‘If you stay there one night, you will want to kill yourself.’
I was sitting outside a bar overlooking Exarchia Square in central Athens, scoffing pizza with some new acquaintances, two of whom happened to be Syrian refugees. We’d been talking about the journey the sixteen and eighteen year olds had had to endure to get to their current place of residence – a squat in an abandoned school close to the centre of Athens. Ahmed was describing in great detail what it was like to be living persona non grata in a foreign country. The pizza had come as a welcome distraction from the more pressing thoughts of an uncertain future.
‘If you like you can stay the night with us,’ he continues, giving a cheeky smile across the table to his friend who is occupied with a particularly large and unwieldy slice. Akram smiles with his eyes, knowing exactly the hospitality his friend has in mind. His mouth is far too busy with the pizza to reply.
Just before my week long trip to Athens I’d been mulling over ideas about how to interpret questions of social cohesion, economic depression and individual discontent. It put me in a reflective mood, but already this encounter was helping to understand the truth about what it was like to be displaced, miles away from home. I got the impression Ahmed was making the most of his last year of boyhood, and was enjoying some aspects of his pioneering adventure. He wore his displacement on his sleeve, and my subdued reaction to the thought of spending a night there only seemed to bolster his sense of pride and resilience, with a smattering of school-boy excitement thrown in.
I’d been to Athens before, in the summer of 2012, again for a frustratingly short amount of time, but had returned with something approaching a visual style and a vocabulary of themes. Then I had stayed just down the road from this spot, in a small apartment with a friend from Estonia, and had walked these same streets in an effort to understand the symptoms of the financial crisis facing the country. Exarchia Square and its surrounding neighbourhood had become something of a safe haven for demonstrators – the Police unwilling to venture into a space where the consent between the agency of the state and the population had been repealed, and I found that nothing much had changed.
In my peregrinations this time, I find myself sitting outside a smokey bar, a favourite haunt for left leaning literati, overlooking the same tree lined Square I got to know four years ago. Lost in my own thoughts, I’m asked in English ‘do you order drinks at the bar, or is there table service?’ I thought I fitted in quite well as a local, but obviously not. Strangely, I felt my cover blown. Sophie, an Arabic speaking charity coordinator working for Safe Passage, was out at the end of the working week taking the pulse of the city. As we sit together overlooking the Square, she is recognised by the two boys, whom she had helped when they were both living in a camp on a nearby Island.
‘Where is this place? Where are you staying?’ I ask, trying to get a sense of whether staying a night in the squat is a good idea or not.
‘It’s only just around the corner, just up there,’ says Ahmed pointing over his shoulder and lifting his chin at the same time.
‘We can find a place for you, no problem. But no pictures.’
‘How many people are there,’ I ask.
‘About one hundred and fifty.’
Sophie, peers over in my direction.
‘What an opportunity,’ she says. ‘Are you going to do it?’
‘Err…Yes’, I reply hesitantly. ‘Why not? My project isn’t primarily about refugees, but it’s part of the broader picture, and I can put it down as research.’
Those last words make me feel uncomfortable, like some kind of disaster tourist, but I push these thoughts aside, together with Ahmed’s rather dramatic warning, and resolve to get in touch with them both the following evening.
We exchange numbers, friend each other on Facebook (of course) and dissipate into the night, the cold Athenian air tinged with the taint of tear gas.