The In-Between Why refugee-operated squats are a viable alternative to camps

September 19, 2016 - Rocks crack off battered riot shields as Greek police form a line around a group of migrants outside Moria Refugee Camp in Lesvos, Greece. The overcrowded camp is home to around 4,000 refugees escaping war and poverty in their home countries. With the goal of making it to the more welcoming EU countries like Germany, Holland, or Sweden, many individuals are trapped in camps on the Greek island until their papers are processed. The crowd, consisting of Syrians, Afghanis, Iraqis, Pakistanis, and Nigerians, was small but mighty, flipping dumpsters and calling for a meeting with the police to discuss their delayed asylum.

09/19/16 - 2:30pm: Greek riot police return to their compound as a crowd of migrants gathered to chant and throw rocks.

The angry crowd continued to grow as police refused to meet with community leaders. "All the camp come united. Afghan, African, Arab people, all!" one Syrian migrant leader said. "Everyone say, 'We don't need your food, we don't need your water, we don't need your anything. Why are we here?'"

After an unsuccessful meeting with police, groups of angry migrants were reportedly seen throwing rocks and setting fires throughout the camp. According to witnesses, piles of trash were set alight, migrants clashed with police, and families began fleeing by foot. By nightfall over 60% of Moria Camp was on fire.

09/19/16 - 9:30pm: Migrants watch on as the Moria refugee camp burns to the ground. ©Mike Schwarz/AP

The fire burned for most of the night and displaced upwards of 4,000 migrants. Over 50 UNHCR units (used to house over 800 people) were destroyed and 30 individuals were hospitalized according to United Nations Refugee Agency spokesman William Spindler.

09/19/16 - 9:30pm: (Top): A Syrian boy with fresh bandages pauses amidst the chaos. (Bottom Left): Smoldering trash spills out of an overturned dumpster during the Moria riots. (Bottom Right): Police lead a group of refugees out of the camp as one of the first fire trucks attempts to enter after the fire has been burning for well over three hours. ©Mike Schwarz/AP

The next day NGO's, independent volunteers, and other organizations poured in to rebuild the camp. The charred tent shells were replaced with new shelters, fences were mended, and gravel was poured over the blackened mud. Children tossed a ball amidst the burnt tree trunks as a crowd began to line up for lunch. A palpable sense of frustration and defeat could be felt reverberating through the ranks of disheartened refugees. None of the problems brought to light the day before had been solved, only covered over, just like the charred dirt.

09/21/16 - 12:00pm - Moria Refugee Camp: Injuries allegedly inflicted by Greek police officers.

“Witnessing the charred remains of Moria camp is shocking but comes as little surprise. Holding thousands of vulnerable people on Lesbos in appalling conditions with no knowledge of their fate inevitably creates an incendiary atmosphere of fear and despondency," Giorgos Kosmopoulos of Amnesty International said. "The European Union and Greece cannot carry on stockpiling refugees indefinitely on the Greek islands. Instead EU leaders must share responsibility fairly and they must urgently start moving refugees to the mainland and onwards across Europe.”

09/20/16 - 4:00pm (Top Left): Looted tents and trash litter the ground in the Nigerian section of Moria Refugee Camp. (Top Right): A Nigerian refugee holds out a bowl of soup with bits of mud in it. (Bottom Left): Volunteers repair burt fencing along the entranceway to Moria Refugee Camp. (Bottom Right): An Afghan boy playfully thrusts a knife at my camera as he and several other children play amidst the charred tree trunks.

Villagers have become increasingly less tolerant of homeless refugees. "They come here, and despite our situation, we give them food, water, and shelter. We are hospitable people, the Greeks, it's in our nature," said one local cab driver from Mytilini. "Then what do they do? They steal. They vandalize. They disrespect our flag. They don't appreciate what we give them. It's been too long. They have been here too long. Get them out. Out right now."

The island has one of the poorest economies in all of Greece, and has seen its tourism decline rapidly as refugees continue to arrive. Tourism arrivals from April to June dropped nearly 66 percent from 29,106 (2015) to 9,904 (2016). Charter flight arrivals on Lesvos recorded a year-on-year decline of 58.75 percent from April to October.

