Sunday, August 31, 2014

Immigrants in Greece, Part 3: Anti-Racist Grassroots Groups Helping Migrants; Trapped Syrians, and an Algerian’s View

A Summer Evening in Chania, the Immigrants’ Hangout, and Help for Syrian Asylum Seekers

In July, a week and a half after the Anti-Racist Festival I described in my July blog, my Greek friend K and I spent an unusual evening out without our families in a pleasant part of Chania featuring cafés, restaurants, shops, and new cobblestone streets. Next to an attractive little fair trade store called Terra Verde, we were disappointed to find Κοινωνικό Στέκι – Στέκι Μεταναστών (Koinoniko Steki – Steki Metanaston) closed, although we’d been told that it was generally open on Wednesday evenings in the summer (and much more often in the winter). I’d wanted to visit that Social Hangout and Hangout of Immigrants--Steki, or Hangout, for short—for some time. The door to Steki was ajar, so we were able to walk into the entrance hallway, with its shelves of brochures and booklets, and add my bag of used books to the bags of clothes that had been donated there. Some other women in makeup and colorful dresses went in to select the clothes they needed, as they were welcome to do. But I didn’t get to see the café space, so I had to content myself with taking photos of the outside of the attractive old, restored row house.

At Steki, migrants and the general public can relax and enjoy coffee or drinks at low prices. On Sundays, they are offered a free lunch; other days, they can take free language lessons in Greek, English, Arabic, and Spanish. Various groups and committees meet there, focusing on the needs of immigrants, the homeless, prisoners, fair trade, and single parents. A music and dance collective of Greeks and foreigners, Yar Aman (Turkish for “My Love”), practices there and gives free performances and concerts with traditional Greek, Turkish, Arab, and Mediterranean music and dances. (My father, an avid international folk dancer, would have joined them if he’d lived long enough to visit us here.) People at Steki participate in various activist events, for example helping to organize the Anti-Racist Festival, advocating the establishment of a homeless shelter in Chania, and assisting the 154 Syrian asylum seekers whom the Greek Coast Guard brought to Crete when their rusty old boat couldn’t make it to Italy from Egypt last spring.  

In that emergency assistance effort, Steki joined an impressive, unusually united front of other leftist grassroots organizations, local and regional government agencies, religious and medical institutions, the Red Cross, Doctors of the World, and other non-governmental and military organizations, who together provided food and medical care and arranged for clothing and a place to stay for the Syrians and the larger number of Egyptians who arrived with them. After several days, the Egyptians were taken away, with the adults likely to be deported and the one hundred and two unaccompanied minors sent to hostels in Athens and Thessaloniki, with the hope that at least some could be sent to relatives living legally in Europe. The five unaccompanied Syrian children were sent to the Center for Unaccompanied Underage Asylum Seekers in Anogia, Crete which I discussed in last month’s blog, expecting to join relatives in Germany later. The Syrian adults and families were divided between Rosa Nera (which Social Text calls “a squatted socialcenter”) above Chania’s Old Port, and a hotel in Nea Chora, Chania, where the government paid for a limited number of days of lodging. There was an attempt to evict the Syrians from the hotel once the government stopped paying the bill. However, no other solution was found for them, and they did not have permission to go where they wanted, so many apparently ended up staying in the hotel for months—some even remaining now--while others have been taken in by Syrians already established in Chania, and still others have left for other European countries using falsified documents, according to reporter George Konstas. The Syrian asylum seekers lacked food and clothing, but grassroots and nongovernmental organizations such as Steki and the Community Kitchen have attempted to provide those, for example joining the Chania Migrants’ Forum and the Rosa Nera group to collect food at a hip hop concert organized earlier this month for that purpose.  

