Mapping the New Athens

Cassidy McKenna

Athens is built around absence. If you look at it on Google maps, its urban centre is blank. No yellow highways, no white streets, only a large grey mass. If you zoom in close enough, there’s a few thin lines, footpaths that look like capillaries. This is where the Acropolis is, and it is the heart of the city. 

Every day of the year, tourists travel long distances to climb the central hill, to see the ruins of something which is now mostly gone. They take instagrams of the columns that used to hold up a roof in 447 BCE, see the alcoves from which the British bought (or stole, depending on where you’re from) the marble sculptures in the early 19th century. They look at artist reconstructions of an Athenian temple, that under the Byzantines was a church, and for two hundred years under the Ottomans a mosque.

The only thing left there may be stone, but a lot of blood still flows to it.

There are other reasons though, why people come to Greece's capital. The country is the gateway to Europe, and for many, a necessary stop on an arduous journey to escape danger and persecution. Since EU legislation was passed last spring, 60, 000 of these people have not been given the option to keep moving.

The EU-Turkey Agreement, enacted in March 2016, closed the Balkan route to those who had entered the continent by what it defines as irregular migration. It left a vast community of people both displaced and stuck, living in camps and squats, uncertain as to whether they will be granted asylum, or sent back across the sea. The only legal option for immediate action is to voluntarily return to Turkey, the illegal option, to try to get across the borders on your own. The option for everyone else, is to wait.

There are new maps of Athens being drawn. A cartography of new spaces, of four refugee camps and four times as many squats. The neighbourhood of Exarcheia, north of the downtown, has become an informal centre for the refugee community, a cluster of drop pins on the image of the city. It is where the vast majority of the squats are, autonomous housing projects that host a significant percentage of the city's refugees. It is where the grassroots community centres are, places that offer safe spaces, educational courses, and aid distribution. This is the area where there is a graffitied portrait of a woman, in a life jacket and a hijab, sprayed floor to ceiling on a street wall. The camps, on the other hand, are self contained and state-run, and vary in their accommodation, from tents to semi-permanent housing. Elliniko camp is based in an old airport, where clothes now hang over the old light up Departures sign, the laundry of those who are no longer allowed to leave.

The presence of refugee relief projects is vital in sustaining this community. There are medical centres, schools and libraries, free shops, even cafes. There are also needs that no amount of grassroots activism or NGO support can help. I have had children as young as seven tell me they're sorry my family aren't with me in Athens, and I've been unable to find how to explain to them that for me that’s just a choice I've made. Everyone has a smartphone with photographs of those who are no longer here. There are some ruins which cannot be reconstructed.

The situation in Greece is not temporary. Organisations are planning in years, not months.

These people are not passing through, they are part of the metropolis, a new organ in the city’s body. The centre of Athens is no longer the Acropolis, it is not an absence, but an overt presence that is at its core, a community who have come and cannot be ignored. They're not here to climb up a hill and look at what used to be there, but to walk forward on a road, in the hopes of creating something new. Unlike the Parthenon marbles, they've been left in Greece, and it is unclear as to when they will have the choice to not be. Until then, the rest of us must offer what we can to help them. Two hearts are better than one. The path is bolstered, and beaten, by love.