With phones in hand, refugees stranded in Greece tap underground networks to find safe haven. But there may be a catch.
By Ben Fox Rubin and Richard Nieva / Photography by James Martin
August 3, 2016
here’s no answer to our knock on the heavy metal door of Themistokleous 58. After a few minutes, we hear people talking on the other side. We knock again. Suddenly, the slot in the door slides open, revealing a pair of aviator sunglasses.
“Journalists?” the man behind the door asks curtly. We say yes. “Wait.”
So we wait. It’s a hot afternoon in June in Exarchia, a graffiti-plastered, anarchist neighborhood in the center of Athens. At the building’s entryway, the walls are covered with red, black and white spray paint and smothered with more stickers than a punk rock electric guitar. A posting on the door frame carries the battle cry “RESISTANCE!” A large sign nearby asks for donations of vegetables, olive oil and laundry detergent.
Finally, the door creaks open and a young man and woman — we guess they’re in their late teens or early twenties — walk out. They don’t tell us their names. The man, wearing a plaid shirt and denim shorts, says he’s a Pakistani refugee who lives inside the three-story building. He has a small white and brown dog on a leash. The girl, wearing a white Nirvana T-shirt, may be Greek. Both tell us the place doesn’t take kindly to reporters.
A tent encampment inside an old storage building on the port of Piraeus.
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“If someone else had come out here, they would have beaten you,” the man says nonchalantly as the dog pees on the sidewalk.
The beige stucco building on Themistokleous Street is one of over a dozen illegal sanctuaries or squats — for squatters — that activists, anarchists and leftists have opened around Athens in the past few months. Housing an estimated 1,500 to 2,000 refugees in abandoned and unused buildings, squats are the latest grassroots answer to Greece’s festering refugee crisis.
Last year, more than 1.1 million people fled to Europe from places like Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. More than 856,000 of them came through Greece, crossing by boat from Turkey enroute to destinations like Germany and France. As the wave of migrants grew, the world saw hundreds of haunting photos showing their suffering — and their relief after making it to Greece’s shores.
Graffiti in Athens
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In March, though, an agreement between the European Union and Turkey, combined with the decision by several nearby countries to close their borders to migrants, transformed Greece from a refugee entry point to a dead end for an estimated 57,000 “persons of concern,”
. The country, already staggering under massive debt, had to find some way to process tens of thousands of requests for asylum from people with no place to live.
We went to Greece to see the role tech is playing in helping migrants, if at all. We found refugees relying on their phones to find housing, food and other resources. And activists using Facebook, WhatsApp and underground websites to get the word out on squats. That’s given shelter to a small number.
But when it comes to the bigger challenge — helping the displaced to live legally in Europe — tech has failed, at least so far. To cope with a shortage of staff, Greece earlier this year forced refugees to use Skype to schedule in-person interviews for requesting asylum. But that lack of staffing meant refugees, struggling to even get an online connection, would try calling dozens of times. Few got through.
That’s left many people angry and in limbo, often living in substandard conditions. Activists stepped in and provided pop-up shelters.
“Society is taking over if the state can’t provide for everything,” Lefteris Papagiannakis, Athens’ deputy mayor of refugee affairs, tells us. “You have people in squats because we lack accommodation facilities.” (Earlier this month, Athens Mayor Giorgos Kaminis called on the government to step in and improve conditions within some of the squats.)
The abandoned Hotel City Plaza now houses about 400 refugees, making it one of the largest squats in Athens.
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‘Squat the world’
That brings us to Exarchia, a trendy bohemian neighborhood about a mile from the Acropolis. Here, abandoned buildings are scattered among hip bars, shops and restaurants. It’s also home to many of the city’s anarchists, who reject the concepts of borders, nations and governments. Cops rarely enter the area without donning riot gear, since neighbors occasionally toss Molotov cocktails at the local police station. A large white banner in the main square reads, “Fuck nations, squat the world.”
The neighborhood seems perfect for hosting squats.
Despite operating outside the law and with no outside help, these pop-up shelters have shown it’s possible to solve some complex problems with simple tech. They’ve been able to proliferate and thrive using online bulletins, Facebook groups and messaging apps like WhatsApp to announce new locations, recruit volunteers, organize demonstrations and request donations.
CNET Photographer James Martin has his picture taken while steadying the camera for a child with only one arm.