The Community Kitchen 

That July night in Chania, K and I had better luck with our attempt to visit the Κοινωνική Κουζίνα (Koinoniki Kouzina) or Community Kitchen, a soup kitchen where K and my dentist’s assistant have helped out, than we did with Steki. It’s the only soup kitchen in Greece that’s unaffiliated with a church, yet open nightly year-round since it opened. Around 8:30, one Greek man and three immigrant men were getting ready to open for dinner, setting tables with knives, forks, napkins, cups, and bread, cutting up enough zucchini to fill an enormous tub to go with another huge tub of boiled potatoes and an immense pot half full of lentils. K greeted the Greek man I’ll call Stavros and the Moroccan I’ll call Hassan, whom she knew from her own volunteer work there, and we went inside, a few steep steps down from street level. We saw eight pairs of schoolroom tables with four chairs set up at each, a sink next to the steps, a bigger table at the far end of the long room, full of the huge tubs and pots of food, and a kitchen area behind the table with two donated ovens and two donated refrigerators. The walls were decorated with posters from anti-fascist festivals, quotations from famous people, and school children’s drawings and posters, plus a large mural I’d photographed at the Community Kitchen’s Anti-Racist Festival stall. K asked who’d painted that, and Hassan said he had. We complimented his work and learned that he could cook, too. K asked if he knew how to make couscous and falafel. She’d had limited luck with recipes she found online, but Hassan soon told her where she’d gone wrong. Then he resumed preparations for what turned out to be just 30 people’s dinner, since it was Ramadan, many of the Kitchen’s clients are Muslim, and they tend to break their daily fast at their mosque. Some men ate at the Community Kitchen, while others took food away to share with those at home, which is typical, since only a few women and children come there to eat.

We returned to speak with Hassan and Stavros around 9:30, when they were closing the Community Kitchen. We sat to talk (in Greek and English) over drinks and snacks we ordered at an outdoor café table across the street from the Kitchen, in the cool semi-darkness of streetlights. Later, the Greek volunteer I’ll call Eleni joined us. I learned that this soup kitchen had been started three and a half years ago, during the grassroots Indignados, or Indignants, grassroots citizens’ protest movement in the square in front of the indoor tourist market, or Agora, in downtown Chania. A young woman had realized that some people who joined the Indignants’ discussions were hungry, and she decided to bring them some food. After a few weeks, she disappeared, perhaps to get married and move away, but others continued what she’d started. Later, when temperatures dropped and the rains came in the winter, the Community Kitchen moved to its present location in a room off the back of a public junior high school. A true grassroots effort, it has continued to fill a clear need for free, healthy sustenance in these years of economic crisis in Greece, thanks to the dedication of many volunteers and the offerings of donors. Approximately thirty-five people cook for the kitchen in their homes; food can be reheated on the stoves in the Community Kitchen. Ten people, the majority possibly now migrants, form the core of helpers and organizers. They can always use more help and donations—especially right now. (Post a comment including your email address if you’d like to make a donation, and I’ll see how we can arrange it.)

When the Community Kitchen first opened, up to two hundred people (mostly migrant men) would line up outside to wait their turn to eat, disturbing shopkeepers nearby since their business was decreasing due to patrons’ discomfort with those crowds. The opening hour was pushed back to 9:00 p.m.—a reasonable supper time in Greece—for a while to accommodate the unhappy shopkeepers, who also involved the mayor and city council in trying to move the community kitchen out of its rent-free public space. I asked if churches couldn't offer space, but K said they have their own soup kitchens, which many undocumented migrants hesitate to use since churches require everyone who eats there to register with them and use an ID card. However, my wise friend K and another dedicated volunteer talked with all the businesspeople who had objected to the soup kitchen’s location near their shops. They listened carefully to the shopkeepers’ concerns, noting them down and responding so thoughtfully and calmly—a highly unusual occurrence between people with opposing ideas in Greece, where there’s no such thing as mediators or conflict resolution specialists, although the country desperately needs them--that the concerns melted away, along with the lines waiting in the street.

The Community Kitchen offers migrants more than nightly meals, collecting clothes for them, sponsoring free concerts, and occasionally sending an unofficial advocate to support, negotiate, or intervene if a migrant they know is arrested, to vouch for those they know as peaceable members of the community. Greek social scientist Dr. Irene Sotiropoulou tells me that she and some of the other volunteers attempt to raise awareness about various cultures, for example by presenting free viewings of movies from different countries in different languages, with subtitles in Greek and sometimes English, to help Greeks and different migrants (Bulgarians, Algerians, Moroccans, Tunisians, etc.) understand each other better. Every few months, musicians or puppeteers donate their time, and others donate their cakes, to raise funds at concerts where donations are requested and refreshments are available for sale. Businesses, farmers, hotels, and restaurants provide leftover food, and some individuals offer money, but as economic conditions have gotten worse in Greece, donations have come in more slowly.

