Reflections on Volunteering in the Refugee Squats in Athens

Claudia Broadhead works for the British Red Cross in Sheffield as a refugee support caseworker. Here, she writes for No Walls about her experiences working with refugees in Athens.


I spent six weeks in Athens from August to mid-September 2018 teaching children in one of the refugee squats in the city. I made contact with a small, non-hierarchical project, that operated predominantly off a google drive document. The project dispersed volunteers who were in Athens for longer than one month to the refugee squats to teach children English and Maths. Within a couple of days of being in Athens I was involved in teaching 4-14 year olds in ‘5th School’ squat with two other volunteers.


This article is an account of what I did, saw and learnt whilst in Athens. I feel angered by the silence in the media about the situation of refugees in Greece, where the dreadful conditions continue to exist, and are deteriorating further as a consequence of the lack of funding for grass roots organisations to operate effectively.


Here I hope to outline the current situation of the refugee squats, including how they function and how people end up living there. I intend to reflect on the role of volunteers in the refugee sector, and draw on some comparisons between refugee support on the ground in Athens and in Sheffield.


The aim is to encourage conversation around the reality of the situation in Athens, which will, in turn, invite people to think and act on how we can create change.


What are ‘refugee squats’ and how are they run?

The refugee squats in Athens are abandoned buildings – mostly hotels and high schools – which have been inhabited by refugees. The process of occupation begins with some individuals who clash with the police and defend the space, until it is safe to open its doors.


There are now six refugee squats in Athens. In August 2018, a survey conducted informally by the squat managers revealed that there were 850 refugees in total living inside the squats in Athens, 30% of whom are children and 40% female.


‘5th School’ squat, as well as two others, are located in Exarcheia, a neighbourhood in Athens which has been a hub of anarchist movements since the 1970s. The political environment of Exarcheia enables the refugee squats to exist, alongside the thriving anarchist shelters.


Police monitor the perimeter of the neighbourhood, but very rarely venture inside. Violence between anarchists and the police occurs often in the evenings, and you see many refugees involved in this tension.


Police brutality


There is evidence of police brutality during these clashes. For instance, I was shown images of a refugee who was heavily involved in demonstrations covered in blood following an attack by the police, and I was caught up in anarchist revolts where they were starting fires and, in response, the police were throwing tear gas, making our noses burn. The friend I was with at the time had been living in Athens as a refugee since 2016; he was completely unfazed – apparently this was normal.


5th School Squat

Photo taken by Claudia Broadhead of the former school, now squat, known as ‘5th School’

Photo taken by Claudia Broadhead of the former school, now squat, known as ‘5th School’


‘5th School’ squat is a typical looking high school: wide corridors, identical classrooms across three floors, a large courtyard, and graffiti that reads “welcome to 5th school have a great day”.


But there are no students inside. Instead, there are 200 refugees, mostly families. Food is distributed when it is available in the hallway and people line up to receive items like sugar, figs, and traditional Arabic flat-bread. Families sleep on thin mattresses on the floor, sharing the mattresses. Bed bugs, head lice and scabies are rife throughout the squat.


There is just one fan for relief against the intense summer heat. With winter approaching, I dread to think how cold the building will be.


The squats are self-managed by residents who volunteer to oversee the distribution of donations and volunteers, set out guidelines for the residents to follow, and direct the daily running of the squat including maintenance issues and relations between residents.


The management of squats is toxic with gossip and tension. All residents felt frustrated by the conditions of the squats or the way they were managed, yet so few people wanted to help assist because they either see the squats merely as a temporary home, or they are too depressed to think beyond their own despair.


Since the squats are located in anarchist territory, NGOs are prevented from entering. In 2016, when one of the squat managers (who later became a friend of mine) did allow health and legal NGOs to enter, the decision was met with criticism and he faced numerous difficulties. There has been a major reduction in these services anyway, due to a lack of funding and media attention.


Why are refugees in these squats?


When people arrive by boat to the Greek islands, they are kept in overpopulated camps by the authorities in inhumane conditions. The closure of borders between Greece and Albania, Macedonia and Bulgaria in 2016 has forced refugees to stay in this squalor for extended periods of time. Endlessly waiting.


Rumours frequently circulate that the borders are reopening, but this only leads to more disappointment with the reality of the stationary position refugees find themselves in. Eager to escape these conditions, some refugees ‘illegally’ relocate from the islands to Athens on the mainland.


The United Nations Higher Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has funded some camps outside the capital, but these are currently filled to maximum capacity, leaving refugees with little option but to live in the squats or sleep on the streets. Some refugees in the squats have no legal papers or have been rejected by the Greek system. Others refuse to wait for a decision on their asylum claim in Greece, and so live day by day waiting for an opportunity to find ways to relocate to another European country.


Smuggling or family reunion?


One key route, of course, is to use smugglers, while another involves the legal route of ‘Family Reunion’ whereby those with refugee status can apply for their family to be automatically granted refugee status and join them in the host country.