The refugees want to be in control of their own lives; choosing the food they eat, the place they live, and the job they work. They wish to reclaim the basic human rights taken from them upon leaving their home countries. The Greeks, who can barely keep their own economy afloat, are no longer able to support hundreds of incoming migrants each month. They want their tourism industry back. They want the influx of police and reporters to stop. They want to return to their normal lives. So what is the solution?

Moving thousands of people is easier said than done with only about 7 of the 28 counties in the EU accepting refugees at this time. The remaining countries have closed their borders, leaving 11,372 refugees stranded on the Aegean islands as of November 28, 2016 (5,918 on Lesvos, 3,701 on Chios and 2,182 on Samos). The application process for asylum can take anywhere from six months to two years, leaving many with no other option than to live in the camps.

With obvious issues like overcrowding, food shortages, racial tensions, and poor sanitation, the camps are no place to raise a family. Where are these individuals expected to stay during this transition? Eight months ago the answer would have been living on the streets, but due to a massive increase in homeless migrants, refugee-operated squats have begun to emerge within urban Athens.

Abandoned buildings are unofficially repurposed into independent housing for refugees to live freely. Advocates for these facilities say that they are run "by the refugees for the refugees." Racism, violence, and hunger are left at the door as everyone contributes for the greater good of the squat. "Live together, fight together, struggle together," said City Plaza Squat Security Manager Dimitri H. "That's our motto."

City Plaza Refugee Squat

09/24/16 - 2:00pm: Mothers and their children stand outside while the lobby of City Plaza Refugee squat is cleaned. The abandoned 7-story hotel now houses 400 migrants (180 of those children).

City Plaza is considered to be at the forefront of peaceful refugee assimilation. After thousands of homeless migrants were found overcrowding the streets of downtown Athens, "The Solidarity Initiative to Economic and Political Refugees" took action to renovate the 7-story abandoned City Plaza Hotel. The NGO, who identifies as "a coalition of antiracist and left groups and individuals" states the City Plaza Squat "emerged as a practical response to the repressive migration and border policies in Greece, the EU-Turkey Deal, and the militarization of the borders."

09/26/16 - (Top Left): Italian volunteer Martteo Puzziello works the coffee bar next to the lobby of Hotel City Plaza. "We wanted to give them a spot to relax and have a coffee," Puzziello said. "Thats a simple pleasure many of them lost after fleeing their home countries." (Middle Left): Children play in the empty upstairs lobby of the City Plaza Hotel. (Middle Right): A husband and wife check the work schedule posted outside the cafeteria. (Bottom): Laundry hangs out to dry on the balconies of the 7-story City Plaza Hotel.

Rooms within the Plaza are highly sought after. "We rarely have a vacancy. And when we do, there's an incredibly long waiting list," said volunteer Martteo Puzziezzo. The facility currently houses 400 people, 180 of which are children. Each family is given a room, shared bathroom facilities, and 3 meals a day.

In exchange, the family is expected to complete an assigned list of weekly chores. These tasks may include cooking, cleaning, security, or even serving at the City Plaza coffee bar. The hotel also provides washing machines, daycare, educational resources, and medical care.

"When there is not enough of something, people start to blame [speaking of Moria Camp]," said City Plaza Security Manager Dimitri H. "Here in Plaza, we don't have that issue. Everyone has what they need."

Squat advocates claim that having the ability to govern themselves has lead to a decrease racial conflicts, violence, hunger, and illness amidst the refugee population staying in properly organized squats. The Greek government does not legally sanction the squatting of abandoned structures, but unofficially provides electric and water.

This means City Plaza receives no government funding and relies solely on donations. "I think the state could do more," Dimitri continued. "But with the economy, it's difficult you know." The facility is supported by a consistent flow of volunteers since opening its doors on April 22, 2016.

Volunteer Max H., 23 of Germany, unpacks kitchen supplies with a young Syrian refugee.

