ATHENS — Rasha Mohammad always cooked in Syria, but never like this. At home in Damascus, she fed her husband and six children; in Greece, she oversees the mass production of food for nearly 400 refugees. Her office is a tiny, mint-green toolshed-turned-kitchen, and her place of work is the uneven concrete courtyard of an abandoned primary school.
Opposite the toolshed, a Victorian-style tower serves as the main gateway between the courtyard and the building. The once-shuttered school is now full of children who sprint up the spiral marble staircase to former classrooms where families sleep on donated mattresses and stacks of thick, gray blankets provided by the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. Offices on the ground floor were repainted with sky-blue signs reading “No Borders One Love” and transformed into storerooms for donations, a technology room and a medical clinic.
Welcome to School Squat 2. This is one of seven major “squats” in the city where approximately 1,500 refugees have found an alternative to government camps that have rampant health and safety issues.
Many of the roughly 57,000 refugees now stuck in political and physical limbo in Greece never expected to spend more than a season here, but they found themselves still sweltering in tents at a makeshift camp at Piraeus Port this spring and summer. Camps were usually either full or host to a range of problems: scabies, knife fights, food poisoning, inadequate facilities, snakes and scorpions. In response, frustrated local activists and refugees started teaming up to house people in abandoned schools, hotels, apartment buildings and hospitals.
School Squat 2 is one of four opened by a team led by Kastro S. Dakdouk, a Syrian from the sea town of Tartus who came to Greece in 1989 for art school. He paints drooping faces and political cartoons, and he made his name in the Greek anarchist community as one of seven activists jailed after a 2003 protest.
Dakdouk, who is easily spotted by his ever-present stack of hand-rolled cigarettes and his black, shoulder-length curls, opened the original “School Squat” in March. It now houses about 420 refugees, mostly Afghans and Syrians.
When asked why the School Squat and its derivatives exist, why he chose to navigate this crisis this way, Dakdouk pauses, rolls another cigarette and begins to speak about children sleeping in the streets, then trails off.
“It is like . . . laazim,” he explains, switching out of accented English and back to his native Arabic.
It is necessary.
Mohammad, 36, heard about School Squat 2 after coming to Athens for her registration interview two months ago, and she is grateful for the change from a camp up north. “Here, no one tells us what to do, what not to do,” she says.
There is familiarity and freedom. A Syrian flag hangs out of a second-story window. As Mohammad prepares dinner, a cluster of Syrian and Lebanese guys in their 20s debate which music to play on the loudspeaker, finally deciding on an Arabic remix of Adele. A Syrian Kurdish woman peels through a large milk carton of onions, and inside the tiny toolshed, cucumbers are being cut lengthwise twice, then sliced Arabic-salad style. The smell of boiling eggplant carries out of the open door and past children playing obstacle games with Spanish volunteers.
There are cleaning teams, cooking teams, security teams, language lessons, art classes, children’s activities, beach outings, translators, Arabic lessons for volunteers and more.
Squats are run without government or major nongovernmental-organization influence and rely on donations and manpower from independent volunteers. Responsibility is divided among the residents. At Dakdouk’s original squat, a “local technical group” is the go-to for all maintenance and IT issues. There are plans to establish a bakery to produce bread en masse for residents and rooftop gardens to provide “for the soul and for the body,” says one group member.
The location of most of the major squats — near the borders of Exarcheia, the Athens neighborhood that is the historic home of Greek anarchy — attracts Greek leftists and anarchists, who see it as their duty to protect these people, regardless of their ideology.
The government shut down three squats in Thessaloniki in the last week of July, sending refugees into the streets and putting the Athens squats on edge. These are haphazard international communities built out of the worst modern humanitarian crisis — but like their residents, their legal rights are disputed. Almost all of the residents would rather be elsewhere — in Germany, Spain, Belgium, a peaceful Syria — but for now, this is the best alternative for many.
On Monday, the mayor of Athens released a public letter to the citizen protection and migration policy ministers requesting the transfer of all refugees from occupied buildings to organized hospitality structures. This came five days after the Greek Center for Disease Control and Prevention called for the closure of these “migrant reception centers” across Greece after finding that 16 centers pose a public health risk.
John Vasiliadis, 28, a resident of Exarcheia and an anarchist, is one of two Greeks living and helping at the newest hotel squat, a tiny building tucked into a residential street of apartments, record stores and cafes.
“We protect this territory from the fascists and the police, and we help the people to live here for free,” he says. “We protect these people because we must all be free — we must be brothers.”
Each squat has a different level of political influence and a distinct character. School Squat 2 evokes boisterous, family-style living. The tiny hotel where Vasiliadis works is defined by its homey lobby, where Syrian men watch BBC Arabic on a newly installed satellite television and kids play chess on donated plastic boards. City Plaza, the most publicized of the bunch, is billed as the “best hotel in Europe”; and was opened by a political group shortly after the borders were closed. Like many other squats, the building is plastered with signs in four languages — Greek, English, Farsi and Arabic — and a list of community expectations and events. Between refugees and volunteers, nearly 15 countries are represented.
There’s a sense of ownership and community among residents, says Rabi Abu Tarah, a 26-year-old resident and translator from Damascus.
“This here, this is a street,” he explains, pointing to the hallway that connects the hotel bar, which serves instant coffee to residents and visitors, and the large dining room, which is decorated with photographs of refugees and volunteers.
“And the rooms are houses. Every room has a story. Open the room, there is a deep story.”