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The government allows these illegal shelters to exist because it needs the help. Many official and semi-official camps are overcrowded and “do not meet accepted humanitarian standards,” according to the International Rescue Committee.
Squats are an open secret in Exarchia, and just about every local can direct you to one. We started with a list found on a Facebook group page for volunteers in Athens, then uncovered more places after talking to people at a crowded farmer's market not far from Exarchia’s square.
There’s one squat specifically used for sorting food. Behind the front door, a narrow hallway leads to a courtyard where volunteers are washing peppers using a hose without a nozzle. A young Greek woman with short brown hair shows us a map on the wall depicting the local squat network, but she’s reluctant to say anything. Each squat or resource point is noted with a tiny black dot.
Rabee Abo Tarah’s room at City Plaza features twin beds made up with old Hotel City Plaza sheets, a balcony overlooking Athens, a working bathroom and working lights.
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Notara 26 feels completely different from the fortress of Themistokleous 58, just a five-minute walk away. It has bright windows and a front desk that almost resembles a box office. People sit on couches and kids play with toys. An old fridge with a Coke logo on the side hums nearby.
The squat houses around 70 refugees, usually for two- to three-day stints. Decisions are made by a council of residents and community members, who meet every two days. Its website says: “Let’s make the refugee’s Odyssey of survival a journey of humanity towards freedom!”
Reporter Ben Fox Rubin (far right) joins other dishwashing volunteers in City Plaza’s kitchen.
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We can’t find anyone there willing to talk. One refugee from Somalia told us to come back later and speak with the Greeks who organized the squat.
Notara and other mainstream squats use Facebook and Twitter to get the word out. Those run by hardcore anarchists use online bulletins like activist-run Squat.net and Contra Info to post anti-authority manifestos and report on police raids and attacks on squats.
Even secretive Themistokleous 58 has its own email address and an online blog that provides minute details on its hours of operation and about the “free shop” on the ground floor where people can exchange clothes and other items.
“The internet played a role of an assistant. It reverberated, amplified the process that started as an action to assist refugees,” Seraphim Seferiades, a professor of politics at Panteion University in Athens, says of these grassroots efforts. “The internet enables things to happen faster.”
The view of the Acropolis from City Plaza’s roof.
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‘Proper housing is possible’
Rokan Mohammad, 23, has a lilting accent, wide brown eyes and a warm smile.
She came to Athens from her home in Aleppo, Syria — first living in Turkey for two years then coming to Greece a few months ago. Her family is now scattered around Europe and she keeps in touch with them using Skype, WhatsApp and Facebook when she can find serviceable Wi-Fi.
She shows us the thin-tipped, brass-colored bullet that doctors removed from her back after being shot, she thinks, by a sniper in Aleppo. She plans to make a necklace with it one day to show her future children. “I’m the girl who loves memories,” she says, “so I can show them something from the war.”
Mohammad is one of about 400 refugees, almost half of them children, living at City Plaza. It’s an abandoned seven-floor hotel on a quiet street that a collective of leftists and anarchists took over in April. It’s also one of Athens’ biggest squats, although the term doesn’t do it justice.
City Plaza is cleaner and seems better organized than some refugee sites run by the government. Amenities include a daily schedule of English, German and Arabic classes for adults, a clinic served by visiting medical workers, a staffed reception desk that serves as an information hub, a cafe that offers fairly decent frappes, free Wi-Fi, an on-site barber and even yoga sessions.
Two children sit in front of a tent encampment in Piraeus, near the port gates where tourists board ferries to Santorini and Mykonos. (The government evicted refugees from Piraeus five weeks after our visit.)
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“We wanted to find a hotel to make an example that proper housing is possible and it can be obtained for refugees,” says Lina Theodorou, 27, an unemployed Greek lawyer who helps organize the squat. “We want them to have visibility, not to be isolated in the outskirts of cities.”
‘Better than a tent’
Rabee Abo Tarah, a 26-year-old from Damascus, Syria, lives in City Plaza and volunteers as a translator there. He’s our guide in the building, taking us past groups of children playing and chasing each other in the lobby area, up and down the stairs, through the hallways.
Abo Tarah shows us his room: two twin beds made up with old City Plaza sheets, a balcony overlooking the city, a working bathroom (cold water only) and working lights. (City Plaza organizers declined to say how they were getting power, citing only “arrangements.”)
Men sit around while waiting for their phones to charge outside a tent in Piraeus.
