Σάββατο, 15 Αυγούστου 2009

Attiki Square

By Afrodite Al Salech
Photos: Iakovos Hatzistavrou
The translation belongs to Christina Melidou
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Contrary to what has happened in Agios Panteleimonas, where closing down the playground has driven all the children-local and foreign alike-away, a few blocks away, Attiki Square, is full of life. Dozens of children, mainly from Afghanistan, play around the fountain while their mothers sit on one side of the square and their fathers on the other. A few metres down the road there are two cafés and a kebab shop. People who hang around these establishments do not approach the square but they discuss the immigration matter a lot. Some other Greeks, either more brave or more tolerant, share park benches with Afghan residents.


Most Afghan residents of Attiki Square are different to the immigrants one is accustomed to in the center of Athens. We spoke to them.


Family people

Most of Attiki Square’s Afghan residents are family people and in fact some are quite elderly. This however does not affect the way they are being treated by Greek authorities, as they remain hostages.

They have all been handed a deportation document but the road to other E.U. countries and the road home are both closed. Their first choice was Iran, where they seeked political asylum. Iran sent them to Turkey and Turkey sent them to Greece. It’s hard to believe that these people left their home in search of a better quality of life. Who would abandon home at such an age if his life was not endangered? These people are without doubt refugees.


Dublin II Regulation

Some of the people who reside in the square come from Patras. They arrived here having been forced to leave Patras port. All they want is to leave for another E.U. country. This is very difficult considering that other E.U. countries will arrest them at the border and take them back to Greece , as ordered by the Dublin II Regulation. Of course, other E.U. countries don’t just send to Greece only those who have seeked asylum in Greece. Often they also send those who they deem undesirable in the sence of selective migration which was proclaimed in the European Declaration for Immigration and Asylum.


Take for example Asaf. Asaf had applied for political asylum in the U.K. in 2001. He remained there legally for five years. He then returned home to marry and stayed in Afghanistan for three years but eventually had to return to the U.K.. This time authorities chose not to allow him back in. They deported him to Greece, in the name of the Dublin II Regulation, even though he had never gone through Greece. Today he sleeps in parks and squares. “In England I had a job, friends, a home. I don’t know why they sent me to Greece. Here I have nothing. Why won’t Greece let us go?”. It’s clear that this regulation keeps these people, as well as our country, hostages.


Square slumdogs

But the most tragic victims are children, aged five to twelve. Ali, Musaraf, Mahti, Uali, Ali Nezar…Their parents cannot take care of them so they try to find means of survival alone. They spend all day in the square playing. When they feel hungry they stand outside cafés and kebab stands searching for empty bottles which they will sell in a nearby shop. At night they will seek a bench on a square to sleep, either alone or with their parents. It’s noteworthy that none of the locals have ever accused the children of stealing or begging. These children are just trying to make ends meet. And this occurs in full sight of the police which patrols the area 24 hours a day. Nedless to say that authorities violate international agreements for the protection of children.


Locals

“They have destroyed our neighborhood” says one of the people who hang out in one of the cafés and offers to show us around so that we see what’s happening with our own eyes. After a short walk around Attiki Square we have come to the conclusion that “social integration” has largely been achieved as many shops-chinese, pakistani, african, albanian, romanian-contribute to the economic and social life of this small part of the world. Vassilis’ kiosk has just changed hands and name and is now Mohamed’s kiosk. Unless we prefer the “Manolada social integration plan” where immigrants work 15 hours a day for 5 euro and are tied to motorcycles are dragged around the village when locals feel so inclined. Nevertheless, somewhere in between the “take over” integration model and the “Manolada” model there is a third way, the way of interactive coexistence.


Local shop owners are far less tolerant and violent outbreaks have occurred. According to them, their living is compromised by foreigners. However, one should mention that both staff and customers are mostly foreigners from balkan countries.


There are those of course who have no problem sharing a park bench with an Afghan and appreciate the happy voices of children playing. “It’s not that bad” says one lady, “a few years ago there were no children in the playground and it was sad. Now things are different. Afghans are kind people who have suffered. They don’t steal and they don’t cause trouble. The only problem is that police is everywhere and they arrest them all the time”.

Is Agios Panteleimonas setting the pace?

