Greece’s First Housing Squat for Refugees & Migrants, Notara 26

Athens, Greece – Notara 26, a refugee and migrant housing squat in Athens, has housed over 7,000 refugees and migrants since its inception in September 2015. Unicorn Riot visited and toured Notara 26, the self-organized squat in the Exarcheia neighborhood of Athens, Greece. During our visit, we sat down and spoke with volunteers, Giannis, Mimi, and Dionysus, about the history of the squat, the refugee crisis, Exarcheia, solidarity, and much more. As squats continue to face attacks from fascists and the state in Greece, we bring you a closer look at one of the spaces that was attacked in 2016.

Long-running wars and conflicts across the globe have uprooted over 67 million people and produced the largest percentage of displaced populations since World War II. In 2015, millions of refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and other middle eastern countries passed through Greece on a quest to live in other European countries. As the numbers spiked at the end of the summer, hundreds of thousands of refugees were flooding into Greece.

According to the UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, almost 700,000 Syrians and Afghanis arrived in Greece in 2015, with over 260,000 arriving in August and September (see PDF below). When groups of anti-authoritarians and anarchists occupied the vacant Ministry of Work building in Athens on September 25, 2015, the first housing squat for refugees and migrants was created as a way to provide free housing for refugees passing through the city.

MonthlyTrendsofNationalities-ArrivalstoGreeceItalyandSpain-31December2015

Many of the Greek residents, facing extraordinary economic crisis of their own, have provided an immense network of solidarity and mutual aid for refugees and migrants. In the region of Attiki alone, where Athens is located, there are approximately 40 self-organized social centers, or squats, and about 10 are used specifically for housing migrants and refugees.

These ‘squats’ are unused state and/or private property occupied by members of the community to provide a space for free housing, food, health care, mutual aid, clothing, radical discussions, emotional and psychological support, and to help shelter many refugees from the western-led wars in Syria and Afghanistan.

“Migrants Welcome” graffiti in a park in Patras, Greece

The squats are operated entirely by volunteers who have set up networks of support for refugees and others hit hard by the financial crisis. Many of the volunteers have put their home lives on hold and come from around the world to provide solidarity and support.

During our sit-down with the three volunteers that we spoke with at Notara 26, Giannis said that the Alpha Kappa anti-authoritarian movement and other anarchist and left-wing groups came together to occupy the building.

Dionysus, Mimi, and Giannis (l-r) spoke with Unicorn Riot about their experiences at Notara 26

We had thousands of homeless and desperate people” without shelter and living in a handful of unofficial camps, Giannis said:

It was very important for us, for the whole movement, to do something about that. We could not stay and observe that thing … We want to do something for these people. So, that’s how it began, the whole project. It was the first squat that open[ed] in Athens … talking about housing squat for refugees. – Giannis

There have been two housing periods of Notara 26, one in which the residents used the squat as a transit point and came for a few days and left, and now with the borders closed, some of the residents are long term.

Mimi described the two stages:

The first boats of refugees came in the summer of 2015. All of the people coming from the islands to the center of [Athens] to find a way to continue to the borders. At the beginning it was mainly tents, a sort of camp, a self-organized camp … un-official camp. Because the winter was coming we said we have to find a solution, so that’s why we occupy this building. Until the contract between the European Union and Turkey in March 2016, it was a place of transit, which means that refugees came here for two, three days, they could leave and continue to the borders. After this, we have the second period of Notara, which means that they stay a long time, it’s their home. Until now [July 2017] we have 6,000 people that have passed through Notara from 16 different countries. – Mimi

A person sleeps on cardboard boxes in Athens

The trauma that a lot of the refugees, who are mainly from war-torn countries, have endured from their displacement to their travels are plentiful. To have a free living space in the middle of Exarcheia is like a “sanctuary“, or an “Elysium“, for some of the refugees, said Dionysus. The organizers inside of Notara 26 are volunteering their time to help accommodate people in a transitional time in their life. The refugees and migrants that live in Notara 26 are called ‘residents’ and the volunteers who help are called ‘solidarians’. None of the solidarians live in the building.

SOLIDARITY NOT CHARITY

Dionysus, who is from Albania and an “economical migrant” since he was four, said that spending his time volunteering in the squat is a difficult and draining task, as these travelers are “coming from actual trauma, war-zones, or other tragedies that people have found on their way here, or certainly before that.

Dionysus said that sometimes you ”need your space to breathe”, but what keeps him going is that “you can see these people smiling. You can see them give what they don’t actually have, they give everything they have to people they don’t even know.

