There is an organisation here in Athens called Kids Klub who – among other things – help construct playgrounds in the squats that house refugees.
SIDE BAR: Why are refugees still living in squats? Indeed – why are they still living on the streets? That’s a question you’d have to ask the Athenian municipality.
Constructing playgrounds for refugee children seems like a marvellous idea, and when I found out about the project I was delighted. But not everyone – not even everyone who supports a state-free world and No Borders – sees it quite that way.
The disagreement orbits the essential question faced at some point or another by everyone who comes here wanting to support refugees:
Should we try to satisfy the immediate material needs of people in a shitty situation; or should we instead focus on the massive, long-term, systemic political or bureaucratic action that might just lift people out of their shitty situation, permanently?
Over the past few weeks, at least five squats in the Exarchia area of Athens have been evicted, the playgrounds torn up, destroyed.
Understandably, the volunteers who’d helped build the playgrounds were utterly distraught at seeing their work undone and hundreds of their friends rounded up, loaded onto buses and driven to a detention centre in Corinth that doesn’t even have beds, let alone toilets.
But this wanton act of violence – when viewed from the other side of Alice’s looking glass – was entirely predictable.
I had a conversation with a friend grown tired of the whole unhappy cycle of emergency aid and eviction. Their fatigued conclusion was that perhaps the last few years of volunteer efforts (including their own) have been misplaced and that the current complaints about the government and police action are more self-righteous than justified.
Clearly the police response was (and continues to be) barbaric – no one on earth deserves to have all their worldly possessions thrown into a rubbish truck and driven out of the city to be incinerated – but it was not unforeseeable. As a permanent living situation, the squats were completely unsustainable: a humanitarian, but illegal response to an emergency without end.
It is an unfortunate circumstance that we live in a world where one can’t simply appropriate an empty building to house destitute people. This is bullshit, of course, but it’s the bullshit in which we haplessly wallow. The squats were always going to be evicted, if not yesterday, then today.
My friend, a staunch supporter of refugee freedom who lives as they preach, couldn’t help but wonder whether the majority of the last four years of tireless volunteer action, spent on slightly improving the day-to-day lives of refugees in unsustainable accommodation, had in fact been squandered.
The squats have now been evicted and what do the refugees have to show for all their work? Almost nothing.
Yet what might have been possible if all those volunteers had thrown themselves with equal vigour into political advocacy?
Perhaps the painful sacrifice of day-to-day humanitarian support (and playgrounds) would have been offset by a significant concession from the government to make refugees’ lives in Greece more sustainable in the long term (or at least got them out of the country).
Perhaps more work on refugee integration might have reduced rather than exacerbated the local Greek resentment that has proven fertile ground for the new right-wing government.
These remarks are enough to earn you plenty of cold shoulders, by the way. They represent a voice not often heard among the volunteers of Athens.
Chatting to another friend on one of the regular protest marches through the city, I heard the other, blunter, side of the argument.
‘It’s all very well saying that political action should take precedence over humanitarian action, but a lot of the people in the squats are friends or relatives of people outside.
‘What would you do if a friend of yours couldn’t afford food and has a crying baby? Tell them that first we need to talk politics? No. You say, okay let’s get you some food, and then we’ll talk politics after your baby has stopped crying.’
The problem is that, in Greece, the baby has never stopped crying. You may not be hearing so much in the news, but last week around 1,600 refugees arrived on the Greek island of Lesvos alone.
Of course, I’ve only been in Athens for two weeks. Emma Musty, a long term volunteer with Khora, has written about the recent squat evictions on her blog: Athens Evictions: How many homes can one person lose?
There will be no resolution to the problem posed in this article. Sorry. There is, of course, urgent need for both emergency humanitarian support and long-term political change.
One organisation that at least tries to balance the two is Khora – one of the projects funded by Thighs of Steel. They run both a Free Shop that provides refugees’ immediate needs and an asylum support team that aims to lift refugees out of their shitty situation for good.
I have spent today interviewing the unheard voices of long term Khora volunteers. It’s been a fascinating day and I hope to share some of those conversations with you next week.
In the meantime, if you want to do something today to remind a refugee that they are not alone in this nasty world, then you could do a lot worse than to record a charity record with some really famous people, film a video of you and your buddies wandering around some desolate sand dunes, pump loads of money into promo, get it to Christmas number one, hit Top of the Pops, give a speech at the BAFTAS in which you cry (mainly because you accidentally poked yourself in the eye with the wrong end of a cocktail umbrella), before FINALLY transferring the proceeds (after agent fees) to a massive international charity who promptly misappropriate the funds on schmoozing pop stars for next year’s charity record…