Multilingual Exarcheia: The new refugee-housing city-state of Greece

Emily deTar Gilmartin
Multilingual March 2017

To the average tourist who does not know about Ohi Day, Exarcheia, the recent rise of fascism in Greece, or the decades-long war between anarchists and the police in Athens, this is any other busy street in the capitol and the police look as though they have been called there due to a particular threat of violence. Those who don’t live in this part of Athens don’t realize the police are here every day, 24 hours a day, and that they are here because they are not allowed to set foot in Exarcheia. They are meant to appear as though they are protecting the Athenians from the anarchists, refugees and drug addicts in Exarcheia, and the Greek media’s political rhetoric works tirelessly to bolster this illusion.

The borders of Exarcheia do indeed not look promising, with no people in sight, boarded-up windows and a burnt out kiosk. Used needles lie on the ground under orange trees still bearing fruit in December, a December so cold that I lose feeling in my hands on the 15-minute walk between my Airbnb and the squat I volunteer in every day.

But wander in even two blocks and the view changes....

It takes me a while to figure out the ins and outs of anarchy in the squats. For one, the concept of anarchy to me used to be different from seeing its ideology in action. Here in the squats, anarchy is basically nothing other than self-organization with no hierarchy. I am 100% accountable for only myself. There are no bosses, and children are just as expected to assist in the ways they are able as we adults are, helping sweep the stairs or providing translation now and then. I come when I want and leave when I want and so does everyone else. We do not accept funding from non-profit organizations or governments, only from individuals, and those come mostly from Western Europe, America and Canada.

We have a weekly assembly to make announcements, hear concerns, discuss plans and changes, and to give everyone details about security concerns or pass on noise complaints made by the Greek neighbors who for the most part support the work being done here. These assemblies can take three hours, depending on the concerns discussed, and there is a vast amount of time dedicated to just translation. Every issue is discussed in English, then translated into Arabic, Kurdish, Farsi and Greek simultaneously in different corners of the room. Then each language group has an opportunity to comment, to raise concerns themselves, to ask questions. It is efficient and seems tribal, as a representative from each family gives their earnest opinions. I find I spend quite a lot of these meetings wishing the rest of the world were organized on such a small scale, watching 50 people speaking five languages and patiently working through security scheduling and a shortage of heaters as they roll one another cigarettes and sip sweet black tea....