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A small Syrian boy whose left arm was amputated at the elbow runs up to our photographer, James Martin, and reaches for his camera. Martin kneels, raises the camera to the child’s level and steadies it so the boy can take a few pictures. Abo Tarah says he doesn’t know how the boy lost his arm. “That kid, very strong. Only one arm, but hitting all the other children,” he says, laughing. We never learn the boy’s name.
We head to the main floor, where refugees and volunteers are at work in the large kitchen preparing dinner to end the day’s Ramadan fast. Mohammad cuts eggplants, as others slice potatoes and tomatoes on long, steel work tables. Two men heave large pots onto burners and mix spaghetti into crackling olive oil.
City Plaza wants more volunteers and potential donors to find out about it. Along with its Facebook page and website, the squat has a separate promotional webpage and accompanying YouTube video. The tagline: “No pool, no minibar, no room service but still The Best Hotel in Europe.”
The site asks people to make donations by “booking” a room.
“We try to use Facebook. We try to create material to distribute, with even some infographics,” Theodorou says. “We’re not afraid to use any kind of hipster aesthetics to promote our cause.”
For Mohammad, the hotel is a welcome change. She previously lived in northern Greece at a now defunct camp in Idomeni, which at its peak had over 12,000 refugees waiting for the Macedonian border to reopen. Conditions there were harsh, with muddy fields and razor wire fences. Compared to Idomeni, City Plaza is “heaven,” Mohammad says.
“It’s not like home,” she adds, washing tall stacks of dishes after dinner. “But it’s better than a tent.”
‘We are living like animals’
Omar Osman’s eyes light up after reading his phone. A 15-year-old from Aleppo, he doesn’t speak much English. After we stumble in our conversation, he pulls out his smartphone so we can talk to each other using Google Translate. He’s interested in singing, and smiles proudly as he tells us he wants to be the next Justin Bieber.
“I like ‘Company,’” he says. It’s his favorite Bieber tune.
Osman lives in a tent with his mom and little sister under an overpass in Piraeus, a semi-official site in the port of Athens that in June was sheltering about 1,400 refugees. (The government evicted refugees from Piraeus five weeks after our visit.) Makeshift camps become semi-official after they’ve attracted so many people they require site management, clean-up crews and support from aid groups.
This woman’s asylum card allows her to stay in Greece while the government reviews her request for asylum.
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Osman is the spitting image of his mom, who sits in their nylon tent with the door flap open, listening to us talk as we sit on two chairs outside. They share the same big brown eyes and soft, easy smiles. She wears a purple hijab, and her hospitality is unwavering. She offers a Viva Fresh juicebox to us — a typical ration from aid groups — and shows us their temporary home. Blankets and clothes are neatly folded. In one corner, there’s a crate full of toiletries including toothbrushes, tubes of Colgate toothpaste and a plastic rinse cup. Osman’s mom and sister sleep in the tent, but he sleeps outside on a strip of gray carpet.
They’re staying there until they can reunite with Osman’s father, who has gone ahead to Germany. As we chat, we pass his phone, with its battered red case, back and forth like a digital talking stick.
For us, Google Translate is a lifeline — we type out full sentences in English so he can read them in Arabic. For him, though, it’s an occasional crutch. He speaks English as much as possible, only relying on the app to summon a few words when he can’t think of them, like peeking at a cheat sheet at school.
Among the other things we learn from our software-translated conversation: He’s been in Greece for four months, after arriving on a boat with 15 other families. He likes pop singers Shawn Mendes and Selena Gomez, and rapper Eminem. In his free time, he jogs, watches YouTube videos and plays a card game called Trex with friends he’s met at Piraeus.
The family’s tent is just one of thousands between the E1 and E2 port gates of Piraeus, where tourists board ferries to places like Santorini and Mykonos. The camp is crammed with tents that practically butt up against each other. It’s scorching hot.
Thousands more refugees live 11 miles away in another semi-official site at Athens’ former airport, Ellinikon International. The airfield closed in 2001 but came back to life earlier this year as a giant waiting room for migrants.
The old airport is teeming. Tents dot the sun-beaten pavement. Kids slide down a ramp on roller sleds. Laundry dries on chain fences with trash strewn beneath it. Some people wait in line for lunch and supplies outside a large white tent operated by aid workers. Others lean against the railing outside of a two-story terminal building, people watching. There isn’t much else to do.
