The Best Hotel in Europe
The City Plaza hotel in downtown Athens, ‘the best hotel in Europe’, was empty for years after the company operating it went bankrupt in 2010. A group of activists and refugees occupied it a few months ago. Nasim Lomani, an Afghan national who has lived in Greece for more than a decade, is a longtime activist for the rights of migrants and refugees. He opened the door to me when I paid a recent visit to the hotel.
There are about 400 people living there, ‘mostly families’ Lomani told me. In the lobby there were children running around, babies in prams, mothers chatting. Akim, another activists who has been involved with the occupation since the beginning, showed me round. As we went upstairs, the sounds of children playing hit us from all sides. ‘Noise is our main issue around here,’ Akim said.
The hotel bar is now a meeting space for activists and refugees, where daily tasks are organised and assigned. ‘This used to be an activists space only,’ I was told, ‘but now we’ve mixed it up as tasks are delegated to everybody.’ The hotel operates on principles of self-organisation and democratic decision-making. Nothing is decided until a consensus is reached.
In the kitchen they were preparing what looked like a big tub of falafel (we weren’t allowed in as we weren’t on kitchen duty). No alcohol is allowed anywhere in the building.
Funded mostly by donations from abroad, especially Germany, City Plaza is a trailblazer in providing practical solidarity to refugees, heading a wave of similar occupations around the city. Some are better than others. ‘In some cases people have occupied buildings and just given them over to refugees without any further help,’ a volunteer in the dining hall told me. ‘We don’t want to do that, so we’re here every day.’
It’s a world away from the barbed wire and concrete walls surrounding the Moria detention camp on Lesvos. Greek daily news buzzes with updates from the various camps around the country: another fire in Moria and two people dead; a fire in Corinth where refugees are rioting; two hundred people walking out of the Katsikas camp in the north-west; police mobilising to stop skirmishes between locals and activists on Chios. There are more than 15,000 people stranded on the Aegean islands – their official capacity is for 8000 refugees – and the relocation programme is far from catching up with the hundreds of daily arrivals.
All the refugee camps I’ve visited this year have been outside city limits. In the Aegean, the islands themselves are de facto detention facilities, since refugees don’t have the right to leave until they’ve been processed. Not the least of City Plaza’s virtues is that it’s in central Athens. It was set up when refugees were kicked out of Victoria Square, in an effort by the state to move them to facilities where they would be invisible, facilities that often fall well short of humanitarian living standards.
Increasingly, as refugees realise that they are stuck here indefinitely, there needs to be some honesty about how long they will be staying in Greece, and appropriate infrastructure provided.
Activists are concerned that the state, and NGOs who feel threatened by self-organised initiatives, will crack down on them. Squats in Thessaloniki have been evicted and Lomani says that a refugee-run initiative there is under pressure from the Danish Refugee Council to stop operations. What City Plaza shows, however, is that practical solidarity and working with refugees, allowing them to take control of their daily lives, may be the best option available.