A group of people — Greeks, Afghans, Iraqis, Syrians, Bulgarians, Iranians, Turks — gather around a steaming pot outside a dilapidated building complex from the 1930s set in the heart of Athens.
Dubbed the Ta Prosfygika, meaning “The Refugees”, the once stately complex was erected on what is now plum real estate in downtown Athens to house some of the hundreds of thousands of Greeks chased from Turkey between the two world wars.
Under the international 1923 Lausanne Treaty closing one of the last chapters of the Great War, Greece and Turkey exchanged each other’s migrant populations — 385,000 Turks living in Greece and 1.3 million Greek settlers in Turkey.
Some of their descendants still live in the decaying complex, others around the pot are recently-arrived refugees eking out a living in economically-crippled Greece.
“It’s our Sunday get-together, the proof we can help each other in these difficult times, struggle against alienation,” said Lucas P. as he poured tomato sauce over noodles.
Lucas, a bank employee, works as a volunteer every Sunday, helping to cook for about 100 people here, immigrants as well as homeless Greeks.
For the past several years these people have been squatting in around half of the 228 small housing units initially built for an earlier generation of refugees.
“We all live together, cheek by jowl,” said Aras Hosien. “The Greeks help the foreign children to learn the language, they throw parties, show movies. It’s like a family.
Hosien, 34, is an Iraqi Kurd who shares his apartment with an Iranian from the southern city of Shiraz.
The lobby of one of the buildings has been turned into a sort of activity centre for children — there are around 30 of them aged between five and 15. The walls are adorned with paintings and the letters of the Greek alphabet.
“The children have difficulties at school, and we try to help them,” said Vaguelis, 31, who was a squatter here three years ago and still serves on the residents’ coordination team.
– Prime real estate –
The complex stretches for eight blocks along a central artery of the Greek capital, its crumbling facades an eyesore near the Supreme Court, police headquarters, and major hospitals.
Across the way is the stadium of Athens’ premier football club Panathinaïkos.
It stands on 1.5 hectares (nearly four acres) of prime real estate.
For now the wastelands between each block serve as car-parks during the working week.
“These stone buildings, with characteristics of the Bauhaus style, were the Greek idea of public housing at the time,” said Yannis Polyzos, a professor of urban planning at the Athens Polytechnic.
The German modernist Bauhaus art school deeply influenced design and architecture across Europe between the two wars, and the decaying complex, which has been declared a “national heritage”, cannot be demolished, said Polyzos.
The cash-strapped government that owns the major part of the building is avid to sell at a profit to help balance its books rather than invest in restoration work.
The remaining 30-odd private owners, descendants of the original refugees of whom only a few still reside in the complex, too would like to sell.
“Living conditions are abysmal in these derelict buildings that offer very little sanitation,” said one of the private owners, who asked to remain anonymous.
“I’m not a racist, I understand that these people have to live somewhere, but the authorities need to force them out because the complex is worth a lot of money,” he added.
Some of the squatters would agree. “It’s not a good life for our children here,” said Mohanomo Kezari, an Afghan refugee who fled to Greece with his family to escape the Taliban, but who, like many others dreams of moving on elsewhere in Europe.
“I’d rather go live somewhere else, in Sweden, Germany or Austria,” he said.
But many of the Prosfygika squatters are content with life within this multicultural community, defending it as a “social self-management and cohabitation project for people of different origins.”