Children staying in Notara 26 laugh while playing

Giannis said that he is putting his “whole power into this project and this building, through that, showing that solidarity is the way that society should work and move forward.” Despite the extreme economic crisis and depression in Greece, Giannis said that caring about others is his main motivation to be helping at Notara 26 since the beginning:

Right now, after eight years of crisis, we are very depressed and tired but we have to fight about something. We have to fight about our lives, but at the same time, not about only our lives but about people that probably have bigger needs than we have right now … You can see that these people that are coming from war-zones, they are refugees and migrants, they are in worse conditions than we are. So, I cannot just look aside. – Giannis

Mimi, who along with Giannis was present since the first day of taking over the Ministry of Work building, said:

What is public we have to give to the people, so we occupy and we give to the people. – Mimi

It’s not a question of charity, it’s a question of solidarity“, said Mimi, as she spoke about the support from the broader community. She also shared a story about a lady who showed up to Notara 26 in one of the first days and gave 100 euros of her 400 euro pension.

It’s not a question of charity, it’s a question of solidarity. If it is charity, rich people give to feel better that they [gave] some of their lot of money to help someone. Solidarity, even if you have almost nothing, you can share. That’s how it works. From the first day at Notara 26, the neighborhood of Exarcheia accept and helped at the squat. – Mimi

Dionysus said that he thought that Greek people saw the refugees coming in in much worse condition than themselves, so they had to help. “I think humans are biologically programmed either for misanthropy or solidarity. We saw both and the crises actually make both shine brighter.” He says that he has witnessed more people in the neighborhood helping refugees than talking bad about them.

The idea of solidarity as opposed to charity is a widely acknowledged concept among the folks we spoke with in Greece. Being against philanthropy and choosing to directly help with solidarity was also discussed in our visit with The House of Women for Empowerment and Emancipation in Athens, who provide support for detained refugee women and create networks of solidarity for them.

CONNECTIONS TO OTHER SQUATS

Notara 26 is connected to many other squats and initiatives in Athens that provide resources to refugees. One of the main connections is to ADYE, Exarcheia’s free health clinic. Check out our special on ADYE below.

Children that are housed in Notara can go to school at another squat very close by.  Giannis told us that “in other squats they have created classrooms, so it’s not very useful in every squat to create a separate classroom. So, we know, right now in Spirou Trikoupi 17, another squat, they have an actual classroom … we are in collaboration with the squat, we are very close.

Dionysus, who spoke a lot about security and prevention of attacks, said that they are in close contact with other squats multiple times a day to exchange information to provide safety for their community.

There are about 10 housing squats for refugees and migrants in the Exarcheia neighborhood. They are all self-organized by different anti-authoritarian, autonomous, and anarchist groups that sometimes don’t always get along with each other, yet there is an underlying layer of solidarity between them all in the face of the repressive forces of the Greek state or fascist groups like Golden Dawn.

Last year, Unicorn Riot filmed an action which featured “a coordination of refugee squats“, including Notara 26, that came together in front of the Ministry of Migration building demanding an opening of the borders.

QUALITY OF LIFE

Giannis believes that the squats are doing a better job at provided a quality of life for the residents than the state, who uses facilities resembling “concentration camp[s]” to shelter refugees.

We believe that we are making way better job than the state does right now, by keeping people inside tents or even containers, packed like animals and be like, inside camp, like a military camp that many times have soldiers outside to guard the camp. For us its in a way like a concentration camp, it reminds us exactly that thing. So, we don’t believe that a human being can live under these kind of conditions … We want to host people, but at the same time, make them have a quality of life. – Giannis

Notara 26 is self-managed and decisions are made through assemblies run with direct democracy consensus decision making, meaning that they have at times stayed up until three o’clock in the morning to make a collective decision that everybody can agree upon. They have created working groups, such as night shift, cleaning, and cooking.

Because of the large range of languages spoken, translators are key. “Language is one of the barriers”, says Dionysus, who continued that it brings more “difficulties to an assembly than actually having conflicts, because it’s time consuming” and also sometimes the points get lost in translation.

During assemblies at Notara 26, people sometimes have to speak one sentence at a time and wait for up to six translators to speak to others. This was the case for our journalists at Unicorn Riot as well: to gain permission to film inside Notara 26 we had to go through an assembly in which five translations were done.

Another barrier to participation in the assemblies was the different cultures and backgrounds that the residents came from. When Notara 26 stopped being a transit point, and people stayed there longer, volunteers told us, the residents became more comfortably involved in the decision making.

Dionysus said that they sometimes will go with residents on activities, to play sports, get food, or even go to the beach.

We are learning how to become strong from these people. It’s not the other way around. We are not helping them to get strong. They are helping us get stronger … they’ve seen all these things and they can still wholeheartedly laugh with you, give you what they have, so in the end, I think we are benefiting more from this solidarity relationship. – Dionysus

The most important thing to Giannis is the way they are organizing, how they are “smashing” all authoritative behaviors, “trying to be all equals and work in a horizontal way” to create a different society, “a different example of co-existing all together.

Children’s drawings posted to the walls of Notara 26

Children’s drawings adorn the wall in the main assembly area of Notara 26. Cartoon characters, faces, and drawn names are interwoven with very vivid picture stories of war and carnage. The squat provides a safe community for the residents and youth to speak about their needs and provides an assortment of resources through their network of solidarity.

