INTERVIEW: ON CARE AND CARELESSNESS
A conversation between iLiana Fokianaki and Maria Louka on squatting and transforming abandoned spaces into shelters.
iLiana Fokianaki: Maria, how do you, as a person who records all these efforts that take place outside of the state apparatus, mainly through self-managed structures and citizens’ initiatives, perceive this provision of collective care from such structures?
Maria Louka: Look, this effort initially began in 2015, when Greece had suddenly these really large waves of refugees. Soon after, the so-called “Balkan route” was sealed, resulting in many people finding themselves trapped in Greece without the means for a decent living. That is when some of these autonomous self-managed and self-organised initiatives began to form; some self-governed refugee and migrant accommodation squats, which, in the last five years, from scratch, gave rise to the development of a whole new philosophy. Of course these types of structures existed prior, but the the refugee crisis in Greece created a new condition and urgency.
A whole new culture can emerge from how we coexist with others, develop strategies of collective care, and how we learn and teach ourselves to do it. Therefore, the first thing I would like to say is that, in and of itself, squatting in an already abandoned building and transforming it into a space of shelter, is a practice of care, because it provides something very basic, which is shelter for people who are without a home. These people, before finding themselves at Notara, or previously, at the 5th School – at one point there were 10-12 accommodation squats in Athens – before occupying these spaces, they used to live either in the streets, completely homeless, or in camps, in which the standard of living is very poor and highly dangerous. The importance of shelter, in and of itself, lies in how it is provided, by which I mean: within an urban setting, which allows people the opportunity to develop some kind of rudimentary daily life and social relationships, to get to know a city, to have access to services, to be able to form bonds of friendship with each other and with people who are active in their neighborhood.
The daily operation of such structures takes time and effort. We’re speaking about people who are vulnerable in multiple ways, traumatized, and have many needs that need to be met, while taking into account that there is no funding and there is no technocratic professionalism. That is to say, all the people involved in supporting the running of the squats are activists from Greece or abroad, who do this completely voluntarily. There is a range of needs, from basic food issues to cultural and mental health issues. The way they are covered, in reality, is through a collective sharing. For example, there are always donations of various goods and items, and collective kitchens and cooking events are regularly organized within the squats, ensuring that people are fed.
Additionally, health care needs are covered from time to time through collaborations with volunteer doctors, either within the accommodations or in cooperation with social clinics, where refugees with health problems are monitored by doctors, who provide them with some basic health care. If they have more serious health problems, they are referred to public hospitals, where, with the assistance of people in a Greek network of solidarity, they are provided with the access they need.
There is also an effort to provide legal help, through the guidance and support of lawyers or immigrants who have lived here for some years and have more experience navigating the system. They offer guidance on the legal side of things: what they have to do to get through all this bureaucracy, to file their papers, to get asylum, to apply for relocation, to relocate, to turn to the appropriate services, to wait, to do interviews. There is support in all of this.
You are essentially describing a kind of ‘machine’, which appears to function almost flawlessly. How can one navigate this ‘machine’ so that it can continue to function well, while also being impacted by so many fluctuating external conditions that aim to hinder its operation, as we’ve seen these last couple of years when the new government came into power? At this moment we have a deeply neoliberal government, with a repressive character, certainly with anti-immigrant and anti-refugee agenda and policies with illegal push backs that we see happening at the border, which they then deny worldwide. How can one overcome these obstacles?
It is true that since July 2019 (elections) we’ve had dramatic changes. We had problems before, but in regards to the self-governed refugee and migrant squats and shelters, a very unpleasant and constricting situation was created, followed by many repercussions. The first and worst repercussion was what you also mentioned: the mass evacuations of squats. I can’t, at the moment, count them all, but there were at least seven…
This is a trauma that we have yet to assess. There were many spaces, like the 5th Lykeio, that had been running for four and a half years. And then these people were removed from the centre of Athens, from Asklipiou Street or from Spyrou Trikoupi, in a violent manner, with guns pointed at them, and found themselves at a camp in Corinth, or at Skisto in rural areas of Greece. They had their children here, who were actively attending school, had flourishing relationships in the neighborhood… it was a grave and traumatising blow. And for those few who remained, their living conditions changed and severely deteriorated. And the second repercussion this caused, is that this alternative option of living was removed from the table. People arriving in Athens from the camps further inland or from the islands used to know that they had this possibility of living in a squat and that it would be an improvement to their lives. Now they no longer have this possibility, that is why we see images of refugees living in squares in the center of Athens like Victoria Square where the conditions are horrible. All that is left now is the squat at Notara 26, which has an extremely long waiting list, and cannot fulfil all these requests.
