“Watch your things here, it is not safe,” an older Greek man warned me as I trudged with my backpack through Athens’ Omonia square. “There are immigrants and criminals everywhere.” Omonia was, indeed, a menacing place both in the day and at night. Thousands of unemployed illegal immigrants sit idly around the square peering at tourists as they go by, while heroin addicts (mostly of Greek origin) inject openly in the streets. The side streets around the square have become a no-go zone for indigenous Greeks fearful after a series of high profile murders and violent assaults.
“You could eat off the street here 40 years ago,” the man told me throwing his head back in disgust as we passed by a gaunt beggar. “Now it is filthy and the politicians don’t care. The don’t live near here. They don’t have to see this everyday.”
Athens has changed, even in the last ten years that I have visited the city. Though the Olympics offered hope of redemption from destroyed sidewalks, intense air pollution and crumbling infrastructure, the financial crisis has shattered any pretense of the city becoming a grand European capital. Unchecked immigration from the poorest parts of the earth have also made Athens a troubled meeting point for those escaping conflict and hardship. Far from a relief, the city becomes its own nightmare for most.
Indeed, Athens has become a kind of purgatory for migrants entering Europe – a cramped, violent and sweltering waiting room that one may never get to leave. From the backstreets of Omonia to Plateia Amerikis to the quiet streets of Pagrati, tens of thousands of immigrants live one on top of another, scrounging for a few euros a day by selling trinkets, handbags, cheap clothes or, worse still, stealing, robbing or selling sex. The financial crisis has made the situation worse as, according to migrants I spoke to, police have more heavily cracked down on their businesses at the request of legitimate shop owners, while, at the same time, Greeks have less money to spend on non-essentials.
“I am lucky if I make 15 euros a day,” said Abdou, a 35-year old handbag vendor from Senegal who had been in Greece for two years. “It was much better before the crisis. Now I don’t have enough money to eat.”
I sat with Abdou and his colleagues for most of an afternoon on Syntagma (Constitution) Square speaking to them about their lives both at home and in Greece. Their living conditions were tough: a dozen to an apartment, uncertainty about whether or not they would eat that day, constant threats of police mistreatment and a growing sense that they would never make it out of Greece. They sat amongst at least 30 other vendors whose wares spread across the square, which had been badly damaged after numerous protests and riots. A customer approached, picked up a bag, inspected it, and put it down quickly before Abdou could get up.
“Look at me,” said Abdou pointing at his neat line of fake Louis Vuitton bags. “This is not what I expected to be doing in Europe.”
Weeks later I heard the same sentiments from Ali, a 27-year old Pakistani who sold polyester dresses for two euros a piece on a busy street in Athens. Though in his twenties, Ali looked no less than 40. Deep lines on his face showed decades in the blistering sun and intense pollution. His teeth had begun to blacken and fall out and his arms and hands were covered in deeply ingrained dirt. He sat cross-legged on the street despite 90-degree temperatures outside and laughed at how I had become drenched in sweat after only a few minutes in the sun.
Ali said he had gone to school to become an engineer in Karachi but ended up becoming a police officer. After some troubles at home (which he would not specify) he made the trip to Europe via Iran and Turkey. He recalls crossing the river in Evros not aware that he was at last in Europe until he was detained by Greek police. Crowded conditions at the detention center ensured that he was released within days and he made his way to Athens.
That was two years ago. Ali said that he dreamed of going to England and working as an engineer there. His descriptions of England were fantastical and I could only think of English cities in flames and the increasing joblessness while he spoke of his future home. Unlike many of the other migrants I met, he had no desire to return to Pakistan no matter how hard things got. He said he worried about becoming a victim of right-wing groups that were increasingly targeting foreigners in random acts of violence. Several months before, he recounted, Pakistani friends of his were beaten by a group of masked assailants who told them to get out of their country as they kicked and punched them.
His worry was not unfounded. Attacks on immigrants by right-wing nationalists, like elsewhere in Europe, were a growing problem that was played down by police. While sipping on a beer on a warm July evening in Psyrri, a working class central Athens neighborhood, a beer bottle suddenly exploded near my feet. This was followed by a fight, in which knives were drawn and pushing and punching began. The clash cleared the nearby cafes of people trying to avoid being hit by flying bottles. After it was over, a young man approached my table out of breath asking for a light for his cigarette. I asked him what happened and he explained that he and his friends were fighting immigrants in the area because they were stealing jobs and bothering people in the street. He said that Greeks needed to join together to push the immigrants out of the country before they ruin it. He said he supported Chryssi Avgi (Golden Dawn), a Greek nationalist group that opposes immigration and whose numbers have grown amidst skyrocketing immigration and unemployment.
After a few weeks in Athens, I received a phone call from Abass, the young Mauritanian I had met in Alexandroupoli. He told me to come to Plateia Amerikis, a popular hangout for African migrants in Athens. When I arrived, he was with friends and we went to a café to speak about how things were going. He looked in good spirits and was noticeably better groomed then when we had met in Alexandroupoli. After arriving in Athens, he had been taken in by Muhammad, an older Senegalese friend whom he knew from home. Abass still had some money but said that he was running out and would have to start selling bags like Muhammad soon if he could not get to Belgium.
We met again in a park in Pagrati a few weeks later to talk about his plans. His spirits were lower as he had little to do during the day except phone home and reassure family that everything was fine. He knew it wasn’t, however, but he continually spoke of reaching Belgium to see his friends who had made it there. “C’est difficile ici (its difficult here),” he told me over and over. I could tell he was losing hope but he kept a smile on his face as he always had since we first met.
Muhammad was different. He had been in Greece for two years and bristled when asked about where he wanted to eventually end up. He was tense but kind. He seemed more unpredictable than Abass and I often felt on edge speaking to him, as if he might get up and leave if he did not like my question. He constantly wore sunglasses and I suspected he was losing his sight as he often had trouble reading words from my computer screen. Like others who have been here for a long time, he knew that he probably would never be able to leave. He had seen the worst that Greece had to offer – a scar on his lip from a police baton spoke to his experience in a country where the rest of the world comes to relax on sandy beaches. I could see that his hope had been diminished but he still thought that one day he might make it out of Greece. Inshallah (God willing) finished nearly every sentence as if he now left all things in his life to the will of God.