Christian Herrera, a chef from Spain, closed down his food truck business and moved to Athens to manage the kitchen in City Plaza. Here, he and a staff of young refugees and volunteers prepare roughly 900 meals per day. Several months after Herrera began working at City Plaza, he was arrested for "cooking for the refugees," he explained. While he would not reveal the official reason for his arrest, he continued to comment on the racism found pulsing through the ranks of Greek police.

"Sometimes police and fascists [Golden Dawn Members] show up outside the building," Dimitri, Head of Security said. "They yell, 'We'll fuck you, we'll burn you.'" AlJazeera reported that 13 polling stations where "hundreds of police" voted pulled in a 20% vote for the far-right Golden Dawn party as compared to a mere 6% from all other civilian-only polling stations.

Last year, the party rose to the third most powerful in Greece, with a 7.8% Greek vote. "They have a racist agenda that appeals to the masses," Dimitri continued. "The far-right is on the rise, utilizing hatred toward the refugees to gain power. 'Greece for the Greeks,' thats what they say."

09/26/16 - (Top Left): Plates of food are given out at lunch time using a meal ticket system. (Top Right): German volunteer Max H. cuts chicken cutlets in the kitchen. "I am here because I like to cook," he said. (Bottom): Hamit M., an Iranian refugee living in City Plaza for four months, sits in the bar area before dinner. Hamit often assists in the kitchen and cafeteria area. On this day he arranged all the chairs and tables in preparation for dinner.

This is not the only challenge refugees face. After arriving in Greece with nothing, there is no legal way for them to acquire a job. Syrian IT Engineer Mohammed Alshmas commented on the vicious cycle. "In order to get a job, you need a tax number. In order to get a tax number, you need a legal place of residence. In order to have a legal place of residence, you need money. In order to have money, you need a job," he said with a hollow laugh. "See where I'm coming from?"

To help manage these issues refugees and volunteers have organized weekly meetings to discuss "further planning and articulation of struggles for decent living and social integration of refugees and immigrants." City Plaza has been open for less than eight months and already has seen immense success providing relief, shelter, education, and medical support for refugees in need. "It's important to indicate that Plaza is not just helping out because they are poor souls in need," Dimitri H. said. "It's a political movement for human rights."

Jasmine School Refugee Squat

10/18/16 - Jasmine School Refugee Squat

Jasmine School, a squat housing 350 refugees, is located just down the street from City Plaza. Unlike Plaza, the building is deteriorating, volunteers and food are scarce, sanitation is non-existent, and donations are inconsistent. The once-abandoned school was squatted exclusively by refugees in the early spring of 2016.

The rooms, each sleeping upwards of 15 people, have missing windows and no doors. Areas are partitioned into sections using bedsheets hanging from the deteriorating ceiling tiles, and privacy is not an option. It is one of six other squats just like it, and represents the norm for refugee housing in Athens.

Jasmine School depends exclusively on local vendor donations and independent volunteers. With City Plaza located down the street, demand is high. "Bread is what we need most. Donations from local bakeries," Jasmine School refugee leader Muhammed Alhamit commented.

"We can't handle the number of people. We aren't focused on getting heaters for the winter, just bread."

Volunteer Pedro Rocha E. Mello, of the Jesuit Refugee Service elaborated on the struggle to find sufficient food contributors. "There are so many needs here. They have not had hot water in three weeks," Mello said. "Food is running low, just one meal a day at this point. The only solution is to speak to donators. The problem is big corporate food producers cannot act here because it is illegal. But if they donate to an independent volunteer organization like us, [we can do something.] It's just bureaucracy."

10/17/16 - (Top Left): Children play in the courtyard of the once-abandoned Jasmine School Refugee Squat. (Top Right): A young refugee looks over the courtyard of Jasmine School from the third floor. (Middle): Ali Alowi stands in the blanketed doorway of his families living quarters. The room (20x20) is split in to four sections, and houses four families. (Bottom Left): Men sit outside the entrance to Jasmine School. (Bottom Right): The main spiral staircase of Jasmine School is lined with chicken wire to prevent children from falling through the gaping holes in the railing.

