I am back in Athens, Greece. I have returned to write, to find ways to be useful in the refugee community and to spend time with my Afghan family. So far, I am doing pretty well with one thing on my list. Sayed and Nahid and their children have enriched my life immeasurably, and they are making the most of the dramatic changes in their lives since they left Afghanistan. Sayed is working for a large NGO as a translator and community builder while Nahid manages the household and their three adorable sons. (For more about their journey to Europe https://kimmie53.com/2016/05/08/sayed/). Sayed still does some volunteer work and helps individuals to connect with resources in his free time. Defying perfection, he has lost three phones in 4 months. 🙂
The summer heat in Athens is oppressive and is like a frame around the picture of my visit so far. On the city streets, people seem to be moving in slow motion if they are moving at all. Within a few minutes of leaving my apartment, I am wet with sweat. I “never” nap but find myself passed out in my apartment every afternoon like most Greeks who aren’t working in air conditioned offices.
I am staying in Exarchia, a neighborhood on the north corner of the city’s center. I chose it partly out of curiosity. Exarchia is full of intellectuals and anarchists. It is dirty and gritty and covered in graffiti. At night, the square is full of young people and families speaking different languages, eating, drinking, dancing. Exarchia is a place of demonstrations and book stores and panhandling. A shopkeeper told me the police don’t come here so it is safe.
Exarchia is also home to a dozen or so “squats,” abandoned buildings that have been appropriated by anarchists on behalf of refugees. Hotel Oniro, for example, houses about 150 people, mostly Syrians. By the standards of the affluent, the place is a hot mess, literally. The heat accumulates and hangs in hallways and bedrooms. Human smells compete with smells of old upholstery and infrastructure. Visually, it is lacking in care or character. And yet it provides special privileges to the people who live there. Unlike the camps, Oniro has no military or police presence. Instead of standing in lines for a handful of diapers or a plastic bowl of noodles, the residents can cook real food and walk through real streets and congregate with people who aren’t volunteering for anything. Money is a problem in the squats and apparently so are drugs and smugglers, but these problems are also present in the government camps. It’s what happens when traumatized people live in limbo, without jobs or school or family.
I am getting to know the squats because I am collaborating with a small group of people who want to teach English classes and provide information about the asylum claims process. We are not anarchists necessarily but we want to work where the need is greatest.
Sharon from England runs RefuComm, a small nonprofit that has been providing essential information to refugees for the past year and is now focusing on asylum claims processing. I am collaborating with her to learn more and to support her great efforts. https://www.facebook.com/RefuComm-communication-and-information-for-refugees-145594569125687/
Ele is an ESL teacher from England. She began teaching this week at Hotel Oniro. I am attending her sessions to learn how she teaches. On Thursday night, she had a roomful of young people excitedly responding to her questions. “What is your name?” “Where are you from?” “How old are you?” Finding they knew a little English, she pushed them right to that point where they might have felt frustrated but remained enthusiastic. She is very talented. I am hoping to begin teaching next week at a large squat set up in an abandoned school building. I plan to use watermelon to keep up the enthusiasm.
Love is but a song to sing
Fear’s the way we die
You can make the mountains ring
Or make the angels cry
From “Get Together” by the Youngbloods