My work for the British Red Cross involves supporting families who have been reunited through this process, and we see many clients whose family members are living in camps and squats and have been waiting for the legal route of Family Reunion to allow them to be reunited.


The role of volunteers


While in Athens, I spent much of my time with someone who had been heavily involved in overseeing the squats when he was an asylum seeker in Athens in 2016.


Hassan* fled Aleppo because of the war and travelled across Turkey, before taking a boat (with another 250 people) from the west coast of Turkey to the Greek island Lesbos, from where he was relocated to Athens. In Athens, Hassan waited for nine months for the UN resettlement program to relocate him to the Netherlands. He returned temporarily to Athens after being in the Netherlands for one year to continue voluntarily overseeing the daily running of the refugee squats. This is when we met.


Hassan had strong opinions on the impact of volunteers, and the nature of their intentions as volunteers, which he had experienced negatively first hand. These next comments are from his mouth. He felt volunteering and helping refugees had been hugely romanticised. He also frequently saw volunteers photographing children inside the squats, publicising their images to conjure a reaction on social media through the horrific situation of refugees in Athens.


Exoticisation and sensitivity


Hassan told me that it was very common for European women to engage in relationships with refugees living in the squats, he himself felt he had been taken advantage of by volunteers who found him exotic and someone in need of help. Needless to say, there can be an enormous difference between the concepts of relationships in European culture and Arabic/Middle-Eastern culture. Volunteers seemed to be blind to this, giving love, happiness, and passion to people who, for the majority, came from a culture where multiple relationships are forbidden and you are intimate with one partner, your spouse, for life.


Hassan had seen that the failure of volunteers to be aware of this, or to act sensitively to this, causing pain and heartbreak for many people who felt hope and adoration for the European women who showed them so much affection, and yet, once their volunteering stints ended, would disappear. I had many conversations about this whilst in Athens, and I also want to note the opposing view; people who disagreed felt this view victimised refugees and in effect established a power dynamic from which free love and mutual relations should always be exempt.  


Comparing refugee support in Athens and Sheffield


I volunteer as a caseworker in refugee support with the British Red Cross in Sheffield. The ground work support systems in Athens and Sheffield are arguably beyond comparison.


While, in Sheffield, volunteers form the backbone of many of the services in offer, in Athens there are very few local volunteers. It is difficult to say exactly why, but some Greeks were frustrated by the shift in the environment of Exarcheia following the influx of refugees, the area had transformed from a local’s haunt to a hub of activity for refugees and volunteers. Additionally, volunteering requires time and the financial ability to self-fund work, which may be factors that prevent Greeks, in the current economic climate, from  getting fully involved.


Second, in Sheffield, the communication between organisations, and therefore the ease of signposting and referring service users in Sheffield, is comprehensive and mostly works fluidly. In Athens on the other hand, I observed a complete lack of cohesion between the services on the ground. As a result, refugee support networks are often unsustainable and vulnerable to collapse.


Cooperation and collaboration 


Cooperation and collaboration between small ground-level non-profit services is fundamental to improving outreach and increasing awareness, propelling innovation and growth, reducing duplication, building resilience, cutting costs and increasing funding opportunities; all allowing a sustainable long-term future.


From my experience, the absence of cooperation and collaboration in Athens meant that organisations were unaware of the developments of other organisations, frequently leading to misinformation about support services. To make matters worse, the presence and numbers of volunteers fluctuated hugely, so that grassroots projects were often threatened with collapse. The lack of communication between projects in different areas meant volunteer dispersal was not orchestrated in a way to ensure the sustained force of volunteers across all refugee support services in Athens.



Refugee camp management is in dire need of being revolutionised. I do not feel in a position to offer solutions or practical examples but want to start a debate on how we address such a large-scale issue.


One comment I will add from my experiences of working with refugees in Leeds, Athens, and Sheffield is that providing opportunities to empower individuals is one fundamental aspect to restoring respect and dignity to people who have been so cruelly stripped of it. In turn, these opportunities provide motivation and confidence to rebuild and integrate.


Empowerment can be through a variety of ways such as education, employment, and social and community development. One of the long-term volunteers at the ‘5th school’ squat was an Iranian refugee who wanted to both improve his English and help children who were in a situation he had once been in. It is imperative to work alongside refugees and asylum seekers in order to create change together.


For as long as there is persecution, war or climate change, there will be displaced people who flee their homes. Those living in camps or unauthorised accommodation need to be supported with utmost priority. This is the next generation, a whole generation which has missed out on schooling. These are families who have been forced to flee their homes but are left to fend for themselves in a country where they don’t speak the language, a country itself decimated by austerity, who are waiting in hopeless limbo for the fate of their lives to be determined.


*We have changed his name to protect his identity.

 Photo of graffitti in Exarcheia via Flickr Commons - Dimitris Kamaras