25th Oct 2016

Hotel Refugee: Greek volunteers create migrant home

An abandoned hotel in the city centre of Athens has become home to hundreds of refugees.

Run by a coalition of left-wing activists and volunteers, the City Plaza hotel is a citizen-driven response to a government struggling to house refugees and asylum seekers.

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  • The squat also has its own clinic, run by volunteer doctors (Photo: Nikolaj Nielsen)

Among its 400 residents is Moustafa Hajrashid, a Kurdish Syrian from a village outside Aleppo, who is caring for his sick mother and his younger and handicapped brother.

"We are like one big family," the 38-year old told EUobserver on Wednesday (19 October) as he poured out strong coffee.

The family arrived from Turkey earlier this year and were shuffled through several camps in Greece until they ended up at the hotel squat.

"We had a wonderful life in Syria before the war," he said.

Moustafa was a florist and had also had a floral shop in Lebanon for several years. His father stayed behind.

Moustafa worries about his mother's declining health. The 61-year old is often in and out of hospital given her poor condition.

All three of them are likely to end up in France after being registered in the EU's relocation scheme, he says.

City Plaza

City Plaza opened its doors in late April after police turned away refugees camping out by nearby Victoria square in the Panteleimonas district of Athens.

The timing coincided with border closures along the Western Balkan migratory route and an EU deal to return asylum seekers to Turkey, which created a bottleneck of refugees and other migrants in Greece.

A legacy of the Greek economic crisis, the hotel had stood empty since 2010.

Today, its seven floors and some 90 rooms are home to people who come mostly from Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and Syria, as well as a handful of people from African states.

The room, shared by Moustafa and his mother and brother for the past few months, is like any standard hotel room. There is a large queen-sized bed, a small refrigerator, a desk, a toilet and a shower, but no hot water.

The entrance is staffed by volunteers, who screen people as they enter and leave.

Behind the reception desk on the ground floor is a small medical clinic run by a volunteer paediatrician. The shelves are full of medical supplies.

On the second floor is a cafe, a dining area, a play room for children, and a large kitchen where cooks are busy preparing lunch.

The hotel is largely self-sufficient, with refugees and volunteers assigned to duties that range from cleaning and healthcare, to childcare and education.

"We are not a government initiative. We don't have NGOs behind us," says 33-year old Nikos Vassilopoulos, one of the founders of the initiative.

Volunteers pure and simple

Vassilopoulos is one of many Greeks who have taken it upon themselves to care for people often left abandoned.

Last summer he and other activists formed a group to help people looking for places to stay. Some were living in Areos, a large park. Others were in Victoria Square.

"We started thinking that we need a proper shelter for refugees, so more of a housing project," said Vassilopoulos.

With tenants able to stay as long as they like, the hotel filled up quickly. A waiting list of more than 1,000 are now hoping to get the same opportunity.

Vassilopoulos says donations from abroad help pay the bills for electricity, water, food, and medical supplies, but he is worried that Athens’ municipal authority might shut down the project in the name of public health issues.

"We have doctors who volunteered. There is no actual problem with public health. I mean, it’s better than a park. It’s a lot better than a camp," he said.

Amalia Zepou, the vice mayor of Athens, told EUobserver that City Plaza-type initiatives need to be controlled.

"The reaction of community groups and solidarity action is fantastic, but they contain a huge danger," she said.

She cited hygiene issues and said that human smugglers often seek out clients in squats.

"Our responsibility, of the municipality, of the government, is to include them so that you pick up the best practices," she said.

Souls in transit

City Plaza also has its own security team to stop drug dealers or traffickers from entering the building. Anyone who enters must sign in and out and doors are locked at night.

Rabee Abotara, a Syrian refugee from Damascus, helps coordinate daily life in the building.

The 26-year old uses charisma and his foreign language skills to manage the four teams of people that keep things running smoothly. That includes making the women and children who live there feel safe.

"I feel at home here," he says.

Like the Hajrashid family, Abotara's days in Greece are likely numbered, however. He too is set to go to France via the EU's relocation scheme.

His first choice was Spain, but he would also be happy to go to France.

"I'll learn French in one month," he says.

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