Now, as far as Notara is concerned, there is an intimidating reality under which it exists. The community is under threat; and this threat is not only theoretical, i.e. that the state has threatened to evacuate it, but very tangible and felt, because not a day goes by, that groups of at least three or four uniformed police officers, whether they are MAT (special police force squads) or police on motorcycles, do not pass outside the building, acting in a harassing and intimidating way. They often stop, shine their flashlights inside, a couple of times they’ve tried to beat down the doors, they shout nazi slogans, creating a stress –
Yes. Once, they passed by, shouting “Raus!”. As you can imagine, this creates a stressful atmosphere, because within these buildings lives a very vulnerable population who is scared, has experienced war, persecution and violence. And right when they thought they had reached at least a minimum level of peace and quiet by arriving in the squat, they now have this stress – a stress that would be created to any person faced with a uniformed officer threatening them, checking them, and mainly –
- verbally abusing them.
Yes, and mainly the stress that is generated by the looming threat that at any moment they could lose this living condition, and all that has been created around it. Nonetheless, because things have been discussed, expounded on and brought to light, there is an effort at collective management and empowerment. The inhabitants of the squats, see this space as their home and therefore have a sense of love towards it. It’s what happens when we are scared, or stressed, over something we love: we feel closer to it, more bonded. There is a sense of unity, a tightening of bonds, which is very moving, because it is experienced everyday in a unique way.
On the other side of things is the way the state has been handling this situation, which was, and remains, awful and contemptible. And now with this pandemic, which is a shocking situation for all of us, suddenly your life changes as well. Imagine you are someone who lives in one of these squats – obviously in conditions of poverty – and that you have the added anxiety of going outside: having to adjust to new codes of communication, not touching, wearing a mask, and not knowing when you are allowed to go outside and under which conditions… worried that you might be stopped, checked, interrogated about where you’re going and whether you have submitted the necessary SMS code to receive authorization (now that Greece is under strict lockdown rules). But when you don’t possess the necessary language skills, you are even weaker in front of the police.
I think the level of stress one experiences is multiplied. What we are talking about – and what we saw the last weeks, with the crescendo of police brutality directed at Greek citizens, and the arbitrary fines that were given out to some people under the guise of COVID - is what you were saying: It’s one thing if you are a citizen and speaking the language of the country you are in, and a whole different situation if you can’t communicate in Greek and you don’t know what repercussions your so-called “transgression” will have.
Yes, when we add all these things we’ve mentioned to the context of refugees, they always multiply. Because they already have witnessed arbitrary abuse, and they are very conscious of it, they experienced it throughout their journey up to this point.
Despite all this however, there has been an attempt – even during the pandemic – to revive collective management of the space. For example, the people at Notara have been supplied with provisions and the means for self-protection. The most moving thing for me is that whenever I happen to be there – and I’m not there every day, but I often pass by because I am actively involved in the cause and with the projects at the squats – there’s not a single day that I’ve been there and not seen at least one person bring something to offer. There is a constant spontaneous traffic: people who bring something – be it clothes, toys, food – and I think that's what keeps these projects alive, and perhaps what the state can't understand or explain. Because how is it possible to have such large budgets at your disposal as a state and yet, to have created such a horrible situation, as Moria used to be, or the way the new camp at the former military shooting range in Kara Tepe currently is. And somehow here (at the squats), without any European state subsidy, living conditions are so much better. If anything, it shows that there is a way. That, if you collectivise these care practices and eliminate racist and authoritarian ideologies, you will find a way to do it – the means, the framework – and it will be embraced by the people.
Care contains within it a sense of responsibility. The fact is that there is a strong desire and willingness to support the cause within each individual who contributes, either as a volunteer or simply by passing by and donating a few things. Then again, generally in Greece we have somewhat idealised this; the solidarity that we believe Greeks have, and the idea that it tends to work better. On the other hand though, as both of us are people who live here, we know very well that the other side exists too: people who are strongly opposed to refugees and who do not want to help, participate, or support the cause in any way. Unfortunately, the percentage of people who think and feel this way has greatly increased in the last five years. I am asking the following question as someone who has not experienced extensively these spaces and the structures in place at these accommodations. In regards to the practical aspect of the daily operation of these squats, what do you believe is the secret, to use simplistic wording, to a balanced and smooth operation of such ‘non-institutions’, which are, in a way, ‘institutions’?
There’s a technical aspect, which is in reality also political, but in its technical dimension; it is the elimination of bureaucracy, which always solves many problems. To be able to simplify processes: to say: ok, what have I got here… say I’ve got these clothes, these foods – how many people do we have? This many. What are their needs? Which families? etc. And that is how they will be divided and distributed. You can get this done in about an hour, but if you put a bureaucratic process in the mix, it might take you two days to accomplish – and I might even be underestimating here. Because we’ve heard many accounts from the camps, of donations and supplies never reaching the people who need them.
