Page 1

Life in the City’s Underbelly: The Refugee Camp of Elaionas A photo essay by Cynthia Malakasis Pictures by Hala Alhouch


Acknowledgments: This photo essay draws on research conducted for EU Border Care, an ERC-funded research project on the maternity care of migrants and refugees in four states of the European Union. I would like to thank Vanessa Grotti and Nina Sahraoui for their valuable comments and suggestions. This essay would not have been possible without the photographs taken and volunteered by Hala Alhouch. ŠCynthia Malakasis 2018


Summary This photo essay offers a glimpse into the life and surroundings of refugees – Syrians and others – residing in a camp a mere two kilometers off the center of Athens. The camp is called “Elaionas,” like the area of nine square kilometers that surrounds it. Readily accessible via the city’s metro system, the area nevertheless shows no signs of the bustling residential or commercial life usually associated with the center of a state capital. Rather, as the photos evince, it is strewn with derelict concrete structures, empty lots, junk yards, and unpaved streets seemingly leading nowhere. Visual art is at once a method and a product of ethnographic research.1 As such, it is also itself an object of analysis.2 Photographs capture people, places, and events at very specific moments and within necessarily limited frames, lifting them from their wider temporal, material, and social context.3 These pictures emerge from the necessarily “partial perspective”4 of Hala Alhouch, the Greek-Syrian artist who took them as part of our ethnographic collaboration,5 and of myself, the Greek native anthropologist who re-contextualizes them here via the accompanying text. Our efforts represent our own relationships to the country, the city, the topic of the research, and our research participants. Through my perspective, then, as well as the perspective of my photographer-collaborator, these pictures were meant to capture the desolation of the formerly industrial, urban enclave where the Greek state relegated refugees. Yet they also capture the stunning winter light and the typical AthenianGreek horizon, lined with mountains in most directions. To me, this familiar sight triggers a strong sense of comfort – comfort offset by the bleak material surroundings and the illusory sense of being very far away from the city. To the thousands of people who have stayed there, anywhere from a few days to several months, these sights are, in all probability, equally evocative of clashing sentiments and experiences. Images of the road to the camp and of the camp itself must call to mind their enforced stay in the industrial margins of the city, in dismal material conditions, but also their relief at having found stable accommodation; their longing and their rigorous efforts to continue their journey out of the camp and out of Greece but also the relationships they formed to the people, the material surroundings, and the physical landscape during their stay in Elaionas.


This approach to the representational issues of visual art emerged within a conversation of the author of this photo essay with EU Border Care Principal Investigator, Vanessa Grotti, in preparation for a workshop panel on EU Border Care’s visual and artistic outputs. 2 Ibid. 3 Ibid. 4 Haraway Donna. 1988. “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.” Feminist Studies 14 (3): 575-599. 5 Alhouch provided interpretation during the ethnographic interviews with five Syrian research participants in Athens from November 2016 to July 2017. Her photographic project emerged and took place in the context of this fieldwork.



Crossing the “Sacred Road” The Elaionas metro station is located two kilometers to the west of Athens’ center. From the station exit, seen in the top picture, it is an approximate ten-minute walk to the refugee camp. In Greek, Elaionas means olive grove; in antiquity, it formed the sacred grove of the city, where the felling of trees was prohibited. Some 50,000 of these trees survived until the 20th century, when they were gradually cut down to make space for vegetable gardens, wholesale warehouses, and, later, industrial plants.6 The metro station opened in 2007, as part of extending the metro line that had until then run from the Athens International Airport, in eastern Attica, all the way into the heart of the city. Partly financed by EU funds, the line first opened to the public in 2000, as part of Athens’ infrastructural development and modernization in view of the 2004 Olympic Games and the pre-austerity vision of turning the city into a regional center of entrepreneurship and innovation.7 The 2007 addition of three stations extended the line three stops to the west of the city’s center, to an area suffering from heavy traffic and environmental pollution as a result of its capacity as a major local and national transportation hub.8 The exhaust fumes, the grime, and the post-industrial medley of junk yards, empty lots, and concrete structures one encounters at the street surface belie the feeling of ongoing prosperity evoked by the station’s marble floors and stainless-steel surfaces, all gleaming clean despite the dense use. The major artery that can be seen extending in front of the station’s exit in the top picture is Iera Odos, or “Sacred Road.” It has been called so since antiquity, because it connected Athens with the sacred town of Eleusina, some 20 kilometers to the west. The contemporary highway, which connects the city’s center to its western limits, runs on the same axis. Crossing the “Sacred Road,” we get to the smaller, perpendicular street called Aghias Annis. Seen in this picture, Aghias Annis is paved, yet buried in dirt and dust even on a windless winter afternoon. On its right, stands a car showroom – one type of the sparse and heterogeneous commercial activities currently going on in Elaionas.9 On its left, a sign warns of roadworks. Pedestrians, some of them lugging suitcases, are walking to and from the metro station.


