from every room have a shift once a week, participating in cooking, cleaning, serving food, washing dishes, etc. This participation is crucial for the project to be self-sustaining and not dependent on help from “volunteers”. However, this structure is also a political decision. Sharing everyday responsibilities also means the coming together of different people–in terms of age, nationality, gender, and so on–who cooperate and work together. Furthermore, it stands against the relations of dependency that usually evolve in institutional shelters. This participation creates the conditions in which people don’t feel useless, don’t feel that they are only “assisted” but that they are the ones who can assist, who are responsible for different tasks, who take care of their own space. As “J”, a woman from Iran that has lived in City Plaza since day one, put it: “In City Plaza I was for the first time a person with responsibilities acknowledged by all others. People were coming and asking me what to do. That was very unique for me.”
Henri Lefebvre wrote in 1968 that everyday life is not only about tedious tasks and preoccupations with the bare necessities, but also about the coincidence of need with satisfaction and pleasure, the extraordinary in the very ordinary, the feeling of fulfilment. For the residents of City Plaza in some ways this process of participation and sharing responsibility is a process of political and social emancipation within everyday life.
However, participation is not limited to doing everyday work but also involves decision-making: every 15 days there is a “House Assembly”, a meeting of all the residents; and every week there is a co-ordination meeting–a smaller gathering including people who are more involved and have lived longer in City Plaza–and the meetings of the many different working groups. Nevertheless, the process of decision-making, the decisions that can be made in the assemblies, the ways of participating and not participating, the different ways in which people understand and become members of this “peculiar” community, and so on are and will continue to be a challenge.
A community of struggle
From the organization of common life to articulating wider demands and mobilizations there is a multi-scale process of trying to create a community of struggle from below, a struggle on the antipodes of the policies that manage “flows” of people on the one hand and the industry of “aid” projects by NGOs on the other.
However, the creation of a community of struggle is not an abstract claim but a result of political action. The common struggle is the goal. Still, certain initiatives and projects take place within conditions of harsh inequality, partitioning of rights, and antagonisms between the oppressed. This contradiction cannot be overcome voluntarily, just because we willed it to be so and invited others to join us. In other words, a belief does not exist in the existence of “islands of freedom” within the wider relations of exploitation and domination, within the world of capital and the state. The belief that does exist, however, is that between the cracks created by social struggles, moments of emancipation grow and come to light, the horizon of our possibilities expands, and we can catch glimpses of a society of freedom and equality.
In this sense, within City Plaza “refugees” are not seen either as a new “revolutionary subject” nor as victims who just need our help to survive. Against romanticising on the one hand and victimization or fostering relations of dependency on the other, we are promoting collectivity, cooperation, and cohabitation. We are experimenting with a different possibility of thinking and living our everyday life. City Plaza is a space where strong collective social and political experiences are produced, where self-organisation, cooperation, and resistance are manufactured–for a short time or for a while longer.
 The Initiative of Solidarity to Economic and Political Refugees was launched in the summer of 2015 mainly by four different radical Left groups long active around issues of anti-racism, anti-fascism, and other social and political struggles. The main groups that are still active in the City Plaza squat are: (1) Diktio–the Network for Political and Social Rights, a collective active since the beginning of the 1990s mainly around issues of anti-nationalism, political prisoners, and migration struggles; and (2) Aren/Onra, a collective of young people that used to be part of Syriza but left after the referendum of the summer of 2015.
 In SocietyandSpace.org’s forum “Governing Mobility Through the European Union’s ‘Hotspot’ Centers” there are many interesting contributions on the system of managing migration in Europe with many references to the Greek case. See http://societyandspace.org/2016/11/08/governing-mobility-through-the-european-unions-hotspot-centres-a-forum/ (last accessed 3 November 2017)
 See, for example, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jan/24/greek-islanders-to-be-nominated-nobel-peace-prize and http://www.euronews.com/2016/02/04/refugee-crisis-a-nobel-peace-prize-for-the-heroes-of-the-aegean (last accessed 3 November 2017)
 See http://solidarity2refugees.gr/refugee-accomodation-center-city-plaza/ and https://www.youcaring.com/refugeeaccommodationandsolidarityspacecityplaza-716186 (last accessed 3 November 2017)
 Golden Dawn started being active in Aghios Panteleimonas after 2008, when the first signs of the financial recession were obvious in Greek society. Focusing mainly on “clandestine migration” in the following years, their social influence widened and they formed groups that attacked migrants daily, keeping the square of Aghios Panteleimonas “clean”. Their street action was downgraded in 2013 when most of the leadership of Golden Dawn was arrested for the murder of Pavlos Fyssas. Still today, however, Golden Dawn is stronger in the electoral departments around Aghios Panteleimonas than at the national scale. For more on the development of Golden Dawn in the centre of Athens, see https://ejournals.epublishing.ekt.gr/index.php/ekke/article/view/6739 (last accessed 3 November 2017)