Others confess that they don’t see a problem now but they are afraid that Attiki Square “is going to follow the pattern of Agios Panteleimonas”. This is not coincidental as “outraged” locals in Attiki Square are the exact same people we met in Agios Panteleimonas-members of the local residents’ committee. When we confronted them about that fact they refused it. They proclaimed their right to help other areas that share the same problem.


The danger of having Agios Panteleimonas become an example of problem solving with locals taking law and order in their hands, with the silent acceptance, if not encouragement, of the authorities has been debated. The experience of Amerikis Square, an area with a significant population of African immigrants, that never experienced problems in the past, proves such. Last week, we spoke to Greek residents and many older ones proclaimed that they don’t mind foreigners but they “would rather see them leave so as not to have the same problems as Agios Panteleimonas”. A 68-year old respectable citizen went as far as to carry a knife “just in case”. Some however mention that members of “Chrysi Avgi” (The fascist/nationalistic party of Greece) speak to local shop owners and try to convince them to protest against immigrants.


The question is what is the governement going to do about this situation? Laws, such as the one put forward by the deputy minister of the Interior, are certainly not the answer. This law introduces 18-month imprisonment, and suggests that not everyone is innocent until proven guilty, as foreigners are presumed to be dangerous for public order.

The government should:

1. Condemn the Dublin II Regulation
2. Improve the procedure for granting asylum, so that people who are entitled to protection according to international law receive it.
3. Understand that police measures do not solve the problem but rather transfer it from neighborhood to neighborhood and from city to city
4. Define the notion of “social integration” so that local owners of business don’t feel threatened and foreign workers are not be exploited


Foreigners have their say

Mr. Ali is 67 years old. He came to Greece three years ago with his wife and three children (aged 13,15 and 7) following the usual route: Afghanistan, Turkey, Greece. The Greek Council sent him to Sperheiados welcoming center in Lamia, where they stayed for year and a half. They were then sent to Athens. Today they live in a one-bedroom basement. Mice and cockroaches keep them company at night. Noone speaks greek so they have trouble finding their way around. They can’t afford their 300 euro rent anymore so they are afraid they will soon be evicted. They welcome us in their home and offer tea. The two older children sit silently at the corner. “They never leave the house” says their mother “They are afraid”. The third child, 7-year-old Maadi roams all day in the square. Playing is the only thing that makes him forget his hunger. “We didn’t want to leave. We are refugees. The Talibans took our home, Iran and Turkey kicked us out” On the wall stands a phorograph of their national hero Abdul Mazari, leader of the Hazara tribe, who was brutally tortured and murdered by the Taliban in 1995.


Mr. Fahran, 55 years old, came to Greece with his wife and two children, aged 17 and 20, four months ago. They had to leave home due to the conflicts with the Taliban. Their first destination was Iran. Iranian authorities sent them to Turkey and Turkey sent them to Greece in an inflatable boat, along with 67 other people. It was very dark when another boat-one with an engine-crashed on them intentionally and they found themselves in the waters of the Aegean. One of their guides however seemed to have the phone number of the greek port police authorities and called them. The port police arrived to their rescue (we have reservations as to that account of events which we have heard many times before. We could assume that illegal immigrant smugglers sink the boats themselves to take advantage of international regulations that force local authorities to save all those who are overboard. Also one cannot exclude the possibility that the greek port police sinks the boats). Mr. Fahran and his family were held in the Mytilini welcoming centre for a fortnight and they were then handed their deportation document and their tickets to Peiraus. As of lately, they have found themselves in Attiki Square. They sleep with a dozen other Afghans in a house and they are waiting for money to be sent to them so that they can flee illegally to Norway where, they’ve been told, refugees are taken care of. Returning to Afghanistan would equal death.


Mr. Orbun is 76 years old. He came to Greece via Iran and Turkey with his wife and children 10 months ago. He occasionally tries to apply for asylum but has not managed to so far. He spends all day at the square and at nightfall returns to his home in Fylis where he lives with many others. He can’t afford food or rent. He expects Greek people to help. He says that he would have never left home had it not been a matter of life or death. He had to save his children.

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P.S. Interviews materialized with the valuable help of Abas who has lived in Greece for three years now and is fluent in greek. We thank him

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