This article originally appeared on VICE Greece.
A huge banner reading "Refugees Welcome Home" is draped across the front of a derelict building in Exarchia, Athens – a district that's generally regarded as the spiritual home to the city's anarchist movement. On Tuesday morning, members of the Anti-authoritarian Movement Athens (AK) occupied a former university dining hall, with the aim of transforming it into a temporary residence for refugees. They want to fix up the space and make it fit to accommodate refugee and migrant families arriving in Athens.
Crossing a rubble-strewn courtyard, I entered the building to find members of AK making plans for an open meeting later that day. They offered to show me around and explained that before any refugees can be housed, they'll need to work together to clean, disinfect and make the place habitable. The truth is that it'll take a hell of a lot of time and effort because at the moment it's just a building site. The three floors are vast and empty. The ground level consists of a sort of living room, plus what's left of the old kitchen and bathrooms. The first and second floor will accommodate the families, while there are also plans to turn the basement into a storage area. Once complete, it's estimated that the building will accommodate up to 200 people.
"As the refugee crisis worsens, we took the initiative to seize the old student club on Arachovis Street and turn it into housing for refugees and migrants. There have been some positive developments in regards to the situation on behalf of the state, but we need the citizens to show real solidarity," AK note on their website.
One of the activists helping out at the site told me: "We came in the morning and took over the building. We don't want this to be a charity initiative or a soup kitchen. We want the space to be run by the migrants and refugees themselves. We can help meet their basic needs but they will need to cook and clean on their own, as if they were at home." This project isn't the only of its kind in Greece and AK members aim to connect with similar movements across Greece and the rest of Europe.
Are they worried the neighbours might object to their plans? "We're not concerned about the neighbourhood's reaction. Sure, there might be a few who don't agree, but the alternative makeup of Exarcheia makes it a good fit to accommodate people of different cultures. We're talking about refugees fleeing war zones – people who have endured terrible conditions. Even the coldest heart must be touched by that," another activist assured me.
Shortly after 7PM, several collectives and organisations joined members of the public and filled the building's ground floor completely. In an open meeting of about 200 people, the next few days were planned out. Firstly, the group would need to find the funds to cover the costs of renovation. They also discussed other similar projects across the country and the involvement of the migrant communities themselves. Work on the building was due to begin the next day.
The plan is for the space to function as a stop-gap in the journey of refugees and immigrants. The venue will be run by the refugees, who will host their own meetings and manage the space. The activists will only act as assistance. Once the building has been prepared, the work of actually getting the refugees in will begin. If people are as willing to help as they claimed at the meeting, the building could be ready in as few as three days.
Even though politicians don't seem to have an answer to this crisis – no matter how many EU summits they hold – the often maligned anarchists and other political radicals are offering at least a temporary reprieve for refugees. They've given up their own time and effort to help make the journey of refugees through Athens as human as possible.
The day after I visited, many returned to the squat with tools and equipment and the hard work began. If all goes to plan, refugees and immigrants will have their own real home in Athens in just a few short days.
UPDATE: "This past weekend the project was relocated to Notara 26 in Exarcheia – which also used to house a state-run company. According to the AK, the reasons behind the move were twofold: Firstly, the new space is safer. Secondly, they felt the problems that came up regarding the ownership status of the previous building could result in a precarious situation for its future occupants.