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Impolite Appeal - Report from Athens

We asked for your support for refugees in Athens: Here's what Dan Steiner found, did and spent there

EDITOR'S NOTE: In July Impolite Conversation launched our first ever appeal.
You can read Dan's accompanying article here.
If you would like to support the continuation of this important work please click here.

 

 

With 58,000 refugees stuck in Greece, and the land borders closed to refugees, I headed off to Athens with my friend Linda, a fellow volunteer from Crisis. I’d researched widely before setting off so I understood the current situation; I’d also spoken to friends who’d been there recently to prepare myself. In many ways it was as I expected but in some ways it wasn’t…

 

The majority of refugees are living in official camps but several thousand are living in seven ‘unofficial’ squats dotted around the Exarcheia neighbourhood of Athens. Earlier this year a Greek-Syrian called Kastro was so concerned at the numbers of refugees sleeping rough, he broke into an abandoned school, borrowed a minibus and drove around collecting people to house them there. This is now the biggest squat with 400 residents.

 

The army run the camps, and won’t let independent volunteers like us into them. We focused instead on working at the squats, where the refugees rely on donations and the help of volunteers. Although the conditions there are basic, they’re better than in the camps, so the refugees prefer them. The residents are autonomous and voice their concerns at bi-weekly assemblies. Each squat has different values but Greek leftists and activists are a constant presence in all of them, guiding, helping and organising everyone.

 

My primary aim was to use the money you and others donated as effectively and efficiently as possible. I wanted to make some legacy purchases where I could, as well as buying immediate necessities, so on the first morning we visited as many of the squats as possible to find out their immediate and long-term needs.

 

The first squat we visited was in the former Hotel Onero. It houses 150 refugees, mainly Syrian families, along with Afghans and Palestinians and it includes about 50 children. Adiba, a Syrian refugee, cooks for everyone using a local restaurant’s kitchen. She doesn’t always have enough food to provide a daily meal and she’s increasingly worried about malnutrition, a concern shared by all the other squats.

 

Notara 26, our next stop, is housed over five floors in a former government office building. We were given a warm welcome and introduced to Lia, one of the Greek activists who spends much of her time there. There was a wonderful sense of calm and community with Syrians, Afghanis and Iranians all living peacefully together. Lia ran through their needs with us, which we added to our list, and mentioned they had a van at their disposal but no driver.

 

Before l left the UK, I had heard there was a need for an LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender) refugee support group to be set up and agreed to look into it. Lia confirmed there was a real need for this sort of service and said she’d ask around and also contact her sister, who knows some LGBT refugees.

 

We then moved on to The Orange House. This isn’t a squat but a European Integration and Protection Centre for the most vulnerable refugees (mostly single women, lone mothers with children and members of the LGBT community). It’s been set up by Marina, with the support of Sumita, another of my friends from Crisis, and is managed by Antoine, who helped co-ordinate independent volunteering efforts on Lesvos earlier this year. It became our base for the week. Over lunch we discussed and finalised details for the first LGBT support group meeting (arranged for the following Monday) and Antoine also agreed to be our van driver.

 

After this we returned to the school squat. It has large open areas, a big playground, a gymnasium and hordes of children. What struck me first and hardest was the invisibility of the adult men. Passing the classrooms, which have been segregated by curtains into familial spaces, we could see them lying on mattresses, apathetic, depression having set in for many. They’re used to working, providing for their families and making decisions about their futures. None of that is possible for them now, so a feeling of helplessness and uselessness dominates.

 

We sat and talked with Kastro about how we could help and learnt that lack of fresh food is a major problem. There is rarely food for the children’s breakfast, so Kastro asked if we could buy 300 eggs, some jam and crackers. I had a brainwave and suggested we bought them live chickens to provide them with eggs for the long term. Kastro loved this idea and said that there was a large flat roof which would be ideal. Then Linda suggested creating a small farm on the roof to help them provide for themselves by growing vegetables, as well as a space for rabbits and maybe a couple of goats!

 

Over the next six days we begged, scrounged and borrowed in order to achieve our ambitions and didn’t stopped from morning until night. First, we bought chicken wire, tarpaulins, hinges and 530 litres of potting soil for the farm. Then we talked to a Syrian vet who specialised in poultry and an Afghani builder (both of whom live at the school squat) and they agreed to build the coop together and oversee the chickens. John, an archaeologist at the British School, agreed to design and oversee the building work. A family-run hardware store kindly supplied us with all the building tools at a large discount. We promised to name a chicken after so many people who helped us that some hens will have about ten names each…

 

We also went to a wholesaler and persuaded them to let us buy supplies there, even though we weren’t registered, and we bought trollies full of toys at an out-of-town store (entertainment for the children is very important – see my previous article). Finally, we purchased a 300-litre fridge freezer for the Notara squat and two ceiling fans for the play area. And every day we fought to use the van with several drivers who randomly took it regardless of whether they had reserved it or not.

