Athens is a place of great historical importance. A great hub of culture and innovation. One may think of The Great Philosopher Plato or Homer or have some romanticized view of the city. The city has some romanticism but not the perfect, polished idea many have when they over-romanticize a place.Yes, there is sunlight and the Acropolis but that is not truly Athens. The real Athens is a chaotic dream of political graffiti ,cracked streets, coffee and passion.
The years was 2016 and the world had gone mad. Aleppo and other Syrian cities had been blown to hell and there was a mass exodus of people fleeing in from Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. Refugees would arrive in Athens’ Port of Piraeus and Athens was then a major transit point on their long journey to claim Asylum in Germany and other western European nations. Macedonia lie to the north of the Greek border and the border was shut. This means many refugees were stuck in Greece and were making their temporary home in Athens. I was there to help them to safe passage. Greece was left to fend for themselves with both the human rights crisis and economic crisis. This reflected throughout the city, most Notable in the neighborhoods of Exarchia, Victoria, Omonia and Piraeus. Exarchia was my base and a place that runs deep in my heart. It is easy to remember my time there but not an easy feat to speak about it. The ancient streets contained so much sadness and hopelessness that it could easily turn the most caring person into a nihilist . There was that but there was also life and love.
When you look up Athens Greece in the US government travel advisory website they warn you to avoid the neighborhood of Exarchia . It was known as the “anarchist neighborhood and at the time it was a police no-go zone. Somehow this supposedly risky neighborhood felt far safer to walk alone at 3 am than any American city. The “Anarchists “ that my government warned me about occupied abandoned buildings, turned them into humane living conditions and housed numerous refugees. The living conditions were better than those horrid government camps that feel more like you know, concentration camps. They occupied kitchens to feed them too. and even an entire University . Cops were not welcome in the Athens Polytechnic University but refugees were . The police were not Welcome due to “The Ploytechnic Uprising” in 1973 where students protested millitary dictorship and the univery was stormed by millitray tanks and 24 people were murdered off campus. This directly influnced the current “All Cops Are Bastards ” attitidue and justifyible so.
There I was submerged in the glorious chaos of the city. There were bon fires in Exarchia Square lit in trashcans and all the statues of dead, white imperialists were covered in graffiti. Therewere no ATMs in Exarchia as the anarchist destroyed them. You could sit out in the square and meet friends from Greece or from further east. The city may have appeared to be falling apart but one could always feel solidarity. Well, if you were on the right politically , then you would not be welcome. If you were a cop, you would not be welcome or if you were there with the intent to gentrify the area, you would not be treated kindly. . Everyone was weird, everyone was an idealist , people were interesting . Many were hiding out from the law or fleeing from someone in their homeland who wants them dead.
I worked in a squatted kitchen with no hot water that only prepared vegetation food. There was a lovely courtyard there and we feed hundreds a day on donated food. We would transport is to The Polytechnic University . We would wheel down a shopping cart lifting it up over curbs and pot holes. It was still winter so we at least did not have to deal with the sun’s cancerous rays . The Polytechnic was a snow white building with blood red graffiti written on the columns. The Words “A.C.A.B.” and “No Borders, No Nations ” were written near the entry gates of the building . You would have the feeling that you mattered. Everyone was equal and property was communal. Nobody was the boss. Of course it did not always work as egos would get in the way .
See, if I were getting paid, I would not do such tiring work but it was for community and the good of humankind. We served the University and a Squat on Notora street breakfast every day. . We were not an NGO that infantilized refugees. They worked with us in solidarity and were part of the collective. At night we would take a van to Victoria Square and feed whoever was there. Victoria Square was the place were hundreds slept upon arriving in Athens . It was basically a small caravan of displaced refugees. The government and EU had failed to provide them with shelter. When the people in power fail, there is not choice but to take matters in your own hands. If it is against the law, then that law deserves to be broken . Victoria Square was often targeted by hate groups and being near (but out of ) Exarchia, it looked like a police state.
We had no permit to feed these people. It was all illegal activity. However, at the time the Greek government and police turned a blind eye to it. Their presence was there due to the fascists whowould attack and threaten the lives of refugees. Victoria Square had these disturbing trees that looked somewhat haunted . The dark branches would curve and it looked as if they were from a 1920s German Expressionist film. The trees had families huddled around them with all their belongings and the branches were used as clothing lines.
When I go to a place, I always have a feeling . It is not something one could describe but for the traveler, it determines the soul of the place. I felt a deep connection but also strong negative feelings. As I would walk to the kitchen in the morning to make breakfast, I would pass graffiti covered walls and each day the graffiti would multiple or someone would paint over it. This was all over the city .
