ATHENS – In classical Greece, Eleonas was famous for its ancient olive trees and as the site of Plato’s Academy. Today, when the metro escalators deliver visitors up into the piercing sunlight of Attica, the ancient name for the basin of the city of Athens, the scene is less serene. Olive groves and leafy residential suburbs have been replaced with a dystopia of dusty highways, trucks trundling past ramshackle warehouses and idle cranes looming above a postindustrial wasteland. The sparse, dusty vegetation appears browbeaten.
Only a few stops from Syntagma Square, the heart of modern Athens, Eleonas is now home to Athens’ main refugee camp.
The 1,800-strong campsite that is the ground zero for Greece’s current refugee crisis is a five-minute walk from the station, down a sandy road. The camp is lauded by Greek officials for being humane, efficient and well equipped. But prospects are bleak for the majority of residents who live there in a succession of drab caravans. With no desire to return to Turkey, but also unable to move forward to reach the richer countries of the E.U. that shut them out, they are stuck in the purgatory of a country scraping through its sixth year of economic and social crisis.
Ramadan here did not have the air or the ambience of their ancestral homes. No call to prayer accompanied the purple dusk settling over the landscape – just the still of anticipation ahead of Iftar (the evening meal that breaks the daily Ramadan fast). Most people have been whiling away the long Ramadan days till Iftar resting in their caravans or drifting through the streets of downtown Athens.
“It’s hot as hell here, having to put up with Ramadan in the camp,” says Mustafa, a 48-year-old father of three, as he rests inside a non air-conditioned caravan. “Last year we were also in exile in Turkey, so this is our first year in a non-Muslim country and for sure it’s different.”
It has been a long, trying month, and the traditional expectations for Eid, the holy month’s celebratory conclusion, will be tempered by straitened circumstances and the melancholy of being stranded in a foreign land. This year, there will be no new clothes and the traditional sweets will need to be consumed quickly lest they melt in the clammy heat of their makeshift quarters.
On one of the last days of fasting before Eid, an Afghan family sits by the road, with the parents checking their watches to see if the time has come to pass that first morsel through parched lips. Two Greek truck drivers, oblivious to their fast, stand a few feet away, sipping coffee and exhaling cigarette smoke.
Fasting is not unknown in Orthodox Christianity, as many Greeks undergo a 40-day fast before Easter during which they abstain from animal products. But Greeks are largely unfamiliar with Islamic traditions.
The more conservative Greeks often associate the religion with four traumatic centuries of Ottoman occupation, predisposing them to a general wariness toward the newest outsiders.
Not too far away is the postcard version of Athens. Climb up into one of the decrepit factory buildings, past the barking guard dogs and the unlikely sight of a horse and pony pair tied inside a gaping cement warehouse, and the Acropolis looks back from its distant perch. Just over a mile (2km) away, crowds of tourists mingle and party in the luxury hotels and narrow lanes of the Plaka old town. When viewed from Eleonas, the carefree foreigners appear to inhabit a parallel universe.
Inside Eleonas, a Syrian woman named Zeina walks around, neither covering her hair nor pretending to fast – a rarity in the camps. I first encountered the 30-something year old who had journeyed to Greece on her own at a friend’s birthday party in Athens. She appeared at ease, seated comfortably amid a lively crowd of young Greeks in the doorway of a building outside one of the center’s bar-lined streets.
We conversed about her hometown, the staunchly secular Salamiyah, famous in Syria for being the seat of the Ismaili sect. Secularism is a tradition she continues to honor in exile, especially now that she has distance from the Syrian social pressure cooker. In the refugee camp, she’s the only woman to share her caravan space with an unrelated male and couldn’t care less what gossip this prompts.
Unlike most other Middle Eastern refugees seemingly disoriented by the unfamiliar Athenian cityscape, Zeina is comfortable in her new surroundings.
“I felt sad and depressed for my first few weeks in Greece,” she admits, sitting at an outdoor cafe in a pedestrian lane that reminds her partly of hilly Istanbul and partly of Damascus’ antique lanes. “Then I went out, made friends and moved on from that mindset.”
Last week, she attended a staging of the opera Aida in the ancient Herod Atticus theater, carved out of the rock atop which the Parthenon sits.
“It was incredible, more than perfect,” she said after returning to her caravan from the 2,000-year-old marble arena. “I felt like I was in Heaven flying, it was so overwhelming.”
Moving Into the City
But as much as Zeina loves Athens, she is not as anxious as others to leave Eleonas, despite regular clashes between rival ethnic groups in an unruly environment, repetitive food and stiflingly hot caravans. “I feel comfortable in the camp, being part of a community, being in touch with what’s going on,” she smiled.
But for most others, the promise of an apartment in downtown Athens is the next step toward setting up a normal life. The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) is funding an initiative by the Athens Municipality to lease 1,000 apartments to about 6,000 refugees who will be billeted in them pending the processing of their asylum claims.
The initiative has given some financial succor to apartment owners squeezed between a crashed real estate market and punitive new property taxes. But it has prompted concern among the refugees’ future neighbors who fear that those moving in may cause congestion, introduce undesirable cultural practices and drive rents down.
“Who knows who these people are and what customs they’ll bring?” said Angeliki, a frazzled secretary, as she watched workers moving several mattresses into an empty flat. “This is the start of a slippery slope.”
Aside from hostile residents looking for legal ways of denying them, refugees will also have to contend with living in unfamiliar and unsafe areas of downtown with a well-entrenched and rampant drug trade. Outside the residential building in which the refugees would be housed, police officers carried out on-the-spot identity checks, addicts shuffled along the pavement and drug-pushers hid small bags of heroin in pavement cracks.
“We don’t know what will end up happening to us,” Zeina said, “just that we’ve come to regret what we ended up doing to our own country.”
While awaiting the sighting of a new crescent moon to mark Eid al-Fitr – which translates as “the festival of breaking fast” – many of the newcomers pine for new homes, albeit in a strange land.
This story is part of a series titled Reviving Cities, which presents the personal narratives of refugees living in Istanbul, Beirut, Izmir, Thessaloniki and other places – how the people and the places are impacting each other’s identities.