Sapountzaki, Popi and Louis Wassenhoven. 2014. “Spatial Discontinuities and Urban Transformation: The example of Elaionas in Athens.” Paper presented at the Third International Conference on Urban Regeneration and Sustainability, The Sustainable City 2004, Siena, Italy, 16-18 June 2004. Retrieved from: mple_of_the_Elaionas_of_Athens 7 Souliotis Nikos, John Sayas, and Thomas Maloutas. 2014. “Megaprojects, neoliberalization, and state capacities: assessing the medium-term impact of the 2004 Olympic Games on Athenian urban policies.” Environment and Planning C: Government and Policy 32 (4): 731-745. 8 9 Sapountzaki and Wassenhoven 2014.



Turning the Corner toward the Camp In the top picture, we can see the corner of Aghias Annis, as it turns onto the street that leads to the camp. Large cranes are involved in the construction of an unfinished, concrete, multi-story building on a lot sectioned off by tin partitions. In the second picture, the photographer has turned the corner, and is facing the dirt road that leads to the camp, Aghiou Polykarpou. On the foreground, a tall eucalyptus tree stands against the bright, afternoon, winter light. On the right, a neon sign says “refrigerators,” probably designating the content of the warehouse. Large, shallow potholes filled with rainwater and mud and piles of trash on the roadside contrast with the expensive-looking vehicles related to the area’s more affluent business activities. On the background, the low hills are Pnuka and Filopappou; the tall mountain farther away is Ymittos, the mount that sections off the Athens metropolitan area from the east. From the perspective of the ethnographer and the photographer, many of the photographs shown in this essay were taken largely to document the area’s state of disrepair, desolation, and decay – in a perhaps simplistic attempt at castigating the Greek state’s choice to relegate people under its authority, who depended on it for their well-being, to this grim urban pocket. Hala Alhouch and I started visiting the camp in December 2016, as part of our long-term ethnographic engagement with a pregnant Syrian research participant. Our participant, also Hala,10 had been staying there with her husband and young cousin since September 2016. Yet the camp was initially launched, in August 2015, in order to house people in transit, who stayed there for an average of three days on their way from the Aegean islands of first reception to their desired northern or western European destination. The plot of land belongs to the Municipality of Athens, which allowed its use for this purpose. The initiative belonged to a handful of activists, who found themselves in government positions, in the Ministry of the Interior, after the euro-communist party, SYRIZA, gained power. The objective, as they say, was to create an open accommodation structure, as opposed to the prison-like detention centers that had been the norm in Greece until then11 (and which, nevertheless, are once again the norm in the islands of first reception). Yet the closure of Greece’s northern borders in late February 2016 meant that migrants could no longer transition freely through the country; rather, they were stuck filing reunification, relocation, or asylum applications there. For our research participant, who arrived in the island of Lesvos in the early hours of March 20, 2016, this translated into a ten-month stay in Elaionas; from September 2016 to July 2017, when she, her husband, and their infant daughter succeeded in leaving Greece.


Research participants were encouraged to choose their own pseudonyms, which are used to protect their anonymity, so that they may recognize their stories in published accounts of the research. Our research participant who resided at Elaionas chose “Hala” as her pseudonym in order to honor Hala Alhouch, who served as the interpreter during our ethnographic interviews. 11



