Europe’s refugee crisis may have dropped off the front pages since its peak in 2015. But for the thousands still trapped in refugee camps on the Greek islands in conditions even the country’s politicians have described as life-threatening, the crisis remains all too real.
And one group determined to ensure Europe’s refugees are not forgotten is the Plaza Girls, a collective of six teenage activists from Afghanistan who describe themselves as “anti-fascist and anti-patriarchy”. Currently living in Athens’ City Plaza squat, an abandoned hotel occupied by anarchists and refugees, they have been involved in hunger strikes and protests over the conditions they found themselves in at the country’s notorious camps. And now they have put together Plaza Girls, a zine detailing their experiences.
“We felt like everyone had just been telling us to shut up, but we want to make our voices heard,” says 18-year-old Laila, who worked on the zine alongside her sisters Fatima, 19, Camila, 17, and 16-year-old Elina, and their friends Farah, 15, and Leena, 16. “We had no idea there would be a place in Europe that was worse than Afghanistan. After witnessing what we did, we wanted to get this information out there.”
The sisters fled with their mother and brothers from their home in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, to neighbouring Iran around ten years ago. “Iran is more secure and developed, but there was no individual freedom,” Laila explains. “There was also a lot of racism towards Afghans.”
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Eventually the family saved up enough money to pay smugglers to take them to Greece in October 2017. After arriving on the island of Lesvos by boat they were sent to live in Moria camp while their asylum applications were processed. “The perception you have of Europe is that it has strong human rights and treats people humanely,” Laila continues. “But when we got there we were shocked.”
Moria was originally built in 2015 as a temporary shelter for 2,000 migrants, but three years on it’s severely overcrowded—there were over 5,000 residents at the time the family arrived, with many contained there for over a year. Human rights groups have recorded unsafe conditions and terrifyingly high levels of violence and suicide.
The family were forced to live in a tiny tent “with only enough space for a few people to sleep at once,” Laila says. Violent fights broke out around them daily.
“Your day in Moria consists of waking at 7 AM and queuing for food for two hours, which often wouldn’t even be edible,” says older sister Fatima. “It’s a really tense, fearful atmosphere. Then you go back and just sit in the tent, until it’s time to queue again for lunch.
“It reduces your life to this horrible, basic routine, and you’re also constantly in fear. All those wasted hours and the constant tension—it psychologically breaks people.”
After just two weeks, and following a particularly violent brawl during which rocks were thrown over their tent, the sisters decided to walk out of the camp and protest its conditions.
“We’d never protested before,” explains Laila. “But we weren’t asking for anything outrageous, just our basic rights.”
The girls set up tents in Sappho Square in the centre of Lesvos’ main city, Mytilene, along with 500 other residents and local activists. Whilst here, they say they suffered beatings from police and were threatened with arrest.
After a few weeks of no action from authorities, the girls and other protestors decided to go on hunger strike. “It was very difficult, we were dizzy and our vision was blurred,” says Laila, who explains they consumed only liquids, water and apricot juice during this time.
After 26 days on hunger strike, the girls and a number of activists decided to occupy the offices of Syriza, Greece’s current ruling political party. Eventually, in December 2017 and after two months of protests, the camp authorities agreed to release residents that had been threatened with deportation—one of the protesters’ demands—and issued the family with passes to travel to Athens. “They were quite scared of us four girls,” laughs Laila.
Throughout this time the girls kept diaries detailing their experiences as a form of therapy. When they arrived at City Plaza, which houses over 400 activists and refugees from all over the world, they met Farah and Leena. The group began exploring ways to express their experiences through writing, music, and art. Encouraged by an English teacher, they decided to put together Plaza Girls featuring their original photography and reporting from the camp, alongside their poetry.
“Our friendship has helped open my mind and lowered my stress,” says Farah, who contributed poetry to the zine and helped edit the reporting. “I’m more open to new experiences and I’m able to express myself better.”
“Where we’re from, there are constraints on how you express yourself, both culturally and physically,” adds Laila. “But now we feel more confident—the veil has been lifted from our eyes.”
Life in City Plaza is peaceful, and although the family are still squeezed into one bedroom, the conditions are far better than on Moria. However, a lack of employment and education opportunities mean the girls hope to move on the other European countries. Their identities have been disguised in this feature after a lawyer advised that association with the project may hurt their chances of resettlement.
“There are people from all over the world living in Plaza but there’s no violence; everyone gets along,” says Fatima. “Which shows the violence in camps arises from the environment that’s created there, not because the migrants are all bad people.”
She adds that, after finding it hard to make friends on Lesvos, she now has friends “from all over the world,” including migrants and refugees from other countries as well as leftists and anti-fascists who volunteer at the squat.
“We join the anti-fascists on protests in Athens. If we need any services, such as a doctor, the anti-fascists help us access them. On Lesvos there was one doctor to about 1,000 people and if you were sick they’d just tell you to drink water.”
"Activism is difficult, but it makes you stronger."
Greece’s far-right Golden Dawn party is notorious for orchestrating attacks on vulnerable migrant communities. In recent months, according to the girls, they have set a car on fire in the streets near City Plaza and also physically attacked people. “We have a lot of defence [at Plaza],” says Fatima. “One day when there was a nationalist march through the city the anti-fascists and residents stood outside the squat to protect it.”
The fact that conditions in Moria remain largely unchanged, and possibly worsening—there are reportedly now over 7,000 residents, and current protesters were recently attacked by fascists—still haunts the girls. “We want everyone to have humane treatment,” says Laila. “There are people in Moria who are doctors, professors, who could have contributed so much to Europe, but the camp may break them down so much they never recover.”
The collective say their creative projects are a continuation of the activism that began on Lesvos, and their next goal is to publish a book of poetry. “Activism is difficult, but it makes you stronger,” says Laila.
“We want to remind girls like us to not let the powers that be dictate what they’re owed, but to dictate for themselves what is right and acceptable,” she concludes. “Don’t wait to be given your rights—demand them.”