Living 'as a big family': Hotel housing project gives refugees a rare sense of hope

An abandoned Athens hotel that has been transformed into a refugee housing project is a rare bright spot in a crisis where hope is always fleeting, the CBC's Ellen Mauro writes from Greece.

Abandoned Athens building transformed into temporary home for asylum seekers

Refugee children take advantage of an empty space in the dining area of City Plaza Hotel in Athens to play with each other. (Ellen Mauro/CBC)

It's early afternoon at the City Plaza Hotel, an abandoned building that has been transformed into a refugee housing project in the heart of Athens, and everywhere there are scenes of frenetic activity. 

In the kitchen, refugees and volunteers work side by side, hurriedly fussing over the ingredients for that day's lunch.

Groups of children chase after each other through the building's common areas, their carefree laughter filling the air.

Others proudly show off designs they've just had painted on their hands while their parents mill about, socializing and sharing jokes of their own.

City Plaza regularly sets up activities for its child residents. This little girl happily shows off a henna design she had painted on her hand. (Ellen Mauro/CBC)

These sights of happiness — so rare in Europe's refugee quagmire — make it immediately clear that this place is unlike any other we've visited while covering the crisis.

At the entrance to the seven-storey building, a group of volunteers, including a man named Nikos Vasilopoulos, greets residents as they return.

"What motivates me?" Vasilopoulos asks. "I believe if we help refugees to overcome the problem that they have and become part of our societies, then we will make a big step to help ourselves, too."

Nikos Vasilopoulos is one of the Greek activists who helps run City Plaza. (Pascal Leblond/CBC)

Shelter from the storm

Now housing roughly 400 asylum seekers, the City Plaza Hotel was once a symbol of the other crisis vexing Greece, closing about seven years ago at the beginning of the country's economic meltdown.

It became a home for refugees last spring after the building was occupied by Greek left-wing solidarity activists eager to provide decent housing to people who, like tens of thousands of others, would have otherwise been forced to sleep rough on the streets or stay in the dozens of squalid refugee camps dotted around Greece.

The building functions completely independently of the state, relying entirely on donations and volunteers. 

It's both a squat and a rare bright spot in a crisis where hope is always fleeting.

Parwiz Haibat says he and his wife Masouda were forced to flee Afghanistan after being threatened by the Taliban. (Pascal Leblond/CBC)

"When we are going to a camp … every day raining, and we are in the tent. It's difficult," says Parwiz Haibat, an asylum seeker from Afghanistan. 

Haibat, a journalist, says he never thought his first child would be born in Greece until he was threatened by the Taliban earlier this year and forced to flee with his wife, Masouda.

Masouda spent part of her pregnancy living in refugee camps in Greece, where she sometimes had to wait up to seven hours to use the limited hygiene facilities available.

Their desperate situation only improved when a space opened up at City Plaza.

"Right now, it's better," Haibat says. 

The couple lives in a small room with a balcony, their own bathroom, a warm bed for one-month-old Omer, and, perhaps most touching of all for the young parents, enough space to display his donated toys.

One-month-old Omer was born in Greece after his parents fled Afghanistan. (Ellen Mauro/CBC)

Shelter may be the most tangible need fulfilled by City Plaza, but the intangibles matter just as much: the activists' mission is to create a sense of community, a feeling that life can go on even in the most uncertain circumstances.

"When we give those people a bed, a closed door, a plate of food, they let themselves be more free," says Vasilopoulos. "They could live together in more harmony, rather than in distress about survival."

And nowhere is that sense of harmony more obvious than in the diversity that lives inside City Plaza's walls.

They could live together in more harmony, rather than in distress about survival.- Nikos Vasilopoulos

The building houses refugees from a variety of countries — Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, several others — who overcome language and cultural barriers to work together to help run the squat.

Residents are responsible for completing certain tasks, including cleaning, cooking or helping to patrol the building against possible security threats. Other similar squats have been attacked by vigilantes angry at the number of refugees in Athens.

