City Plaza was one of many hotels in Athens that had been closed and left abandoned due to the effects of the 2008 financial crisis when, in April 2016, a dozen Greek activists decided to occupy its premises to host migrants, turning it into the “Refugees Accommodation and Solidarity Space City Plaza”. The activists mostly belonged to the leftist groups DIKTYO (Network for Social and Political Rights) and Syriza’s Youth, and they had a long time social justice commitment. Alongside them participated a hundred migrants who, due to the lack of institutional support, had been camping for months in Viktoria square, one of the main gathering spots and makeshift tent settlements for newly arrived migrants in Athens. For the next three and a half years, the seven-storey building on Acharnon Street, in the heart of the Greek capital, became home and refuge for more than 2,000 people in transit while waiting to continue their journey from Athens to other European countries.
Greece is a country of first arrival for migrants from Asia (mainly from Syria, Palestine, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Kurdistan, and Pakistan), who get to the Greek islands of the north-eastern Aegean Sea through crossing the narrow channel dividing Turkey from Greece. After being relocated to the mainland, they used to continue their journey to central and northern Europe along the so-called Balkan route. However, with the closure of the border between Greece and North Macedonia in March 2016, and the implementation of the EU-Turkey agreements, more than 60,000 people remained stranded in Greece, finding temporary shelters in the streets and squares in the main cities.
City Plaza was born out of the urgency to provide safe housing to people living in the streets and to express dissent towards migration policies, and it was not alone. In the Athenian neighbourhood of Exarcheia – headquarter of anarchists and leftists, and a no-go zone for fascists and police – there were in 2017 around 20 migrant squats.
In its 126 rooms, City Plaza was able to accommodate about 400 people, mostly families. The priority was given to vulnerable people, as well as to people who were able to give a logistical contribution to the project (for example, interpreters, translators, and cooks). Beds and rooms were allocated in order to maintain heterogeneity and avoid internal fragmentation and conflict. City Plaza was a self-managed project, in which decisions were made in a collegial way through three levels of assemblies, open to everyone involved in the project. Functional areas and vital activities of the squat (bar, kitchen, main desk, security, cleaning) were organised through shifts.
Without any institutional support, City Plaza managed to transform the meaning of “migrants reception”, going beyond the framework of dehumanisation imposed in institutional refugee camps and hotspots. City Plaza’s residents collaborated and took part in an experiment of cohabitation between people of different origins and backgrounds. Through more than 800,.000 meals served, 100,000 hours of active duty, and 5,.100 hours of educational activities, City Plaza represented an experiment of coexistence that went beyond meeting the need for temporary accommodation. City Plaza’s residents came together as a family that, from below and not without difficulty, challenged the powers of the state and institutions while also trying to overcome the divide between us and them. We too were part of that family, living for more than a year at City Plaza, to do field research for a doctoral thesis and to carry out a photographic project on life inside the squatted hotel, but above all with the intention of supporting a political project we understood as profoundly important. During the time we spent at City Plaza we had the privilege of getting to know its residents, sharing thoughts and life stories, and in some cases conducting interviews, from which the extracts reported here come.
At City Plaza the words “home” and “family” intertwined, at times almost taking on the same meaning. We often heard residents of the squatted hotel saying “City Plaza is my home, my family”. While this might seem like an overstatement to an outsider, people in City Plaza ate, cooked, cleaned, and managed the space together, like a big family. In spite of the advanced organisation, however, some basics such as heating or hot water still lacked, and the menu was mostly the same despite the efforts and creativity of the many international cooks, from Syria, Chile, Greece, Palestine, Iran… Thus, it begs the question: how can such a place be called “home”? The answer is suggested by one of City Plaza’s residents, who stated in an interview in May 2018 that “while refugees are trapped in Greece, people have dignity here. City Plaza is a special place. It’s important that it exists and stays open. Why? Because people here have independence and privacy. This is so important for families. And there is more that exists here that you won’t find in the [refugee] camps… It feels like home. Home is not a place, it’s a feeling. City Plaza is home”.
In their article concerning habitative spaces regarded as political in marginalised and segregated contexts, hooks, Eizenberg and Koning define the homeplace as a “shelter of sameness where the everyday life that takes place in houses binds us – in spite of politics and domination we are joined in our separateness” (1994, p. 22). Similarly, the construction of a common home as a political imperative transcending race, class, gender or nationality was envisioned in City Plaza’s constitutive slogan, ζούμε μαζί, αγωνιζόμαστε μαζί (we live together, we struggle together). Therefore, City Plaza not only represented a shelter and safe harbour for asylum seekers, but also a space for entitlement and empowerment.
Indeed, a strong sense of belonging bound City Plaza’s inhabitants to the project. This is more easily understood if the space of the squat is compared with the “outside” space. On the one hand there is a “hostile” environment: that of the city, characterised by the stillness of a seemingly endless waiting. This condition marks the daily routine of migrants alongside a spatiality governed by policies that want them locked up in refugee camps, intentionally built far from the city centre which is only a prerogative of citizens. On the other hand there was City Plaza: located in central Athens, subverting curfews and identification policies typically imposed in official camps, and where each family had its own room. With a safe and private living space, and the constant support of the activists, people could finally find dignity, they could eat decently three times per day, have a job, and get medical treatment in case of illness. But above all, in City Plaza people could collaborate at different levels in the management and development of the project, therefore becoming active subjects transcending state and cultural borders while defeating top-down-imposed migration policies.