Masood Qahar’s phone holds his digital history. He says the badge shows he worked with NATO’s International Security Assistance Force.
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“We are living like animals,” says Masood Qahar, a 38-year-old refugee from Kabul, Afghanistan. “There is no hope.”
He tells us he’s a former logistics officer for NATO who fled Afghanistan to escape the Taliban. Qahar now lives on the second floor of one of the terminal buildings, near signs that point to departure gates, telephones, restrooms and a duty-free store.
He keeps all of his files, including old pictures and information from his bank account back home, on his Samsung G5 and a handful of memory cards he carries in a small pouch.
His phone is his anchor. He regularly texts with his mom, dad, brother and sister in Afghanistan using WhatsApp or Telegram. He calls twice a week. He also checks news on his phone from sources like The Voice of Refugees at least “10 times a day.”
Though they have few possessions, almost all the migrants we talked to had phones, ranging from simple, beat-up handhelds to newer Samsung models. At Ellinikon, people huddle around outlets and power strips along the bare walls. They talk or smoke while powering up their devices. Speedy free Wi-Fi can be hard to come by and buying prepaid data can cost 5 euros ($5.50) for just a day of access, which is expensive for people with limited resources. That means many refugees are stuck using slow but available Wi-Fi connections for simple activities like messaging.
A makeshift sign points to places of interest around the grounds of Ellinikon International Airport.
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‘On the backs of refugees’
In recent weeks, Greece kicked off a new pre-registration process: Greek Asylum Service now visits camps to make it easier for refugees to apply for asylum and get cards that let them stay until their requests are reviewed. This effort replaces the failed Skype process. Microsoft, which owns Skype, says it’s now more involved in improving the system.
“When we learned Skype services were part of the Greek refugee registration program, we checked in on the reliability of the lines and channels,” a Microsoft spokesperson tells us later. “Given our limited involvement, we think technology has a role to play in addressing these types of needs.”
People living in more mainstream squats, like City Plaza, are likely to pre-register, which could eventually lead to permanent residence in an EU country. Athens’ deputy mayor Papagiannakis worries that refugees in squats run by more extreme anarchists won’t pre-register because they’re taught to distrust authority. That could cost them a chance to live legally in Europe.
“I’m afraid that some of the refugees will be behind, unfortunately, because they won’t follow the formalities,” Papagiannakis adds. “It’s a political game that’s being played, but unfortunately it’s being played on the backs of refugees.”
A young man lives in a former taxi stand of Ellinikon airport.
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That could be the case at Themistokleous 58. Its manifesto posted online scorns state and non-governmental organizations:
“We strongly refuse to cooperate not only with the State and political parties, but also with NGOs and other organizations or formations… All of these scumbags take advantage of the situation of migrants either to profit, protect their interests, gain political power, or to build a social profile.”
The post goes on to list those not welcome at the squat. Among them: cops, politicians and journalists.
Soon after we walk away from Themistokleous 58, it appears we’ve overstayed our time in Exarchia. Earlier in the day, a young woman angrily told us to leave a squat at Athens Polytechnic, a university a few blocks away. She sees us again and calls two Greek men over to confront us.
They ask why we’re in Exarchia and demand to see our photos. “You get paid to write your bullshit,” one says. A third man, tall and wiry, darts up to us — a broken chair clenched in his fists, a wild look in his eye. He’s eager to escalate the chaos but his friends wave him off.
As we turn to leave, he spits on one of us and smacks another in the face. He starts to chase us and yells loudly, “Get out of Exarchia!”
We run but the group mobs our photographer. They punch him in the back of the head until he gives up his camera and backpack. We lose that day’s photos of Exarchia’s graffiti-splashed walls.
Although we never got a photo of the young Pakistani man and his little dog from Themistokleous 58, we now know he wasn’t joking.
About the Authors
Ben Fox Rubin
Ben Fox Rubin (@benfoxrubin) is the CNET News senior reporter covering Amazon, e-commerce and mobile payments. He previously worked at the Wall Street Journal.
Richard Nieva (@richardjnieva) is a senior reporter for CNET News, where he writes about everything from Google to Facebook to smartphone theft. He previously worked for Fortune magazine.
Millions of migrants and refugees are still searching for a safe place to settle a year after running for their lives. Tech should be part of the solution. But is it? The CNET News team traveled thousands of miles to find out. Here’s what we saw.