Scapegoating: Racist Attacks on Migrants, Roundups, and Detention

In July, I was told that there were not as many migrants around compared with previous years, because many have tried to leave Greece during the economic crisis due to a lack of work or, in some cases, because of racist attacks. During the past year, Eleni said, there’s probably been an average of 120 or so eating at the Community Kitchen nightly—as opposed to the earlier average of 200—although it varies widely, with more coming during olive-collecting season. And 250 appeared on at least one recent August night, Irene Sotiropoulou told me, probably including some of the Syrian refugees who arrived in the spring, whom the Kitchen has consistently attempted to feed as needed, challenging as it has been to find enough food for everyone. On the other hand, Hassan said there were many more Moroccans in Chania three years ago; many of them have left. He also knew one Algerian whose arm had been cut badly, after which he left Greece, and he mentioned an Egyptian whose kidney had been crushed by a huge stone, after which he also departed. Now, there aren’t any more racist attacks in the part of downtown Chania where we were sitting, because there are so many immigrant-friendly groups there that a few phone calls would swiftly summon 300 people to a migrant’s defense. I’ve heard that a member of the Greek neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn was even thrown into the harbor. But in other parts of Chania, such as Halepa, where there aren’t as many of their friends around to provide support, it’s apparently more dangerous for migrants. And that’s even truer in Athens, where the Syrian refugees feared to go; they resisted an effort to send them there earlier this month.

I’ve read newspaper accounts and human rights groups’ descriptions of violent attacks on Egyptian, Bangladeshi, Algerian, Pakistani, Kenyan, Iraqi, Nigerian, Albanian, Afghan, Sudanese, and Congolese migrants in Greece, many of them allegedly carried out by members or supporters of Golden Dawn, which won 9.4% of the Greek vote in European Parliament elections in May. Scapegoating of dark-skinned and undocumented migrants is increasingly common for Greeks frustrated by social and economic hardship, since many blame impoverished foreigners for worsening the mess the country is in, for stealing, and for taking their jobs—although most migrants are very willing to work at jobs (such as construction, yard work, road work, farm labor, cleaning, and elder care) which most Greeks prefer not to do. Dr. Irene Sotiropoulou points out that racist views enable easier exploitation of people who are “different,” which provides economic benefits for the exploiter (for example, via low payment or no payment for work). She says many feel a need to “create a community out of hatred–which is wrong, of course.” Now immigrants are an easy target (personal interview, Chania, June 3, 2014). Informal initiatives by grassroots anti-fascist activists in groups such as ΚΕΕΡΦΑ (ΚΕΕRFA), the Movement Against Racism and Fascism, seek to prevent attacks and raise awareness in communities throughout Greece, and volunteers at such places as the Community Kitchen and Steki do what they can to help, but there is a great deal of work to do before racist and xenophobic views will be overcome.

Meanwhile, migrants have been attacked and beaten, and sometimes murdered, with fists, knives, and guns; their belongings have been scattered, smashed, and burnt. They are discouraged from reporting attacks to the police, both because they fear detention and deportation if they lack legal residence documents, and because they are often charged 100 euros to file a complaint, which police also say is unlikely to lead to an arrest if victims can’t identify their attackers (What About Really Tackling Racist Violence in Greece?). Human Rights Watch’s Eva Cossé cautions that the government’s attempts to win back conservative voters who have shifted toward Golden Dawn by cracking down on immigrants has worsened the situation by appearing to legitimize “Golden Dawn’s rhetoric, which in turn has helped to push the government to adopt further policies targeting immigrants” (Greece: The Story Behind Golden Dawn’s Success). Many human rights groups and activists have castigated the government for inadequate responses to racist and xenophobic violence and for the often harsh treatment of migrants by police, for example in the ongoing “Xenios Zeus” roundup of people who appear foreign (including some African Americans) that started in August 2012, in which almost 124,000 foreigners were arrested, but only 6,910 (5.6%) were found to be undocumented migrants, through June 2013 (the period for which the government has provided statistics, as far as I know). The undocumented migrants are often imprisoned in overcrowded, substandard jails or detention centers; even many who are here legally are subject to abusive searches and at least brief detainment even without any criminal charges (see, for example, “Dispatches: Greece – Two Years of Abusive Police Sweeps”).