They’ve seen terrors … terrors that through the eyes of a child, they are amplified,” Dionysus said that he believes that strength comes from “moments of happiness” and that’s what they strive to bring to the youth. He also spoke about the work that they are doing to prove “wrong of prejudice“.

The most important part that came out of this building and such buildings thereof, is the treasure, the precious gemstones that we are finding in human contact. We are proving wrong of prejudice, of bigotry, of all this media propaganda, ‘oh these evil refugees’. – Dionysus

EXARCHEIA, AN ANTI-AUTHORITARIAN NEIGHBORHOOD

We asked about Exarcheia, the decades long quasi ‘free-zone’ district in Athens, in which Notara 26 is squatted. Giannis said that he believes that the power lies within the people and doesn’t agree with the structure of nation states and voting:

We don’t believe that the State, that the government, that any kind of government will give an actual solution to any kind of problem. We believe that the power is to the people and must come from the base, from below, not come from above … We want the people to have voice, not to give their power to someone else by voting one time per four years for someone to lead them and take the decisions they have to make as a society. Everyday we give our rights to someone else and that’s the main thing of having a free zone.” – Giannis

Dionysus said that they have created a “great treasure” by making Notara 26 and other refugee squats inside the “free zone” in Exarcheia. He said that Exarcheia provides “a little bit of asylum” or “a sanctuary” for the refugees that are taking shelter in the neighborhood. He spoke about how Syrians, Afghanis, Kurds, and others are co-existing without conflict in Exarcheia, sometimes in the same house. Dionysus said that is “gold” to him: “for me, human contact is currency.

Mimi said, “Of course we are against the state, we are against any kind of borders, we are against the walls, we are against the wall of religion, we are against the wall of discrimination of any kind, we are against racism.

This squat is our community … We create a free zone, a free zone in the center of the city, with no discrimination, and self-organization. It’s our community and we do our best in everyday life and also at the fight at the streets when we demand our rights. – Mimi

See our video below showcasing how the Exarcheia neighborhood defends itself against police encroachments.

FASCIST ATTACKS

As far-right and neo-nazi movements continue to gain traction in Europe, violent fascist attacks on refugees and migrants, as well as social centers and organizing spaces, continue to happen at alarming rates. Patrick Strickland reported last year that ‘racist hate crimes nearly tripled in 2017‘ in Greece, which has also seen several attacks in the last ten days.

Two of the fascist attacks mentioned above are featured in tweets below; one of an arson attempt on a social center and another of a mob of fascists and racists that attacked a group of migrants and refugees in Lesvos, Greece.

These attacks are nothing new to those providing safety and refuge for the displaced traveling masses. The squat of Notara 26 itself was targeted for a fascist firebombing attack on August 24, 2016. The attack burned all of the supplies that Notara 26 had in storage, and burned up one and half floors.

Giannis said that if there wasn’t a night shift at Notara during the time of the fascist attack, there may been had 100 casualties. Mimi said that the night shift had three specific tasks in case of an emergency as such; one person to put down the fire with the fire extinguisher, one person to alert the residents and get them to safety (in this case, they were able to get them all down the back stairs and out to safety), and one person to call the solidarians who then chain-alerted other volunteers and other squats.

After the fascist attack, Giannis said Notara 26 was rebuilt with the “second huge wave of solidarity“, which had Greeks, internationals, and refugees from all over coming together.

Dionysus says that there are written contingencies for the prevention of attacks in Exarcheia when fascists or the state encroaches. Safeguarding procedures include, coordination with other squats assist in times of emergency, daily information sharing, night shifts, and fighting, which Dionysus says, “we do that well”.

We try to prevent situations rather than deal with the problems that occur after such an intervention from outside forces. – Dionysus

Dionysus says that although the fascists pose a problem, the state does as well, with its constant looming threat of a police eviction. Mimi connected the two problems, saying that in the last Greek presidential election, 60% of the Greek police voted for Golden Dawn, the national fascist party that has many seats in Parliament.

Golden Dawn headquarters in Athens, Greece

Golden Dawn, the violent far-right group behind several high profile killings, is in the middle of ongoing trials against senior party officials; its leadership and many members are facing an array of charges against them (see Golden Dawn Watch for an amazing informational resource on the trials).

Graffiti honoring anti-fascist rapper Pavlos Fyssas (Killah P) on a wall in Polytechnic University. Fyssas was killed in 2013 by Golden Dawn member, Giorgios Roupakias.

Mimi said “we have plans to protect Notara … because Notara, we will never give up”. She said that safeguarding of the squat is essential because if the state moved to evict Notara 26, many of the police would be fascists, “the fascists has the same face but different masks and you have to be very well prepared.

Raids from the ruling Syriza party are targeting squats; just two months ago, in the early morning of March 12, 2018, three anarchist squats were raided in Athens by Greek police.

Everyone we spoke to at Notara 26 mentioned their need to be prepared for possible police eviction or attacks by fascists. Despite these threats, the self-organized squat has housed over 7,000 people thus far as they continue building what Dionysus called “a treasure.

By: Niko Georgiades

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