The idea of City Plaza as a home managed to relieve concerns and insecurities caused by the rejection and exclusion that accompany many migrants’ everyday life in Athens. The architecture of the hotel with its common areas and a hundred private rooms, played a fundamental role in the process of home-making in displacement. The bar, kitchen, dining room, courtyard, rooftop, Women and Kids Spaces all contributed to create a sense of togetherness and community. For instance, people gathered in the bar to chat, drink coffee, play cards, as well as to participate in the weekly assemblies and take decisions regarding the squat’s management. Residents met in the kitchen to cook and prepare meals, spending between three and four hours per shift while getting to know each other and creating bonds. The corridors were not just passageways but also places where City Plaza’s residents could meet, thanks to the fact that the doors of the rooms were often left open. Finally, children, who represented 40 percent of the residents of City Plaza, had all the space in the hotel at their disposal to play under watchful gaze of the adults, who also took care of other people’s children. For example, Karima, a mother who lived at City Plaza with her two sons, Irfan and Iman, ten and five years old, had a job as an interpreter for an international NGO and could leave for work knowing that her children were safe and were attending recreational and educational activities in the Kids Space.
City Plaza’s rooms were multifaceted spaces, able to serve a variety of purposes: classrooms, playrooms for children, exclusive meeting places for women, and warehouses. Above all, they were “homes” for the residents of the squat – an intimate place that allowed people to have privacy. Comparing life in the camps to that in City Plaza a resident commented: “Recently, I visited a friend and her family in a camp and I was reminded of the contrast between here and there. It’s so sad to see children living in the camps, without good food, in the cold, with no safe or clean place to play. Here my family and I can live independently. Having our own room makes such a difference in our day to day life. I can sleep at night in our room knowing that we are all safe.” (Resident, February 2017).
The rooms had a specific importance in the production of personal privacy and safety. This helped to recreate an environment which came close to the domestic one, as opposed to the imposition of blueprint and sterile spaces enforced in the shape of domination structures (hooks, Eizenberg and Koning, 1994, p. 25) such as refugee camps and hotspots. Especially in the case of residents who lived in City Plaza for a long time, the rooms were furnished and decorated as tiny flats, where for instance it was pleasant to invite guests. An act of resistance and cultural practice shaped by the uniqueness of each of the residents’ knowledge and cultural heritage (hooks, Eizenberg and Koning, 1994, p. 24). “I like to invite friends here in my room… It reminds me of when I was in [her hometown] … We sit, we chat, we tell each other stories of before. Sometimes we cook, but don’t say it! [she laughs. Cooking is not allowed in the rooms for safety reasons] I like it here in Plaza, but the rest… It’s too difficult. Sometimes I think I want to stay in Plaza forever. After all that happened, the journey… I know it’s not my home here, but in some moments I feel like it [is]… and I don’t know what’s expecting me after.” (Resident, interview, May 2018).
Many times it had been discussed whether there was a risk that the migrant squat would shift towards the humanitarianism typical of NGOs and state-funded associations, that is a top-down and more charity-like kind of “help” where asylum seekers usually fill the role of passive recipients at the bottom of the support line. Unlike the former, the squat was first of all a space of struggle. However, the cohabitation was not exempt from contradictions and internal tensions, mostly related to the daily management of space, residents’ interactions, and gender issues. In some cases, these contrasts were actively addressed in workshops and assemblies, while in others they were acknowledged as inevitable internal hierarchies. For instance, in the beginning of the squats existence, Greek activists were the holders of the true decision-making power as well as the most relevant tasks and responsibilities – such as the maintenance of the building, raising donations of goods and money and keeping the network of political support for the project, in Greece and Europe – but also of knowledge of the territory and of the general social and political context. This situation slowly changed over time: as the months went by, some residents who had lived in the occupation for a longer period of time showed their willingness to participate in the core assembly, which meant also taking political and strategic decisions regarding the squat.
Upon receipt of the letter of eviction from the owner of the building, after almost two years of occupation, the inhabitants of City Plaza collaborated in the definition of a plan of resistance to protect their home. In doing so, they mobilised to actively protect the space of the former hotel and thus their affirmation of their right to stay – in City Plaza, in Athens, in Greece, in Europe – and to build a life without fearing repatriation or “relocation” to other countries, breaking up the bonds they struggled so much to weave in such a difficult moment in their lives. The existence of these ties was based on the tenacity of City Plaza’s residents as well as their determination in the struggle against the system, whose hegemony was opposed until the very end.
With the election of the centre-right party “New Democracy” in both Athens and Greece and a further tightening of migration policies, at the beginning of July 2019 City Plaza opted to end the squatting project. The decision was made in order to prevent people who still lived in the hotel from being forcibly evicted and imprisoned (as it happened to the majority of migrants residing in other squats in the city). But the bonds that had been established between the residents over the years have proven strong. A dozen families decided to continue living together and rented a house which has since then become a reference point for their struggle. Similarly, other City Plaza residents continue to this day with their struggle in other parts of Europe. Just like the tree grows from the seed carried by the wind, today City Plaza’s residents continue with their struggle while adding to the creation of their “home”. Because “home is not a place, it’s a feeling” and, putting it in bell hooks’ words, it is also a site of resistance (hooks, 1990).
hooks, b. (1990). Homeplace (a site of resistance). Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics.
hooks, b., Eizenberg, J. and Koning, H. (1994). House, 20 June 1994. Assemblage, (24).