Some migrants who went from Crete to Athens to try to leave Greece for other parts of Europe instead ended up in the detention centers which Hassan calls “filaki,” or jail, and Irene Sotiropoulou and other activists call “concentration camps.” (See my July blog and the links in it for more about those centers.) Hassan and Eleni agree that the detention centers are no better than jails, since no one is allowed to leave them for eighteen months or more. He knows someone who was released from one after eighteen months due to good behavior, but he’s heard that those who are viewed as troublemakers in the detention centers may be stuck in them for two or three years, in spite of a law against such long-term detention. And last spring the Greek State Legal Council decreed that migrants could be detained beyond the previous limit of eighteen months if they refuse to agree to “voluntary” repatriation, although all the reports I see about the conditions in most migrant detention centers remain horrifying (Greek State Legal Council justifies detention pending removal beyond 18-month limit set by EU Return Directive).

A new Greek law went into effect on June 1 which stated that undocumented migrants may leave Greece, but it does not seem to guarantee that impoverished migrants may go anywhere safe, or to insist that detention center gates be opened. The law seems likely to benefit middle-class and wealthy migrants rather than those who most need help. We will see if it has any effect on the Yazidi refugees fleeing the threat of murder by the Islamic State in Iraq. It is unclear whether it has helped the migrants from war-torn Syria, who were clearly eligible to apply for asylum as refugees in Greece (yet initially prevented from doing even that), but not so clearly eligible to apply in the other countries in Europe where they actually wanted to go, given the problematic Dublin Regulation I discussed last month. They were apparently given permission to remain in Greece for six months, presumably while applications for asylum were considered (although such applications often take years to process), but they could not even submit such applications while trapped (as another blogger put it) in Crete. In any case, the Syrians did not want to stay in Greece; they’d been bound for Italy initially, with many aiming to join relatives in other European countries. What were they supposed to do? They were afraid of being sent to Athens, where life would have been more dangerous for them, or to a migrant detention center, where they could have been stuck indefinitely in dreadful conditions; and they were not told they were free to go where they wished to go, to a safer land where they would be free to build a new life.

Still? Better Wages in Greece than Algeria

On the other hand, “Hakim,” an Algerian in his thirties, managed to build a satisfactory new life in Crete, his chosen destination, ten years ago. Able to speak Arabic, French, Greek, and a bit of English, he responded to my questionnaire in a conversation with my friend K. Born in Algiers, he has lived in Chania for ten years, but his family is still in Algeria. He first came to Crete after his father died, leaving him responsible for the support of his mother and three younger brothers. With wages very low in Algeria, and much higher in Greece ten years ago, as he heard from many friends who had come here, he thought he’d have a better life here. So he left home with only the clothes he was wearing and embarked on a difficult, expensive journey, traveling by land (often by bus) across North Africa and then through Turkey, like all the migrants he knows from Algeria, making his way without a smuggler or bribes. I was surprised to learn that he has been to Algeria and back a few times since moving here. He was stopped by the Greek authorities many times, but when the computer databases revealed no criminal record, he was simply sent back to Algeria. When he came over the border at night, he managed to stay.

Since arriving in Crete, Hakim has worked in fields and at an olive oil press in Kissamos; now he’s used to life here and prefers it. As another one of the countries bordering the Mediterranean, Greece doesn’t seem that different to him from the country where he grew up. This reminds me of what Anti-Racist Festival organizers said about the festival theme of “mare nostrum,” our sea, the Mediterranean:Let’s go forward, towards a sea that unites, not a tomb that separates and divides; towards a sea that nurtures freedom, dignity and creation, rather than wars, exploitation and poverty.” Ten years ago, Hakim found it easy to find a decent job to pay his rent and send money to his family in Algeria, although he could not get social insurance, since it was very difficult to obtain legal papers in Greece, even then. He heard from a friend who went to France because of the Greek economic crisis that it was easier there, since after a number of years a boss or landlord could intercede with the authorities to legalize an immigrant—unlike here. In Greece, the only way he knew to obtain legal residence and work permits was to marry a European woman—which some Greek and Bulgarian women would agree to, for one or two thousand euros, followed by divorce. That is no longer possible, since immigrants who wish to marry need a temporary residence permit called a red card, which is very hard to get.  

