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

Four times a day I pass an armored van parked outside the Archeological Museum of Athens, headphones in, my hands in the pockets of my parka stinking of campfire smoke and souvlaki. There is a sort of game we play, the police and I. They stare me down, nudging one another as soon as they spot me walking quickly down a wide street named 28th of October, the day that the Greeks defied Mussolini and began their resistance against fascism. The irony is not lost on me that they stand here, of all places, giving those walking in and out of Exarcheia dirty looks while they hold heavy semi-automatic weapons and occasionally wear riot gear. They know me now, always in the same coat and work boots, always walking as fast as I can, always taking a left as soon as I pass them to walk uphill into Exarcheia while they watch me.

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. There are taxis lining up near the platia, cafés busy with students and volunteer coordinators on their laptops, refugees playing football in the platia while old Greek men smoke and play chess and a man with dreadlocks wearing a dress practices juggling.

Within a few minutes of walking into Exarcheia’s heart, I begin to see people I know, and they always smile and a few come to kiss me, promising to swing by the squat later that evening, sometimes asking if they can bring me coffee or a snack. It feels like a village scene in a Marcel Pagnol film, and even the baristas wave at me through the windows, although I only have enough money to go in once or twice a week. They know that if a young American woman is here more than once and not by accident, that she isn’t a tourist and that seems to inspire some respect. Most Americans who come to Greece won’t set foot here, but I didn’t know that for a long time.

When I tried through a series of WhatsApp messages to describe to my parents where I was staying and what I was doing in Athens, I struggled to come up with the right words that would illuminate the incredible language and economy forged by basic human need and self-organization. Growing frustrated that they could not absorb the full picture, I did a cursory Google search of Exarcheia and I was shocked at the results: only a handful of articles from the Greek media slandering the anarchists, no mention that their work day in and day out was on behalf of refugees, and only a few blog posts from tourists mentioning their nervous one or two hours tiptoeing into the boundaries to snap some Instagram photos of graffiti.

This was not the Exarcheia I recognized, that I worked in 12 hours a day, that I played cards in with other volunteers. I searched for an hour and found nothing that accurately could describe life in Exarcheia. I also didn’t find any media mention of the fascists from Golden Dawn sending death threats to us, planting a bomb at the squat closest to ours or attacking refugees with machetes. No, Golden Dawn doesn’t get mentioned in any articles about Exarcheia, but there are accusations against anarchists aplenty. I ask a Greek friend about this, and she says the government decides what is printed about Exarcheia, and that they plant agitators at demonstrations. It is a well-accepted fact here that the police and government start riots so they can have an excuse to raid the anarchist properties and “purge” the people they see as undesirable. 

Arriving in Exarcheia

I knew absolutely nothing about Exarcheia the first time I crossed its small borders, and so I felt no apprehension, only curiosity and excitement and the pleasure of seeing so many refugees socializing outdoors, their laughter traveling from the fires in Exarcheia’s platia as my friends and I walked to a bar that also gives free Greek language lessons during the day. The five of us that first night were all working as volunteers in the same refugee camp south of Athens, and this overnight break in the capitol was a rare treat. One of us, a young German man, had lived in the most famous anarchist squat of all, an abandoned hotel called City Plaza, and he told us he knew where to go for some relaxation after the stress of the camp. Most bars I had gone into in Athens charged 20 euros for a double bourbon, but in Exarcheia the mafia is in charge of the liquor. I get a whiskey for four euros and by the end of the evening, I have made Iranian and Greek friends and have the number of a Spanish language teacher who would like me to come to Christmas Eve in a squat to cook with refugees and other volunteers. It was this Spanish volunteer who introduced me to the anarchists running the squat where I eventually began volunteering full-time.

Many buildings in Exarcheia have been abandoned for years. Some used to be schools, others were places of business, and a few are apartments whose tenants died and the properties were never claimed. At any rate, they were empty when the anarchists decided to appropriate them to turn them into refugee housing. Some are very small; the squat I spent Christmas Eve cooking in houses only three Kurdish families who are especially vulnerable. The father of one of the families has had five botched surgeries on a clubbed foot and now needs to use a wheelchair, and his oldest daughter is here after escaping an abusive marriage. They are kind and social and help a gaggle of Spanish, French and Greek anarchists renovate the abandoned apartment one floor at a time. When I meet them on Christmas Eve there is only one habitable floor. By the time I will leave Exarcheia several weeks later,  there are two floors finished, another family is about to move in and self-defense classes are being taught there. The daughters are close to my age, both chatty and giggly and they hug me tightly every time I come and go, giving me recipes and asking me my Facebook name, gossiping with me about boys. Although the mother does not speak English, she puts my hands in her armpits to warm them only moments after meeting me, smiling at me hugely only inches from my face, her eyes warm.

