As the refugee debate rages across Europe, with countries still resolute about shutting down their borders, the influx of migrants from the Middle East into Greece shows little sign of stopping. At last count, more than 50,000 registered Syrian nationals had made their way into the country, hoping to gain a foothold in the European Union before their progress was abruptly halted. Of those who arrived, 10,000 are currently stranded in the center and suburbs of Athens, living off meager government benefits and the kindness of strangers.

The situation has lately moved beyond a crisis point, with very poor housing conditions for thousands of families, tended by an overworked and severely underpaid staff. It’s especially harrowing in the Greek islands, where more than 8,000 refugees find themselves unable to escape to the mainland, barred by law until their applications come through. By all accounts, the situation is unsustainable, with the current housing arrangements for refugees impossible to consider as a long-term solution. But recently, some of Athens’ more “bohemian” groups have fallen back into one of their longest-standing traditions: helping others.

SQUATTING, REVAMPED

The tradition of squats in Athens dates back to the 1980s, when rag-tag groups of left-leaning activists would organize and restore abandoned buildings’ plumbing, power and amenities to create a growing network of communal housing. They did this work entirely on their own, without outside help, at first in order to escape notice and, later, as part of a prouder anarchist movement.

Squatter communes have a mostly anarchic outlook, organized primarily by members of left-wing and anti-fascist groups. Their structure is based on assemblies, where different communes can negotiate management of their individual housing and decisions are reached through consensus. While Squats have waxed and waned in popularity over the years, the tradition is still going strong in the Athens neighborhood of Exarcheia, where some of the most organized collectives have remained in action for the past 30 years.

When the refugee crisis reached its zenith in 2016, it was these communes that took the first steps toward providing housing for refugees. They occupied abandoned houses in the nearby area, cleaning up and restoring plumbing, and creating enough space to house hundreds of people, mostly women and children. In some cases, the communes have attempted to set up rudimentary classrooms in an effort to teach refugee children a basic grasp of Greek.

It’s important to note, however, that while squatting is highly illegal in the country (with very strict penalties, especially in the aftermath of harsh zoning and property laws set in place since 2008), the Greek government has chosen not to interfere or disrupt these particular squats for refugees in light of the humanitarian crisis. To raise further awareness about the issue, squatters and refugees alike have cooperated by staging a number of demonstrations across the country.

According to Lina Theodorou, a spokesperson for this effort, “We are anti-capitalist; we are against imperialism…[we] believe that if your action doesn’t connect with real-life improvement … it’s an empty gesture.”

Another famous squatting initiative was the City Plaza Hotel. Once one of the city’s most luxurious hotels, which was built during the 2004 Olympics housing boom, the hotel is now an abandoned building in the center of Athens that was co-opted by radical activists, and became one of the largest squatting projects in the city to date. According to the activists’ [mission statement] (https://fsrn.org/2016/05/greek-activists-occupy-athens-hotel-to-house-st…):

“…the concept is to build new communities of coexistence between refugees and the local population. What is at the same time very urgent is to start to work with the idea and reality that we are going to live together.”

However, not every initiative is carried out entirely by collectivists. In Greece’s second largest city, Thessaloniki, local and international activists have begun to take their own steps to resolve the refugee housing crisis.

ELPÍDA STANDS FOR HOPE

Last July, the Elpída Home Project opened its doors, welcoming over 160 refugees, with an estimated capacity of over 700 as soon as construction is completed. Built inside an abandoned textile factory in Thessaloniki, the Elpída Home Project repurposed the abandoned space by equipping the common areas with electricity, running water, plumbing and kitchens.

Founded by Amed Khan, a private investor, and Frank Giustra, head of the Radcliffe Foundation, the Elpída project is intended as a sustainable alternative to the collapsing refugee camps set in place across the country, already filled beyond capacity. According to Khan, “Refugees are all victims of wars they didn’t start ― they had normal lives before this…so here we call them residents, not refugees. The idea at Elpída is that we create independence, not dependence.”

With this in mind, Khan organized Elpída as a project to be jointly run by volunteers and refugees working together to maintain their living areas. Khan felt this would help instill in them not just a sense of purpose despite their dire situation, but also let them slowly familiarize themselves with their new surroundings.

Even more important, the financial arrangement for the Elpída project was surprisingly cost-effective – and Khan has used it as proof that housing can be a viable option in the longterm.

“This warehouse was renovated for about $1 million ― it’s my own money and Frank Giustra’s. That’s nothing: it’s like gas money for somebody’s private jet. There are a lot of very wealthy people in this world. I want to get those people to see this as a good use of their funds,” said Khan.

Slowly but surely, the discussion is shifting away from habitation to integration. With Europe’s economy still in dire shape, only one course of action seems to remain: from activists to philanthropists, every person involved in projects like Elpída knows that the refugees will need to fit into what will certainly be their new home away from home. And judging by what Nesrine, one of the refugees staying in the Plaza had to say, the strategy seems to be working.

“They are good people, nice people. Maybe because they are poor like us!” she said. “They don’t have that ideology thinking about material and money. They know about war, they lived a long time like the days that we lived.”