Hassan, on the other hand, said that after living in Greece for ten years, if one has proof of entry ten years ago (e.g. from a hospital visit or the police), one can obtain documents necessary to remain here legally. Irene Sotiropoulou adds that there is an entire industry devoted to legalizing immigrants who can afford to pay lawyers, government fees, and translators; they are required to apply through a lawyer, and it all becomes quite expensive. (But it is legal to require immigrants to pay thousands of euros a year for this.) She suggests that decisions about who is granted citizenship seem to be rather arbitrary, so applicants don’t know whether they’ll be denied, after paying substantial fees and going through the whole process. Renewal of residence papers is based on evidence of social security contributions, which many employers don’t pay. Apparently, many employers call the police to report illegal immigrants instead of paying them what they are due for their work. Indeed, Hakim says the only person in Greece who treated him badly was one boss in Kissamos who didn’t pay him on time or pay the full amount he was due. Rather than protest—a risky business for a migrant--Hakim simply went to work for someone else. Now life is harder here in Crete, and Hakim and his friends can only find work in the fields. Still, he does not complain. His Algerian friend points out that there are good and bad people everywhere, both immigrants and natives. Good or bad, many Greeks say the poorest are the most hospitable. K mentioned that she liked couscous, and Hakim offered to make her some. 

Cross-Cultural and Multicultural Hope and Tolerance?

Although I chose to come here with my Greek husband, and although I’m not completely sure if we’ll stay here or move back to the U. S. with our kids, I consider myself an immigrant. I live here; I’ve lived here for over eleven years; this is my home now, where my children were born and are growing up. But I am one of the most privileged immigrants, well educated, here by choice, with legal documents and far more of everything than I need for myself and my children, with friends who are Greek-Canadian, Canadian, Scottish, and American, most of us privileged enough to be called “expatriates” instead of “immigrants” according to the customary geographically-based, class-based hierarchy, as I was surprised to learn this summer. Our education, class, family, friends, and contacts help bring us acceptance and prosperity here.

Irene Sotiropoulou suggests that in the region of Thraki, or Thrace, in northeastern Greece, near Turkey, Turkish, Greek, Romanian, Roma, Christian, Muslim, and Jewish people mix harmoniously in what may be Greece’s most multicultural and most tolerant region. People don’t ask about ethnic or social origin or political beliefs; they respect differences, try to avoid reproducing discrimination, and defend their neighbors. If only that were true in more of the country and more of the world. Chania offers some multicultural, tolerant hope, with its synagogue, minarets and churches, its Jews, Muslims, and Christians, its many immigrant-friendly organizations, and its annual Anti-Racist Festival. Here, I can buy a small, dark-skinned stranger an ice cream cone, make a donation to Doctors of the World and the Community Kitchen, put nonperishable food in the bins for the needy at the supermarket, and leave some used clothes and books at Steki, but how can we stop the wars, conflicts, epidemics, inequality and poverty that lead desperate people to seek work and refuge far from their homelands? I can write about a few of the migrants and about the racism that leads to intolerance and violence against so many people viewed as “different,” hoping to increase people’s understanding of our common humanity, but then what can we do next to really make progress?


As I said earlier this summer, I am grateful to all the Greeks and foreigners who helped me gather information for this blog. They know who they are. All migrants’ names, and most Greeks’ names, have been changed to help protect their privacy. Comments from Dr. Irene Sotiropoulou come from a personal interview in Chania, June 3, 2014, as well as subsequent online communication. Journalist George Konstas (who wrote many of the articles about the Syrian migrants for the local paper) was kind enough to answer my question about Syrians still in Chania in a recent email, following his last published article on the subject earlier in August.

For More About the Syrian Asylum Seekers Brought to Crete Last Spring:
Trapped (from a blog full of citations) 
Apokoronas Friends of the Chania Red Cross 

The blog entry “Trapped” used the following Greek-language sources from the local paper Haniotika Nea, among others (which can be very roughly translated using Google’s translation tool, for example): 

Conference in the Region about Hosting Migrants
Shelter for 345 Migrants (video) 
For the Rescue and Hosting of 345 Immigrants: Unprecedented mobilization  
In the Case of 345 Immigrants: Six arrests for trafficking in human beings
Forward to Hostels: The end of the adventure of underage refugees 

For links to additional information about immigrants in Greece, see my June and July blog entries.


  1. Thanks for this round-up of how things are at this point on time in Hania. We can only do so much, I guess, but sometimes it never feels as if it is enough

    1. Thank you, Maria, for all the information on your blog; it was the only place I could find any details about the Syrians in Chania in English.

  2. Hello Maria, Can you tell me if the soup kitchen in chania is still feeding migrants, and if so how to go about making a donation. thank you

  3. Thank you for your interest and generosity, Sam! Yes, the soup kitchen is still feeding migrants, as well as Greeks--anyone who needs a meal. I will email you about making a donation; it took a few days to get a response to my query about that.