Integration at Eye Level
Integration at Eye Level
In an abandoned hotel at the heart of Athens, about 400 refugees live alongside volunteers. Instead of debating integration, they simply live it.
Victoria Square at the heart of Athens does not exactly enjoy a great reputation. “There are too many foreigners here. Drug dealers, thieves, prostitutes at every corner”, a taxi driver laments on our way to the alleged problem quarter. Things used to be better here, he claims.
After a two-minute walk from the square, we arrive at a rather ugly 1960s structure. Red, flaking letters on the wall spell ‘Hotel City Plaza’. For seven years, the building was completely abandoned. For some months now, the hotel has been at full capacity again, yet this time, it does not serve tourists or businesspeople. About 400 refugees are occupying the building alongside volunteers from Greece and from across Europe. They share all communal chores, demonstrating that integration is, not least, a question of eye-level cooperation.
Community and cooperation
Anastasia, a 20-year-old student from Athens, is working the reception desk. “This project enables refugees to live with dignity. At the same time, it is a political statement on how to achieve integration,” she tells us. She briefly pauses the interview when a five-year old Syrian girl comes running down the stairs and throws her arms around her neck. There has been no major trouble with neighbors, Anastasia reports. “Some even help us. Of course, people had reservations at first, but when you live next door to 400 refugees and realize that nothing bad happens, you shed your fears.”
The place is bustling with activity. “Families have made a home here, and they can close the door to their room when they need privacy,” explains Cristian, another volunteer from Athens. This week, he is in charge of meals. About ten people are working in the former hotel kitchen, forming chickpea batter into falafel patties, frying, pureeing, tasting sauces. A visiting Frenchman is lending a hand, while also filming the community and their teamwork. An Englishman is stirring herbs into a big bucket of yogurt sauce, assisted by a Syrian woman.
“All who live here are required to put in five hours of work each week,” Cristian explains the requirements for staying at the City Plaza: Cleaning, manning the reception desk or the bar, kitchen duty. No one considers it a burden. On the contrary, the principle of self-management, and the responsibilities it entails, seem to create a sense of community; not just among the refugees and the volunteers, but amongst the many different groups and nationalities that make up the community.
Diplomacy prevents escalation
Of course, there are challenges, as well. “We had some conflicts between Afghans and Syrians,” 28-year-old Afghan refugee Dawood reports. Back home, he used to work as a reporter and translator for the BBC and The New York Times.
Like most refugees, he did not want to leave his home. But many found his work with foreigners offensive, he says. “I was under perpetual threats of violence or death. I slept holding a rifle. At some point, I could not live with this constant fear any longer and I ended up leaving, with a heavy heart,” he reports. When conflict began brewing amongst some refugees at the Hotel City Plaza, he stepped in as a mediator before the situation escalated.
Yet the benefits of eye-level cooperation become evident in other situations, as well. A young Greek doctor approaches our table. She looks after patients at the City Plaza twice a week. Now she asks Dawood to explain to an eighty-some-year-old refugee from Kabul the further treatment of his severe hernia.
“He can go to the emergency room, but the problem is, they won’t issue a Greek ID number because he is Afghan. And that number is required to get an appointment,” the doctor explains. “Refugees from countries other than Syria are having a very hard time being recognized as asylum seekers and receiving benefits,” Dawood adds.
In fact, other camps in Greece and beyond often suffer from conflict amongst the refugees. As attitudes in Europe shift towards deportation, rivalry amongst the refugees is on the rise. The fear of being deported to a country of origin pronounced “safe” by European authorities weighs heavily on them. Cases like Dawood’s are proof that political assessments of a country’s safety often have little to do with reality.
Is self-management the long-term solution?
Especially since the terrorist attacks on Berlin, Nice or Paris, the New Year’s Eve incidents near the Cathedral of Cologne in 2015, or the rape and murder of a young woman from Freiburg, Europeans’ fears about the challenges of integration have been mounting once again. How do we tackle problems like oppression of women or sexual violence? At the Hotel City Plaza, dialogue is key to these issues. “We treat men and women equally. We talk to each other, and if a guy hits his wife, he gets kicked out,” Cristian explains. This policy has encouraged women to come out of their shells and share more about themselves. The community offers a sense of protection and security for all.
Things sometimes get heated at the Hotel City Plaza, too, Christian says, yet not just because of cultural differences: “When people coexist in such tight quarters, tensions rise.” The set-up at the Hotel City Plaza is no long-term solution. For while self-management and eye-level cooperation can result in a special appreciation of communal living, projects like the Hotel City Plaza are rare. Officially, the hotel residents are considered illegal squatters and merely tolerated by the police and the authorities. The owner of the building does not approve of its current use.
The fact that things have been going relatively smoothly is not the only reason the police hasn’t cleared the hotel yet. The authorities in Athens simply don’t have enough long-term strategies for peaceful coexistence.
The hotel project near Victoria Square shows that integration is a process that relies on real-life community and that the conflicts and challenges facing Europe are best addressed in direct cooperation with the refugees and civil society.