 

 

Whilst there, I also organised the first LGBT refugee meeting with the assistance of a French psychotherapist called Louise, who was working at The Orange House. Seven refugees from Iran and Syria attended, some from the camps and some from the squats. Their main priority was safety: Two LGBT refugees have been murdered in the last month in Turkey, teenage male refugees in Athens are resorting to prostitution, and there have been reports of both LGBT females and males being raped in the camps.

 

The Orange House will act as a day centre for LGBT refugees in the future. Lia will facilitate providing a safe area in the Notara squat where these refugees can live, two dedicated phone lines will be set up and monitored by Farsi and Arabic speakers, posters are being put up and a Facebook group has been started to provide useful information. The group will meet every Monday and hopefully grow and provide much needed support.

 

Before we left we had hoped to see chickens clucking and pecking on the roof and the planters full of earth, but we were slightly optimistic. We left another Crisis volunteer, Zac, to oversee the building work and Antoine will see it through. Kastro cannot wait until he can get the chickens and plant some tomatoes.

 

Our final stop was back to Notara to deliver the toys – seeing the children’s faces light up was a joy. The ceiling fans had also been fitted and were running, and the fridge was installed and full of yoghurt for the children’s breakfast the following day.

 

We left content and then collapsed.

 

Postscript

 

In the early hours of Wednesday 24th August, two fascists set the Notara 26 squat on fire. 130 people were asleep inside, including 50 children and babies. Fortunately, all of the inhabitants survived but two floors of the building, and all of the domestic supplies we had bought, were destroyed. To our knowledge no journalists covered the event and to date no investigation is under away…

 

“Peace is the only battle worth waging.” Albert Camus

 

 

Reflections

 

So how was it? The week passed quickly and we achieved more than I thought we would, including setting up some sustainable systems, like the rooftop farm and LGBT support group.It was stressful, frustrating, exhausting and humbling; it was satisfying and above all, it was galling that this crisis is taking place in Greece, a country that is part of the EU.

 

The suicide rate among refugees is increasing and families are deciding to go back to Syria because they would rather risk death there than live in the inhumane conditions in the camps. Across Europe, thousands of unaccompanied children have just disappeared, and reports of rape, violence and sexual exploitation at some of the camps are increasing.

 

No-one expected this situation to last this long but we, with aid from you and others, have provided a little help to as many people as we could. You may not be surprised to hear that we are already planning another trip to Athens: The situation will eventually be resolved but not for a very long time, and it’s going to get worse before it gets better. The scale of the problem is too great to do nothing.

 

We – and hundreds of vulnerable refugees – will be really grateful for any more donations which we will then put to good use, such as buying fresh fruit and vegetables and establishing other sustainable systems. I have set up a new GoFundMe page for future donations for further trips.

 

Please click here if you’d like to donate and do please give as often as you can.

 

Thanks for all your support, now and in the future.

 

Photo credits: The author and friends

 

List of Purchases

 

1. Diesel for the van

2. 30 kgs potatoes

3. Ginger
4. 1 kg chillies
5. 18 kgs courgettes
6. 3 kgs tomatoes
7. 2 kgs peppers
8. 22 kgs carrots
9. 125 kgs apples
10. 108 kgs oranges
11. 35 kgs onions
12. 102 litres fruit juice
13. 2 packets chocolate cookies
14. 1.5kgs coffee
15. 2 boxes tea bags
16. 56 kgs sugar
17. 4 litres floor cleaner
18. 140 nappies
19. 19 litres shampoo
20. 2 kgs baby formula
21. 5 litres jam
22. 330 eggs
23. 240 packets of breakfast crackers
24. 1 padlock
25. Toys (including, hula hoops, twister, footballs, skipping ropes, backgammon boards, glitter pens, indoor tents and wigwams, sticker packs)
26. 2 x ceiling fans
27. 120 litres milk
28. 250 g mixed spices
29. 1 x 300 litre fridge freezer
30. 2 x watering cans
31. 510 litres potting soil
32. 10 m chicken wire
33. 10 m polythene
34. 1 staple gun
35. 20 pallets
36. 60 x 8 inch screws
37. 2 kgs U nail staples
38. 21 x 42/42/2 m lengths of wood
39. 2 kgs screws
40. 3 x 44/94/2m lengths of wood
41. 1 x 3/4/ 3 3/4/2 m lengths of wood
42. 1 x sheet 10mm/2 m/2.4m plywood
43. 3 X 3 inch butt hinges
44. 2 x hammers with claws
45. 2 x screwdrivers pz 2/3
46. 10 m mesh tarpaulin
47. 2 x handsaws 8/10 teeth per inch
48. Staples
49. 2 x pliers with cutting blade
50. Wood drill bits 3-4-5-6 mm
51. 1 x 3 m tape measure 
52. Nails
53. 1 x 18 v cordless drill
54. 30 kgs washing powder
55. 15 litres bleach
56. 200 x 60 litre bin bags
57. 1000 x one use gloves
58. 8 kgs chocolate milk powder
59. 40 kgs rice
60. 30 litres sunflower oil
61. 4 mops
62. 36 x marker pens
63. 1 x protractor

 

 

Dan Steiner

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