The Park Hotel: Doing Business on the Outskirts of a Refugee Camp

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Polykastro, a Greek town near the Macedonian border, has about 8,000 residents and was the link to civilization for over 10,000 refugees holed up in massive unofficial camps in the area (Idomeni is 15 minutes away) before they were cleared in the last months. And it was also a link for as many as 1,000 volunteers who had come in from all over the world to help mitigate a crisis that all the countries of the United Nations had been somehow unable to prevent. Now that the unofficial camps have been closed, the number of refugees in the area has dwindled and so has the number of volunteers. But Polykastro is a different place now. This is Part One of the story.

When I arrived in the town it was already dark. I had taken the last bus from Thessaloniki with Eva, an independent volunteer from Germany whom I’d met in Athens. She knew Polykastro well, she’d been here when Idomeni was still around.

When the bus rolled up to the town line, she asked the driver if he could stop at the Park Hotel and he nodded knowingly. “We can stay here for free,” she explained. “Rooms are 20 euros, but volunteers can camp out back for free. At least that’s how it was last week.”

My first impression of it was that it was an American motel, stranded between dusty parking lots a mile from some empty casino. We slid open a gate on the side and walked through moon-pale gravel toward some dark trees. “Do you have a tent?” she asked. I didn’t. “That’s fine,” she assured me. “Some of these tents are empty. The volunteers leave them up for other people when they’re gone.”

She looked around. “We just have to figure out which ones are empty.”

A fun midnight activity.

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Overnight at the Port Piraeus Refugee Camp

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The tent city at the harbour of Piraeus, Greece, is an unofficial refugee camp, constantly under threat of evacuation, where over 2,000 refugees from Syria and Afghanistan have been residing, many of them without papers, for several months. A team of dedicated — and overtaxed — volunteers from a few small NGOs, as well as some “free agents,” manage the residents’ health, safety, hygiene, and even recreation. Because they are an unofficial camp, they get little more than emergency supplies from the UN refugee agency. Most of what’s done at the camp is an improvisation and a cooperation between the volunteers and the residents. There’s almost always a feeling of conflict in the air, but also of humor. (Some names of people have been changed.)

It’s the morning after the night I spent at the port. Samrend is standing over me smoking with his foot resting on the concrete barrier I’m sitting on. His tan is deep, his hair sandy brown, his golden Aviator shades reflecting my own skinny figure back at me. He looks like a Kurdish Abercrombie model who’s been to war. In fact, he has been to war. He fought ISIS with the Iraqi military last year.

Everyone else is hiding in the shade except us two.

“We have a lot volunteers. A lot good. One crazy.” He starts laughing at his joke and decides to repeat it. “One crazy. You know who.”

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Squatted Refugee Hotel: “We Don’t Want Help from the State”

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The tour began like any orthodox tour of a prized facility. “Here we have the common room where we eat together,” said Padelis proudly, with a Greek accent. “Here is the caf√©.”

Then someone interrupted in rapid Greek and and Padelis excused himself. “I’m sorry. I have to go. I am also the doctor here.”

This is the Hotel City Plaza, a hotel in the heart of Athens that was abandonned by it’s owner during the crisis and taken over by radical pro-refugee activists who wanted to provide a functioning alternative to the official military-run camps in the arid outskirts of the lively city.

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Waiting for the Sun to Set

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It’s nearly dinnertime at the refugee camp at Port Piraeus and everyone seems to be pretty hungry. It’s Ramadan and most people here are observing the Muslim fast, which means no eating til sumset. One of the volunteers here told me that when the holy month started, the Greek Navy (which supplies the bulk of the food) only brought in half the rations. No lunch, was their reasoning. The volunteers had to explain that Ramadan is about fasting, not starving.