Residents of City Plaza are responsible for completing certain tasks to help maintain the building. (Ellen Mauro/CBC)

Decision-making at City Plaza rests on debate among residents and activists alike — a flurry of discussion translated into multiple languages on the fly at weekly general assembly meetings. No action is taken until a level of consensus is achieved. 

'Everyone helps'

Dania Kasem, a young mother from Syria, lives at City Plaza with her son.

Her husband made it to Germany before Greece's northern border to Macedonia, the gateway to the rest of Europe, slammed shut earlier this year, eventually stranding 60,000 people in Greece.

Dania Kasem hopes she and her son will one day be reunited with her husband who is now living in Germany. (Ellen Mauro/CBC)

Tired of waiting for official reunification procedures and worried that their lives were increasingly in danger, she decided to make the perilous journey to Europe as well. 

"Life in this hotel is very nice," she says. "We are living here as a big family. Everyone helps, everyone participates in the activities ... we are all supportive to each other."

'City Plaza creates new needs'

Volunteers have even managed to enrol dozens of the squat's child residents in local schools — no small feat considering parents' groups in other parts of Greece are trying to block refugees from being educated alongside Greek children. 

They return from classes, weighed down by oversized backpacks, but seemingly lifted up by the first sense of a normal childhood routine they may have experienced in months.

A refugee girl returns home to the City Plaza following a morning at school in Athens. (Pascal Leblond/CBC)

"City Plaza creates new needs and I love that," says Vasilopoulos. "When we first came here, we just tried to give these people housing. Now we are in the middle of September and we gave those people schooling.

"And after a while, we will help them go on to their [new] lives."

Warehouse of souls 

But how long that will take is anyone's guess.

In September 2015, the European Union promised to help lift the burden on Greece by relocating the tens of thousands of refugees now languishing within its borders to other parts of the continent. But the process has been painfully slow.

There are thousands of child refugees living in makeshift camps across Greece. More than 3,000 of them are travelling alone. (Ellen Mauro/CBC )

In the last year, only about 4,000 refugees have been moved out of Greece. If the relocations continue at their current pace, rights group Amnesty International estimates it will take 18 years for the EU's promise to be fulfilled. 

In the meantime, more people arrive on the country's Aegean islands nearly every day, putting extra strain on camps already far beyond their capacity. The situation is hardly better on the mainland, where facilities are also stretched well past their limits.

In 2015, an unprecedented 856,723 people arrived in Greece by sea. So far this year, more than 160,000 people have made the same journey. (Ellen Mauro/CBC )

To use the words of the country's prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, Greece has become "a warehouse of souls," a struggling country filled with legions of people who have little hope of being relocated any time soon.

There are more than 60,000 asylum seekers in Greece, many of them living in deplorable conditions like this refugee camp on the island of Lesbos. (Ellen Mauro/CBC)

Vasilopoulos says it's that harsh reality that makes a place like City Plaza crucial.

By providing an alternative to the camps and giving children and adults alike a sense of purpose and belonging, he says it gives them a chance to live life even while they wait in limbo.

Sketches of some of City Plaza's residents are displayed in the building's dining area. (Ellen Mauro/CBC)

And now that City Plaza is full, he hopes it will be an inspiration for more people—and governments—to establish similar facilities. 

"We have created an example," Vasilopoulos says. "You can see it and you can touch it and you can be a part of it — how a refugee crisis will be solved."

Calling one model a solution may prove to be an exaggeration given the scope of the crisis.

But for City Plaza's residents there's no doubt it's an antidote: a reprieve from the inhumane conditions they once lived in and a place to rest ahead of whatever comes next. 

The volunteers who help run City Plaza say they hope it will serve as a model to help solve the housing crisis facing refugees stuck in Greece. (Pascal Leblond/CBC)


Ellen Mauro is a senior reporter based in Toronto, covering stories in Canada and beyond, including recent deployments to Haiti and Afghanistan. She was formerly posted in Washington, D.C. where she covered the Trump White House for CBC News. Previously, she worked at CBC's London, U.K. bureau where she covered major international news stories across Europe and Africa.