Den of Thieves or Family Neighbourhood? : the Cost of Vilifying Refugee Communities

‘Exarcheia, Europe’s largest anarchist neighborhood based in central Athens, has become one of the most vilified neighbourhoods in the West. Upon the recent election of a new anti-immigration prime minister, places like Exarcheia, that hold more refugees in a few blocks than enter the United States in a calendar year, find themselves increasingly endangered. Are these neighbourhoods really ‘dens of thieves’, or are these just lies we tell ourselves in order to ignore a brutal, inhuman reality?’

Image Credit: The Guardian

As I sat down to write this piece, a notification lit up my phone. 

10.56 am –  ‘Lots of tear gas… the police attacked the book fair. Came into the square and everything.’

A text from a co-worker of mine back in Athens. We both volunteer for an NGO that provides language and vocational classes for asylum seekers, as well as housing in the form of a small women’s shelter.

Her text was updating me on a neighborhood we worked in and around: Exarcheia. Based in central Athens, it is well-known as Europe’s largest anarchist community. As a result, it has become one of the most vilified neighbourhoods in the West. In tandem with its anarchic tendencies, Exarcheia holds more refugees in a few city blocks than will be accepted over the next year into the entire United States. (https://immigrationforum.org/article/fact-sheet-u-s-refugee-resettlement/)

This coinciding of populations is no coincidence – but was encouraged by the rise of the Greek far right movement. Exarcheia’s appeal to asylum seekers and NGOs alike is not political radicalism, but safety. 

The neighborhood famously functions as almost an internal state – its borders drawn with carefully placed riot police. While these police may be intended to keep the radical left and refugee populations in, they have also kept the growing Greek far-right movement out. Partnered with the internal network of anarchist squats and official NGOs dedicated to protecting the rights of asylum seekers – Exarcheia has acted as a fortress for thousands displaced people that have made their way through Athens. 

With the election of right-wing Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis – this delicate balance has not just been tipped. It’s been set ablaze.

Running a traditionally ‘Law and Order’ campaign, a central promise of his platform was to ‘clean up Exarcheia’ – to save local Greeks from the anarchists, drug dealers, and criminals that lie within. Those of you who recognize this rhetoric may remember promises to ‘clean up’ neighborhoods that are traditionally non-white and working class from leaders across the West – promises requiring the use of violence to be kept. See: Reagan’s War on Drugs, Thatcher’s crack-down on crime, and now Mitsotakis’ seizure of Exarcheia. On Monday, August 26th of this year, the police carried out an unparalleled raid on the neighbourhood. At just after five in the morning they arrived decked out in riot gear to attempt to evict all those living in the anarchist settlements. Breaking their self imposed police border, fully armed officers could be found on every corner of the neighbourhood. And for the first time since I have known Exarcheia, the streets were eerily empty. 

Upon a quick Google search of ‘Exarcheia’, it may seem easy to justify that Exarcheia needs cleaning up. One will find videos of anarchists throwing molotov cocktails, and clashing with police. Pictures seem to be plastered across the web of an Exarcheia engulfed in flames. These articles damning the neighbourhood as a monolith seem to have a point, the same three videos of masked men acting as universal proof. 

We must remember that Exarcheia is not perfect, nor is it ideal. It isn’t even legal. But it is all some of the most vulnerable people that have landed on Europe’s shores have.

In an article published by the Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2019/aug/26/athens-police-poised-to-evict-refugees-from-squatted-housing-projects)  on the day the raids began, a resident of Notara 26 (a self organised refugee housing squat) spoke on their experience living in the squat when they said:

‘[The squat] is important for me because I feel a little more human. We have space to sleep, neighbours and a neighbourhood around us.’

Exarcheia and similar communities provide some of the only viable alternatives to state run camps that, despite possessing arguably worse living conditions than the squats, remain overwhelmingly full. The narrative we must remember to hear the loudest is that driven by those actually experiencing displacement. In this case, a narrative that shows Exarcheia as more than a den of thieves, but as a neighbourhood of displaced families looking to feel ‘a little more human’.

As someone who has worked in Exarcheia, the news coverage framing the neighborhood as criminal has become increasingly difficult to read. When I close my eyes and think of my time in Exarcheia, I don’t think about masked men. I remember Farzad*, the Iranian professor, and our morning chats on political philosophy and his hair gel routine. 

I remember playing chess with Sohrab*, laughing with him one moment and the next his confiding in me about the fate of his sisters – murdered by the Taliban. 

I remember the mother with the tired eyes, arriving on her first day in Athens with two children under twelve.

Exarcheia is not and will never be comprised of masked men, it is full of everyday people forced into survival mode . These are more than communities of resistance. These are families – people that could be your professors, your neighbours, your brothers.

It is so much easier for us to live with this reality if we believe it only applies to criminals. The myth of an Exarcheia that is only a den of thieves becomes convenient to believe when we see pictures of police armed with semi-automatics and canisters of tear gas. But tear gas does not discriminate. It will not only burn the eyes of the anarchists throwing molotov cocktails, it will touch all that make Exarcheia their home. Even the families of refugees the international community claims to care for.

We must force ourselves to look reality dead in the eyes, to avoid the lie that is easy to tell ourselves. In doing so we have the ability to reclaim our empathy and compassion from the media-driven narrative. This lie allows us to separate ourselves from our own humanity, and to believe those living a more dangerous existence than our own are somehow deserving of it. 

This belief is the most dangerous of them all. It allows us to believe these neighbourhoods must be ‘cleaned up’. It reassures us that the only effective way to do so is with violence. And it subliminally messages us that these ‘others’ deserve that violence. 

What you won’t see is a text sent at 10.56 am about the police tear gassing a community book fair. The mainstream media won’t show you a community of compassion you may connect with, or the families in it. Only the violence, destitution, and fire. 

The only way in which we may fight this vilification of communities many white, Western readers of this article will consider ‘other’ (I feel it is apt to write here that I myself am included in this), is to fundamentally shift the way we view issues meant to scare us. When we see the tell-tale signs of fear mongering it is our duty to interrogate the narrative we are being fed, to work to connect with those experiencing a reality different from our own. It becomes more and more difficult to fear a community we hold any level compassion for. 

Most importantly, we must remember that in this case the only difference between ‘us’ and ‘them’ is luck. In another world, Sohrab* and I were classmates in Farzad’s* philosophy class. In this one, we were born oceans apart. It is sheer luck that I was not born into a zone of active conflict, and Sohrab* was. When I think of Exarcheia, I will always think of him. Not the monolith we read about, but those that make Exarcheia the complex community it truly is. 

*Names have been changed to preserve anonymity. 

Madison Miszewski

Madison is a final year History student at King’s College London writing as a contributor for Sensus. Her particular interests of study and research include migration, queerness, and diplomacy. 

She is the acting Editor-in-Chief of the KCL Women & Politics blog, The Clandestine and has been published previously by GLSEN (the Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network) as well as Teen Vogue.