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The Camp that Cannot Last

In which I meet a young Greek who lost his job, miss my bus stop, ask five people ‘where the refugees stay’, wander around the harbour with no water, pass by a sinking passenger ship, find an unofficial camp staffed by friendly but cantankerous volunteers from all over the world, meet a young Kurdish man who fought ISIS in Iraq, and make 600 bean wraps on the roof of a restaurant.

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It didn’t take me a long time to find what I was looking for. I had talked to a few people, and someone suggested that if I wanted meet refugees and the people who are helping them, then I should head to Port Piraeus, which for many asylum-seekers is the first point of entry onto the European mainland. And it’s where many stay. At least for a while. Over the last year, unofficial shelters have been established here in empty shipping warehouses. And as the Greek government begins to clear these all-volunteer, squat-like tent cities — think Idomeni — the newcomers from Syria and Afghanistan are slowly relenting to move into the sterile military refugee camps.

The only info I had was the name of the port, so I looked around for a bus stop near my hostel and it happened to go in that direction. A guy waiting at the stop asked me if I could spare a ticket and I could. His name was Mike, about thirty, dark hair, over-sunned skin. Was he going to Piraeus? No, he was going to his job at a factory. He had been an engineer, lost his job around 2012, got another but quit after six months when he realized his paycheck would never come. Now he works in a factory. On an industrial stretch of road, he got off the bus and told me I could use his name, but I couldn’t mention what he made at the factory. It’s a pity because it was poetic.

I missed my stop by a lot. None of the signs outside of the city of Athens are written in the Latin alphabet. But by asking over and over where the refugee camp was, I finally found my way to the harbour.

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Contents of the Bag

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I’ve always been fascinated by stuff. It’s a troubled relationship. As a teenager, I was of the ascetic school, fantasizing about monks in mountains, philosophers in cabins. It was the idea of zero, attractive, impossible. Jack Kerouac (the one I’m always trying to distance myself from, like a political party of which one was once a member) — he wanted the same, and got to about the same place in his pursuits: You simplify, simplify, simplify, until you realize it’s a game. Certainly too many people have too much, and it’s usually these who worship the ascetic, it’s these who stow their valuables and head in the opposite direction of those who have lost everything or never had anything in the first place.

Preparation

Last month, a bit spontaneously, I bought an EasyJet ticket from Berlin to Athens for around 30 euros. In 2014, a student from Damascus named Ghaith paid 6,800 euros to cross ten borders and arrive in Sweden.

It should be obvious to anyone aware of the so-called refugee crisis in Europe that borders are sieves that control the flow of people based on two things: ethnicity and income. If you have enough money, you can pay your indemnities and move where you please. If you share a blood heritage with the majority population of a wealthy country, you get filed into the shorter line at airports, you get the simplified paperwork, you are greeted by the hotelier and ignored by the police.

One of the sharpest ironies is that when you have a lot of money, unlike Ghaith, you don’t pay as much to travel. You don’t have to buy a fake passport or open your wallet to a blackmarket taxi driver or wire money to a smuggler to take you across the Mediterranean.

Of course there are exceptions to the sieve. But the exceptions are like paint flecks that fall outside of the line — you can still see the shape of the thing.

This blog, dispatching from Athens and points northward, is (first of all) my attempt to see the places and people marked by the passage in a single year of over a million souls out of North Africa and the Near East and into Europe. From June 14 through the end of the month, I will be traveling from Athens up the “Balkan Route” and writing about it.

But Left of North will also approach migration as a challenge to the current structure of the world, and it will look at migration facilitation¬† — whether you want to call it human smuggling or humanitarian aid — as a kind of politics. And it’s a politics that has begun to define the left and the right in Europe.

Helping undocumented migrants is illegal, and yet people do it. They give up spare rooms for stopovers, purchase bus tickets, line up jobs, and drive people northward. Some do it for money, some out of pity, some out of ideology. It’s this last group that this blog is most interested in. Is there a cohesive movement of leftist migration facilitators? Is it a fundamental part of a progressive vision of Europe?

Those sound like good questions to start with.