One day, I passed tourists and overheard them complain about the graffiti and the homeless people. What on earth did they expect with the current crisis ? These people will never see the real Athens as their mind and hearts are too shut down to understand what is around them. It is the Greek people that matter. Not some old ancient temple that has graffiti one it and is since painted over countless times. It is not a nice vacation, it is a vile situation that should make one cry out in fury and pain. If you just look at sites, you will get very little from travel. As you walked into Exarchia you would see a massive stairway with red writing all over and in the background was the purple winter sunset and mountains . It is then when you realize thatyou are in one of the most important places on earth.
Sometimes things in Exarchia would get hard. There were all sorts of hate groups that would threaten to fire bomb the refugee housing and our kitchen . We knew they were somewhat serious too but people had to eat and we had to keep it going. They later would burn down part of a housing complex and they had burned down a clothing donation center in the Island where I had been previous to Athens . These fascistic groups were violent and dangerous . This means that there were protests to fight such hate crimes. This means that if you work in the kitchen or squats, you had little choice but to also be at war with fascist. Many have miscoceptions about Anti-fa but do not realize it is not one organized group. AntiFa is not all anarchists dressed in black bloc gear. It is anyone who opposes fascism and takes action to stop it. Action may be as little as calling out xenephobia or marching in soilidarity with refugees. I disgreed with many political tendenceies I witnessed in Greece. However, fighting fascism is somthing I will do until my death.
Sometimes the streets of Athens were like a war zone. One such protest was a counter protest to a horrible Greek fascist group called “Golden Dawn.”. Between the fascists and the black bloc anarchists and riot police , there was no way that it would not turn out badly. You could hear the shattering of glass and you could hear the occasional Molotov cocktail as it crashed into a car window setting it alight . Then the skies expelled themselves of oxygen as the tear gas came flying in. Between the two clashing groups was hundreds of cops dressed in riot gear with their shields and tear gas canisters. Of course they had the luxury of gasmasks and did not have to breath tear gas. The Used of chemical weapons such as tear gas goes against the rules of war. Yes, there are rules for war and tear gas is illegal to use on the battle feield. Somehow, it is legal to use on civilians in the name of “crowd control “ . Everyone protest consisted of smoke, teargas and spray painting buildings with a politcal message. Now, looking back on it, it was all senseless violence . At the time it was passion, adrenaline and feeling of belonging. Sometimes, when I look back at photographs , I can’t tell if I seeing smoke, CS gas or rain.
I never had a chance to enjoy the city and it’s many cafes. First thing In the morning I would arrive in the kitchen at 7 and make breakfast and the process would last until 11. Then I would scope out Victoria Square in search of new arrivals that may need shelter. I would chat briefly to a former Afghani refugee that worked for the UCHCR . After that it was time to prepare the evening meal. If there was time left, I could organize the clothing donation closet. The neighborhood had many cafes that would serve frappe . I was fueled by frappe and espresso but I never say to enjoy it. Most volunteers were burned out and some become slightly nihilistic . The average time that one could least without burn out was a month and a half. Most left before that.
Athens lacked order. It was rare when anyone would be on time for anything. Then nobody seems to care if they were late. There were no orderly lines of people. It is everyone rushing in at once. The Occupied University would have cultural events . There was live music , alcohol and other illegal substances . It was really the only wind down time we had. One day one of the Syrian women living in the squat hung herself in the clothing closet. Then things started to get really dark and hopeless. While refugees were stuck in Greece, me with my white, western privilege could just leave the county. I took a bus to Macedonia , the very border that was shut to refugees. I felt like a terrible person but I was too depressed to be of any help. I could not detach from the people and befriend many Syrians and Afghanis. The deserve people trained in crisis work . They deserve far more than living in an anarchist occupied building. They deseve stabilty. I could not give them any of this and the situation was bleak . There appeared to be little hope the it felt as if the world were dying.
I was heartbroken and depressed by all of this and felt that I could not return to Athens. Two and a half year later I would and would see that everything changed. With new elected leadership the squats were violently evacuated. There were new validation booths in the metro meaning it was no longer easy to jump the metro and commit the act of fare evasion I walked in the neighborhood and it felt like a different place. I did not feel as if I belonged.
It has been gentrified and full of hipsters sitting in coffee shops. The Sqauts had remnants of black ash from the last time it was burned down by hate groups. There were no familiar faces in the square , no bon fires or feeling of community There was still the sea of graffiti but the feeling I once had was gone. I am still shocked that a place such as Exarchia as it was in 2016 could exist in the middle of a European Capital city. However, i If ever I do doubt it, I have photographic evidence.