Muddy Ice, Sleepy Strays, Rust, and Trash The top picture bears witness not only to the state of the road, but also to the unusually cold temperatures that hit Athens in the winter of 2016, from which the camp’s facilities provided little protection. The stray of the middle picture, peering suspiciously but languidly at us, was one of the dogs whose sight unnerved us every time we walked the dirt road, Aghiou Polykarpou, to the camp. The story of Athens’ strays reflects the country’s strained relationship with Europe and modernity, and its own internal struggles. In preparation for the 2004 Olympics, the city was called “barbaric” by foreign animals’ rights’ groups for the decision to euthanize several thousand strays;12 more than a decade later, British tourists attacked by strays close to the Acropolis are calling for a travel warning against the country.13 Internally, strays are seen as a symptom of the country’s economic woes, but also often as a symbol of resistance, particularly in the case of iconic dogs often found at the frontlines of anti-austerity demonstrations.14 In the picture, the dog lies close to a heavily corroded metal partitioning and to what looks like an abandoned truck. The sight fosters the sense that refugees were accommodated in an area where roads are unpaved, lots are sectioned off with metal that’s left to rust, and roadsides double as dump sites. Much like the refugees, Elaionas is located undeniably within the city, but nevertheless swept under its main fabric. Elaionas was not integrated into the city’s official plan until 1996.15 Its out-of-plan status coupled with its central location made it a haven for often informal economic activities not welcome in residential or commercial districts.16 This overall informality and the physical boundaries (major road arteries and railway lines) that set Elaionas apart from the rest of the city enable noncompliance with environmental regulations and therefore heavy pollution.17 At the moment, it features a diverse mix of business activities; among others, industry, wholesale trade, junk yards, bus and track depots, and car show rooms on the main streets.18 Pictures from Aghiou Polykarpou Street that leads to the camp in the next two pages offer a glimpse of this atmosphere.

12 13 14 15 Sapountzaki and Wassenhoven 2014. 16 Ibid. 17 Ibid. 18 Ibid.


“A Scavengers’ Collective: The Renaissance”




In the Camp The plastic tent in the top picture is meant to provide the space where the meals are served, but also where the residents can socialize or activities for the children can be held. The next two pictures show the barracks-like arrangement of the plastic containers, but also the way their residents have put their stamp in their appearance. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) defines the camp as any structure “where refugees are accommodated and receive assistance and services from government and humanitarian agencies”.19 Camps, like Elaionas, created by state and municipal authorities, with prefabricated units in grid-like formations, are meant to keep unwanted populations separate from the local society around them.20 Yet even camps created and administered in such top-down fashion are re-structured by their residents in ways that fit the needs of their daily life and their long-term objectives.21 Bicycles, makeshift patios, flower pots, and even stickers on the container windows bear witness to the efforts of Elaionas refugees to turn their camp dwellings into something closer to a home – even if, as was the case with my interlocutor, Hala, they wished their stay to be as short as possible.


UNHCR. 2014. Policy on Alternatives to Camps. Malkki, Liisa H. 2002. “News from Nowhere.” Ethnography 3 (3): 343–349. 21 Katz, Irit, 2017. “Between Bare Life and Everyday Life: Spatializing Europe’s Migrant Camps.” Architecture_MPS 12 (2): 1-21. 20



Everything they Own Hala, her husband, and his adolescent cousin under their care arrived in Greece in the early hours of March 20, 2016 – that is, in the nick of time to escape falling subject to the EU-Turkey Statement. This formal agreement, between Turkey and the European Union, stipulates that Syrians arriving in Greece from March 20, 2016 onward are returned to Turkey, unless the Greek Asylum Service deems that Turkey is not a safe country for them. The Statement has come under serious fire by human rights lawyers and activists in Greece, because it violates the right of people to seek asylum, it violates the Geneva Convention by judging the right of people to seek asylum on the basis of their nationality and collective circumstances (Syrians coming in from Turkey) rather than individual circumstances, and it sends people back to a country with documented human rights violations. Hala arrived in the island of Lesvos at 3 a.m. on March 20, 2016, and at the Moria hotspot there shortly thereafter. She said people like her, who made it to the island and the hotspot before dawn, were registered as having arrived on the 19th, and were therefore allowed to apply for international protection in Greece and Europe. Since the first day of their arrival, Hala and her husband have pursued the bureaucratic process that would allow them to transition to England, Sweden, or Germany, where their siblings are settled. In pursuit of this objective, they moved from the island to Athens in early September 2016. In their path, they accumulated belongings supposed to make their – hopefully – provisional stay in Greece a bit more bearable. Blankets to protect them from the freezing Athens nights, when there was no heat in their small room, in the container that they shared with another Syrian family. Dishes, cutlery, and pantry items; she told us the food served to them in the camp was usually inedible. The bunk beds were best used as storage space, since the “mattresses” they had been given were not suitable to be placed on bed frames. Hala became pregnant during the stay at the Moria hotspot, in late May 2016. Her pregnancy was not planned – “I live in a tent in an island, would I want to get pregnant? Of course not!” – but it was a joyful surprise. She had miscarried in Syria several months before, and she did not think she could conceive again. In early September 2016, they moved from the island to Athens, for their appointment with the Greek Asylum Service. Their plan was to apply to the EU Relocation Scheme, which allows Syrians – and people of other nationalities whose asylum recognition rate in the European Union is at least 75 percent – to move and have their asylum claim considered in a country other than Greece or Italy, the countries of first arrival. Hala and her husband were deemed ineligible for relocation, and told their only option was to apply for asylum in Greece. This option is not acceptable to them. They have no ties to Greece, and they see no avenues for social and economic integration. After Hala gives birth, they will attempt to leave Greece via whatever route – regular or not – is available to them.