Due to the lack of funding, Jasmine School cannot provide proper medical care, educational opportunities, or counseling. This means depression, attempted suicide, and other illnesses are common. "There is a man here that just found out his entire family died in Syria moments ago," Mello said. "He says he no longer wants to live. He was crying saying 'Why am I alive? My wife is dead. My children are dead. My mother is dead.' So it's very complicated here."

Prostitution has allegedly been reported within squats like Jasmine School. "Women who's husbands are fighting back in Syria have no way to feed their children," said Syrian refugee Muhammed Shimshonty. "Give her a look and she will take you. 10 minuets, 10 euro."

09/26/16 - A Syrian migrant displays a photo from his Facebook page of an injured boy during an attack in Alleppo, Syria that same day (Sept. 17, 2016). The scars on the mans arm are from a suicide attempt while he was staying in a camp outside Athens. "I lost my country," he told me. He is 21 years old.

Relocation remains a top priority for every refugee. This is an extremely laborious process, and leaves many migrant families trapped in Athens for up to a year or more. "The relocation now is being really controlled because of tension caused by the contract between Turkey and the EU," Pedro Rocha E. Mello said. "It's hanging by a thread. If they [the refugees] do anything wrong, it's over."

For Syrian University students Nour Aldeen Almasare and his cousin Muhammed Shimshonty, scholarships and asylum programs are their best option to legally leave Greece. Both of them studied anesthesiology in Aleppo. "I wish to complete my university in Syria, but I can't," Nour said. "Every time they [Syrian military officials] ask, 'Where is your ID card?' You want to study, no you must go to army and fight."

"We are waiting to see if we are accepted to the program or not," Muhammed said nervously glancing at the ground. "Should take about 4-5 months, then we have two interviews, and if we pass those, another 9 months for our visa applications to be processed."

(Top): Two girls walk down the main spiral staircase of Jasmine School. (Middle Left): The Jasmine School barber cuts a man's hair in the hallway of the second floor. Haircuts are three euro. (Middle Right): Syrian refugees enjoy their only meal for the day in an abandoned Jasmine School classroom. The meal consists of rice, mixed vegetables, and pita bread. The portion shown is divided between ten Syrian men (aged 20-30 years old) all living in the same room. "It is so much better than camp food," one man said. "It is Syrian. The women cook it for us. What is better than that?" (Bottom): The dilapidated facade of Jasmine School Refugee Squat.

Ali Alowi (pictured below), or Alush for short, has been living in Jasmine School for seven months. Alush and his family are attempting a journey in January to one of the few countries in the EU accepting migrants at this time; Germany. Unable to afford the cost of legally entering the country via plane (over 7,000 euro for the entire family), they plan to use smugglers to sneak them over five borders and nearly 1,800 kilometers.

This is extremely dangerous and a last resort for large families. As of December 18, 2016 4,812 refugees have died in similar smuggling operations; a number that easily surpasses last year’s 3,771 deaths. Despite a sharp decline in migrant arrivals (around 350,000 against more than one million in 2015), many correlate the rising death toll with hazardous smuggling tactics as European countries continue to close their borders.

Ali Alowi, 3, of Syria

Hope is on the horizon however, with volunteer organizations like the Syrian Solidarity House and the Jesuit Refugee Service stepping up to help to help at Jasmine School. Improvements include the installation of a new hot water heater, repairs to broken windows and doors, the building of a security booth, and the arrival of new volunteers at the end of October.

10/19/16 - (Top) Ali Alowi and his mother walk through the dark hallway of the third floor corridor. Tents take up any free space available in the school as refugees attempt to escape the dangers of the streets. (Bottom Left): A man stands in front of graffiti drawn on the wall saying: "Where is justice people?" (Bottom Right): A new hot water heater is installed after a month of no hot water.

This is just the beginning however, as immigration policies continuing to tighten, many migrant families expect to be awaiting asylum in Greece for up to a year or more. Squat manager and Syrian Solidarity House member, Kastro H. estimates there are around 2,000 refugees living in the six operating squats, and another 1,300 still on the streets. The challenges continue, but for now, communities like Jasmine School offer refuge for those waiting in the in-between.

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Mike Schwarz
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