Inside A Hotel Of Hope For Refugees In Athens

An empty building in the Greek capital has become a symbol of freedom and solidarity.

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More than 50,000 migrants and refugees are stranded in Greece, and many are stuck waiting in squalid government detainment camps for their asylum applications to be processed.

But solidarity groups have taken over a shuttered hotel in the heart of Athens in a defiant act of altruism. Since late April, the City Plaza Hotel has provided shelter for 318 people -- including 149 children. The new inhabitants are mostly Syrians, Afghans and Kurds.

Throughout the day, activists cook and serve comfort food using legumes, chicken and spices familiar to the residents. They also offer basic medical care to those housed in the well-preserved hotel rooms that feature a sought-after luxury: private bathrooms.

“The problem is not that these people live here, it is that they are here against their will and it is essential that they are able to live on equal terms with us,” said Thomas, one of the activists who helped take over the hotel. (Members of the Solidarity Initiative for Economic and Political Refugees asked to be identified only by their first names to protect their safety.)

Regardless of ethnicity, the children laugh, play and learn together in an area of the hotel now designated for English and Greek lessons. The activists also aim to help the kids attend formal school once the Greek government creates rules regarding where and how refugee children can be integrated into the public education system.

“We feel like we are being taken care of here. Everyone is very nice,” said Nour, a Syrian woman who has been staying at the hotel. Previously, she was left to fend for herself in a makeshift open-air camp called Idomeni, which is along the Greek-Macedonian border.

Internationally acclaimed intellectuals such as French philosopher Alain Badiou and American feminist academic Judith Butler have also visited the hotel and expressed support for the project. But not everyone is in favor of the operation: The building's owner has appeared and claims the hotel, despite having been closed for six years, was not actually “abandoned.” She has filed a lawsuit against the occupiers.

Still, activists say what's going on inside the building is a hopeful example of what solidarity can achieve: a vibrant community of locals, migrants and refugees shaping a way of life together.