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.

There is a sense that all the residents of the squat feel invested in this place, this pile of gray stones and bad plumbing and dirty glass windows that the government could take away at any moment, that they want to make it a home, a social and thriving place. There are plans for a women’s committee, of starting a babysitting service and creating an educator database for Arabic, English, German and Greek language classes. We began a cooperative with two other squats, inviting the residents of all three to use our medical clinic, since we had space, a pharmacy and volunteer doctors. One of the squats lent out its restaurant-sized kitchen for fundraising events, the other acted as a warehouse for bulky donations of blankets and boots, volunteers from all three working on construction projects together. This was a new frontier in one of the oldest cities in the world, a whole network made up of people from Spain and Greece whose countries offered few jobs helping people who had no country and no permission to adopt another one. Everyone in Exarcheia is in limbo, forging a way to make that impermanence feel important.

In the square

Exarcheia square is a resting place, a place to warm my hands and borrow a lighter and sit and talk. Everyone I meet wants to add me as a Facebook friend, and I find myself hoping in earnest that some friendships here will outlast this hectic time and place. I sometimes spend hours here, nearly staying until morning on more than one occasion, sometimes eating a two euro souvlaki, sometimes just chain smoking while I meet a girl from Barcelona, a man from Afghanistan, a translator from Morocco, a student from Germany, a Greek and another Greek and another Greek as well, but mostly they are from Syria. Souria, they say.

Speaking to strangers here is an exercise in humility, and here is why: within the space of half an hour on any given night I am praised for my youthful face (they sometimes guess I am as young as 20, when I am 32), am praised for being American (I explain where a person is born is nothing more than an accident and I don’t deserve credit for that) and then I am praised for being “like an angel” to come to help the refugees, am called “such a strong woman” for surviving a divorce and starting over with nothing, and it is sometimes all too much. I have to bite the inside of my cheek to keep myself from crying, because the man praising my strength walked for days to escape Syria, and now sleeps on the floor while suffering from a horrible abscess in his mouth. The man who says I am kind like an angel has been put in prison eight times in Greece for trying to leave with fake passports, but he could instead be living in the comfort of his wealthy family’s home in Damascus if it weren’t for his utter refusal to join the army and kill his fellow Syrians.

It is embarrassing and painful to be called strong by people whose iron will to survive has led them to this; one of the men leaves to “go work” and when I ask him about his work, he is devastated to tell me he sells cannabis because he is barred from legally working. His shame is visceral, and I put my hand on his shoulder and tell him my American friends in Seattle order weed online that is delivered to their door by actual businesses. He is amazed at this, and says he does not like to sell drugs at all, but that this knowledge makes him feel less of a weight on his back. He calls me Little Syrian because of my Arabic pronunciation, and says he will see me tomorrow.

I am astonished to realize I’d be safer lying on the ground here in the platia for five hours asleep under my coat than I am walking to where I’m staying in Victoria. I’ve been grabbed by strange men three times in three weeks, and all of those incidents happened closer to the police vans and my own front door than to Exarcheia, on streets running under balconies where women wearing pearls and fur coats drink with their friends, their blow dry costing more than my weekly budget. Exarcheia is no paradise; there is a heroin problem, and I am told that before the anarchists drove the dealers away from the platia, it was full of heroin addicts overdosing in the middle of the day.

One night a man is being badly beaten by two others and for a brief moment those mingling in the square are all shocked and move toward the fight; at the same moment I see the men I am with all stop. Their faces go blank and they turn back to the conversation around the fire. My friend from Holland is distraught, and says the man being beaten might die, implores them to intervene. Nobody even acknowledges her concern.

But I have now glimpsed the man doing most of the beating, with brass knuckles on, and I know him. He is an anarchist who brings us more donations than anyone else, who comes to our weekly assembly to give us security updates, who roams Exarcheia hunting heroin dealers trying to sell to kids and human traffickers trying to make contacts in the squats so they can get their hands on the children and any women traveling alone. I even know his real name. I tell my friend, if this man is being beaten it is either because he was trying to sell heroin, recruit dealers among the teenagers or trying to get the names of anyone vulnerable enough to bribe or kidnap. She is shocked but one look at the nodding serious faces around the fire tells her they all know this is the way it is. One man near me looks at her and says almost sadly, “Your friend, she understands Exarcheia.”