The second thing is inclusive co-education and experience, as we have learned. For example, someone with a specific skill set comes, let’s say an artist, and runs a workshop. You see this, you observe it. You’ll have some people who will now be trained through this and, for example, the older children will help the younger ones, guiding them on how to play and do creative things.
But I always think that it’s also about the closeness and contact people have with each other, without the imbalanced power dynamics, which can make you suspicious of the other person and the other person distrustful towards you. For example, a woman who has suffered abuse is more likely to find significantly more care and support in a feminist collective than at a police station. This has to do with the fact that at a collective there is no bureaucracy and no imbalanced power dynamics, but rather, empathy. Instead of a policeman, she would be facing other women, who may have had similar experiences to her and therefore will be able to embrace her.
And when it comes to the people who get involved in this cause and these structures – whether they are immigrants who have become integrated or people who show solidarity from Greece or from other European countries – one thing they have in common is their positioning: an empathetic perspective to comprehend and relate to the trauma of the refugee experience. This helps you regard the other with warmth and tenderness, to see them as equals. What I mean is, it’s not just a philanthropic relationship of just giving someone something at the end of it. It’s reciprocal; you are also learning from the other.
There’s something very reciprocal in care, as you describe it. And this is something that interests me most: the question of mutuality. Care as something carried out in a mutual collective way rather than individualistic. And the joy also that it entails.
I consider these aspects to be extremely important. To be able to cultivate relationships of mutual respect and equality. Because, invariably, the way you will address someone you consider an equal is very different to how you will interact with someone you perceive simply as a receiver of what you have to give, as someone you are simply protecting. This kind of relationship of care is different to a relationship of philanthropy – or even to one of gratefulness, to put it more mildly. You’re both learning and giving in return and, ultimately, collectivising what you have received or learned.
On the ideological framework of this – just to play the devil’s advocate. Wouldn’t you say that these types of practices, or rather, this type of collective care, is related to and stems from political views which are, in effect, leaning to the left?
I think that if you don't see ‘care’ as a profession that has to fulfil very specific characteristics, that is to say, to be financially compensated, socially discredited, or think of it as something inherently feminised and mainly carried out by women or womxn, but you see ‘care’ as a vital and very fundamental condition of society, a core condition of our existence, you will probably be led to such a practice. The fact that it will break stereotypes, both patriarchal and racist stereotypes, is de facto an ideological nucleus, which is certainly not based on the ideologies of the right, the far right, the alt-right and so on. I think that anti-racism, active anti-fascism, anti-sexism, are all ideologically much closer to spaces of the left, to autonomy, to anarchy.
"For neoliberal ideology, perhaps even for capitalism in general, the basic concept of care is either its devaluation (based on the unpaid domestic work of women) or its commercialization as an individual satisfaction service that I purchase."
Yes, I mention this because, you know, often we hear people exclaim “But compassion/humanity is not a left-wing characteristic”, etc. On the other hand, though, if we look at history and what different political views espouse, it’s very difficult to think that someone who belongs to the Golden Dawn party (neo-nazi greek party recently convicted as a criminal organization) - or even perhaps to the traditional right wing of Greece or any country, would be open to being able to understand ‘care’ in this sense, in its collective dimension and capacity. Because neoliberalism creates a definition of care which has a lot more to do with personal satisfaction or personal improvement – and this can vary but it extends from the concepts of ‘self-care’ to that of ‘charity’.
I think that for neoliberal ideology, perhaps even for capitalism in general, the basic concept of care is either its devaluation (based on the unpaid domestic work of women) or its commercialization as an individual satisfaction service that I purchase. Self-evidently, apart from the capitalist culture of individualization, the class dimension is also obvious, as not everyone has the same purchasing power, so there are people who lack care.
Yes, and we see this with the liberal and neoliberal manifestations of feminism, where unpaid domestic work is transferred to a cheap domestic labour force, working class and often immigrant women for which there is no care. This is also tied to christianity, concerning the ideals of compassion and humanity, but in this case with the slight connotation of mercy.
Which is always quite limiting because you read this through the sense of a moral duty; which in the end is much more limited that the actual financial capacities of the Church. And in the level of utility yes it has a value somehow, you go, you offer food, but it is inevitably somewhat sterile. It doesn’t foster a bond or sense of community, it does not create relationships and it does not change your consciousness as a human being. Whereas the practices we described earlier, these acts of care are deeply rooted, they become a collective experience and they re-confirm our idea of subjectivity.
Translation from Greek by Calliope Michail, transcription by Adriana Evans. Read the original version of this conversation in "The Landlord is Coming."