Under the same roof”: some thoughts on the experience of the occupation of the City Plaza hotel

 Aliki Kosyfologou

The societal crisis, created as a result of implementing fiscal austerity in countries of the European south, became, among other things, the impetus for the creation of a wide and diverse solidarity movement, aimed at the identification of collective solutions to shared problems. This newfound collective experience is made up new or transforming forms of organizing solidarity, new practices as well as a new political culture that is created through them. From covering the daily sustenance needs for impoverished social groups, to the protection of housing, to the loss of jobs, to increasing unemployment, to the intensification of social exclusion and discrimination, the agenda of issues to be tackled is very broad, while the practices themselves are balanced between the immediate tackling of the effects of authoritarian austerity, to the new paradigms proposed by each experiment in solidarity.

Under such conditions, the movement to Europe of hundreds of thousands of political and economic refugees not only from Syria but also from Afghanistan, Iran and elsewhere, crossed paths with facets of an emerging societal experience in self- organisation which, if rudimentary in its forms, proved itself to be particularly important for creating a positive climate, averting societal panic and its racist undertones. Experience up to now in some of the areas receiving refugees – for example on the greek islands, in Piraeus, Victoria square in Athens, on the borders, and elsewhere – despite its internal contradictions has mobilised large parts of society in a positive way. The response to calls for collection of goods for which there is an immediate need, the voluntary offering of a set of services –medical, social care, etc– as well as the active participation in solidarity structures created to tackle the multiple needs that arise, point to an unprecedented massiveness of societal involvement in the organisation of solidarity.

On balance, however, as previously happened with the Greek referendum, it is also the case in the context of the refugee “crisis”, that time is divided between “before” and “after” the signing of the agreement, in the case of the EU-Turkey deal, bringing about the temporary-indefinite closing of the borders. Up to now, the knowledge of this new reality of hermetically sealed borders appears to create movement on the part of refugees as regards the issue of asylum, thereby leading to the progressive increase in asylum application submissions.

Apart from the serious responsibility borne by the Syriza government visavis the signing of an agreement which violates fundamental human rights and ultimately punishes the refugees themselves –as well as the implementation of a policy restricting refugee movement (for example, through the creation of reception centers outside of city limits, the operation of detention centers)– these conditions also create the framework and goals of the solidarity movement.

This new role for the solidarity movement is explicitly distinct from that of establishment structures and the division of EU funds from refugees between non governmental organisations. It is defined by the new needs that are created, both immediate and longer term, which will function as the cutting edge for new struggles. This means, at least as regards the agenda of new demands towards the government and other institutional actors, that, apart from demanding better living conditions for refugees, the issue of the political orientation of the institutional agenda for refugee policy is also brought to bear, namely the organisation of a policy based on social inclusion and the recognition of an equal role for refugees in society.

In this context, through solidarity practices, there emerge, timidly perhaps, new paradigms with transformative potential. Though the practice of occupying buildings for housing and social purposes has its roots in the now distant 70s, in central and Northern European countries –countries in which the issue of housing had emphatically emerged during that period– the truth is that the Greek experience is very limited. In spite of this, the arrival and the stay of refugees in Greece appears to be the impetus for the creation of a new paradigm.

Occupied hotel City Plaza has up to now housed around 150 refugees, of which over 50 are children – and sets a dynamic example with transformative potential. For how can  a seven floor hotel in good condition remain shut when at the same time underage children are sleeping in the streets, having previously survived war or even deadly sea journeys from Turkey to the Greek islands? The protection of human life and dignity can only be the strongest grounds for social utilisation, regardless of the problems that arise, big or small. This is also true for the occupied building on Notara street, which has now been in place for over six months, and which has greatly contributed to tackling the serious issue of refugee housing, as well as for other smaller attempts at housing provision which began in response to the refugee “crisis” and the need for creation of new forms of solidarity.

It is reasonable that, apart from meeting the immediate needs of refugees, other issues also arise, either as regards the immediate management and organisation of a solidary- self-managed housing structure, or as regards its political orientation. For example, in order to succeed in having as horizontal a structure as possible, as well as to equally divide roles and actions between refugees and solidarians, conditions need to be in place facilitating greater participation from everyone in the organisation of daily life in a smaller or bigger community of people that is still being created. Making use of knowledge, specialised skills, interests and professional experience of everyone -both refugees and solidarians - can act as a starting point (through the introduction of participatory planning for the space). Moreover, the democratic character of such a cohabitation is judged by the degree to which the practices being followed put to the test the gender and other hierarchies, as well as the gendered division of roles. For example, the creation of a play area can serve both the need of minors for play, as well as make easier the daily life of mothers, giving them some time to organise their various obligations, leave the accommodation space, or rest. Equally, activities such as cooking, and the cleaning of shared spaces will play a key role in determining the character of the space. At the same time, maintaining and strengthening its outward facing character contributes to the creation of links with the neighbourhood and society.

Undoubtedly, the difficulties will not be few and far between, both as regards the practical needs of daily life, as well as regarding the political function of the space. Equally, well meant and constructive criticism will coexist with vulgar manifestations of smear campaigns targeting such efforts and the people involved in them.

As Farhat Hashmi writes "solidarity means standing side by side with each other"(free translation from the poem: Solidarity means). That describes exactly the stance taken by the former workers of the City Plaza Hotel, who stood side by side with the refugees, at the same time fighting the battle to “fulfil their just demands, needs and rights”, as they write in a statement they published.

In other words, despite the material and other obstacles, fatigue –psychical and psychological– and other difficulties encountered by similar dynamic and practical manifestations of solidarity in their implementation, their success is judged by the degree to which they continue to be organised based on the needs of people –in this case, refugees and solidarians–, as well as by the creation of conditions for a happy shared life – #wewilllivetogether, in a pluralistic environment.

Translated by Despina Biri
First published in Greek, on k-lab, 2.5.2015
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