They know that if the anarchists don’t violently attack the dealers and smugglers that life here would be intolerable for both the refugees and the homeless Greeks who also share the warmth of these bonfires. But still, it is hard for them watching any kind of violence, and I can tell they are relieved when the sound of the beating stops and the man is dragged away. This is the truth of Exarcheia, though. Only by being hard can the anarchists keep cancer from regrowing here. Only by being terrifying in their own way can they keep the police from raiding our squats and making the refugees homeless in one fell swoop, keep sex traffickers too afraid to kidnap easily. The Golden Dawn sends threats that they will come soon to murder every refugee and anarchist in Exarcheia, that they will kill us with machetes and then hang us from trees, will plant bombs where the children play. There are no unattended children here. You simply will not see it.

Daily work

You would think the death threats and the mafia and the smugglers and the addicts who still sleep in the shadowy outskirts of the place would be on my mind all day, but that is rarely the case. My days and hours are long, full of sweet tea and being force-fed by refugee mothers who make better dinners in a one-room home than most restaurants in London can provide, and full of exchanging music recommendations with the men who work with me in the warehouse. Every day, for two hours, we distribute fresh fruit, vegetables, diapers, sugar, rice, oil, coffee, canned milk, garlic and onions, shampoo, more and more again than any refugee in a camp is given in a week by the governments of Europe, which have budgets that we cannot even wrap our minds around. There are blankets one afternoon, men’s shoes the next, baby clothes, children’s coats and on and on. We organize what we have most of and immediately give it away for two hours every afternoon.

We don’t waste time with taking inventory, with discussing budgets we don’t have, and by the end of the first week I know by sight which teenagers speak English and which babies belong to which mother, who is hoping to move to Belgium and who will go to Germany soon, and who has sisters in Holland. I know which children are allowed to help me and who might try to run off with things if left unattended, and I have helped various people with translation.

Language here is a fascinating thing. I have held conversations where a man uses Syrian Arabic and English to tell me a story, which I then translate to French for the Spanish girls who speak some French and Portuguese. We take our time, and sip Kurdish coffee with cardamom while we wait for the right words to come in an unhurried fashion. This conversation verges on feeling like a party, or like watching a play, and the Spanish girls who don’t speak English or Arabic laugh at the jokes when we do, before they know what they’re about, and my Kurdish friend’s wife who understands only the Arabic version gestures with her hands throughout, laughing. Nobody in the room knows any Greek. I learn the expressions for many things, and find Arabic to be a beautiful and poetic language, using charming expressions like “the last grape on the vine” for the youngest child in a family, and sometimes very similar expressions to English, like “the teeth of the mind” for wisdom teeth. The Syrians are horrified when I say I have a baby face, and one man in deadly earnest says, “My friend, you are not a baby. A baby is very new. You must at least be 14!”

While many of the conversations are slow and humorous or charming beyond description, we suffer for want of regular translators badly. We have translators at the weekly assemblies always, but medical emergencies and stressful conversations that need precise information often means sending children running to find the only person who can help, and they are woken from a nap or taken from construction projects while I wait, sweating bullets, hoping the person crying on the floor isn’t about to have a heart attack.

Many of the refugees are highly educated, and some children who had never even gone to school already spoke four languages fluently. A toddler who spent many of his evenings camping out in my lap on the floor spoke Arabic, English and Kurdish already. But we also have Kurds who spoke nothing but two Kurdish dialects, Iranians who spoke only Farsi, and some African women who spoke only French, and then dozens of others who spoke only Arabic. A man with horrendous post- traumatic stress disorder was hearing the voices of children screaming one evening and he was sobbing while a Greek volunteer tried to hold him and screamed for someone to find a Kurdish translator. By the time one arrived, I was shaking uncontrollably in another room from listening to him describe the dead children and asking us to make them go away. In cases like this, I felt intense anger at myself for being an ignorant Westerner who spoke barely two languages, and that night I went to my apartment to cry and frantically study Arabic until three in the morning.

I am not in Exarcheia anymore now, but in London, and I have just received the news that the Kurdish family I was closest to, with the trilingual toddler who lived in my lap in the evenings, has been denied asylum in Greece. My parents have tried to bring the family to Idaho, applying to sponsor them in America, but I hear that because of a new executive order that my parents’ request will likely be refused. “From Syria? It is probably impossible now, if they are from Syria.”

I think of the life I saw carved out in an undesirable area by a pack of young Europeans who don’t believe in borders or government or executive orders. Of my friend who will probably die if he goes back to Turkey, where he has already been tortured by the government that was supposed to aid him, the government paid by the European Union to house refugees. I wonder where their linguistically talented two-year-old will end up, where the already-grown boys who speak seven languages will end up, and I wish there were hundreds of Exarcheias, thousands, that the whole earth was one multilingual anarchist squat.