“I just want the torture of the winter to be over” The small heater seen in this picture was their only source of heat. On the day that we visited the camp, temperatures were below freezing, at -2 °C. Yet even as the outside temperature plummeted, the camp’s electricity failed every few minutes, because the general power switch was tripping in response to the volume of use. Without the heater, the temperature in the container reached outside levels within minutes; the container’s thin walls felt frozen to the touch. If the power fails during the night, Hala told us, nobody switches it back on; it remains off until morning. Unless camp residents remind those in charge to switch it back on, nobody does. This latter claim may be not be entirely accurate, as camp workers are also exposed to the low temperatures, when the electricity is down. Yet it is an accurate reflection of Hala’s overwhelming feeling that officials and care-givers in various capacities that she has encountered since her arrival in Greece are essentially indifferent to refugees’ needs. She blamed their indifference for the fact that both EU and Greek asylum officials took months to register her and process her papers, and deemed her ineligible for the EU Relocation Scheme without ever justifying this decision. At this point, Hala has not lost sight of her major goal, to transition to northern or western Europe. But relief from the cold takes precedence.


From Guests to Hosts I


From Guests to Hosts II

From Guests to Hosts III


From Guests to Hosts: Sociality, Commensality, Dignity Apart from an ethical imperative, hospitality is also very much a relation of power – it limits agency to the host, and it controls the guest as much as it puts her in a situation of moral indebtedness.22 In the case of refugees, camp “hospitality” places them in the space between biological existence and full social and political life.23 Yet these ideal-typical categories are muddled, in reality, through the practices of refugees themselves, and of the various “hosts” (officials, care-givers, etc.) with whom they interact.24 In this case, my interpreter and I may also be construed as belonging to the heterogeneous cohort of “hosts” that Hala encountered during her stay in Greece. I am a native anthropologist, and my interpreter and photographer is a Syrian who has nevertheless lived in Greece for close to two decades. It is true that Hala derived no benefits from us, except for the possible release involved in telling her story. The first few moments of our first interview, in November 2016, were dedicated to the consent process mandated by EU Border Care’s ethical protocol. During this process, Hala asked me if I was conducting this research in order to help refugees or to help myself. I responded that the research did hold the indistinct potential of benefiting pregnant migrants in the future, if its policy recommendations succeeded in having an impact. But she did not stand to gain anything. I, however, would derive specific and significant benefits in the form of my salary and academic publications. My answer was mandated by the spirit of “informed consent.” I further like to think that it put us on more equal footing, since I made my dependence on her explicit. Yet the asymmetry of our relationship on the grounds of class, legal-political status, and situated vulnerability may not be disregarded. Our visits to the camp, where we conducted our ethnographic interviews, were usually scheduled several days in advance. Invariably, Hala expected us with culinary treats that she had prepared in the cooking facilities present in the container’s other small room, where another Syrian family resided. The greens stew in the first picture is a traditional Syrian dish, one prepared as a special treat for her fellow Syrian but also for the Greek ethnographer to get a taste of Syrian cuisine. Arabic coffee was served at all of our visits, and we learned to expect it and structure the working day’s coffeedrinking schedule around it. The pizza was a hard feat to accomplish in the container’s rudimentary facilities – yet even the dough was made from scratch. Commensality – the act of eating together – breaks down social boundaries, and bridges cultural divides through the sharing of culture in the form of food. By offering us food, Hala expressed her closeness to us and her desire to make us happy. Yet she also re-asserted her role as hostess that she had lost in the displacement from her home and her sojourn in refugee camps.


Rozakou, Katerina. 2012. “The biopolitics of hospitality in Greece: Humanitarianism and the management of refugees.” American Ethnologist 39 (2): 562-577. 23 Ibid. 24 Ibid.



Life in the city's underbelly  

A photo essay offering a glimpse into the life and surroundings of refugees residing in a camp a mere two kilometers off the center of Athen...

Life in the city's underbelly  

A photo essay offering a glimpse into the life and surroundings of refugees residing in a camp a mere two kilometers off the center of Athen...