Olga Lafazani is one of the group of solidarity activists who opened City Plaza Hotel’s doors to 400 refugees when the borders closed last April. Here she talks about the philosophy of self-organisation behind the beating heart of City Plaza.
What does City Plaza mean to you?
City Plaza is one of the most interesting, difficult and engaging projects I have ever been a part of.
It’s so interesting because it combines so many different struggles at many different scales. At City Plaza everybody shares everyday life . We all eat, sleep, cook, clean and share day to day life in the same space. So one main issue of the project is about organising day to day life in a collective and equal way. At the same time, however, it is also about wider struggles against borders, exclusion and discrimination.
City Plaza is not like other projects I’ve been part of. It’s not like organising a demonstration or a temporary no-border camp that is set up for just a week. We have created a home here.
Why did you and others decide to open City Plaza last April?
Many of us had been involved in anti-racists groups for many years. We’ve always been politically active and working against oppression. When the ‘spring of migration’ started we all knew that it was the time. The time to do something big. In a way it was like history wall calling us to do something that could really have an impact.
We all started this project knowing that it would be very demanding. We knew that there would be no real time frame and no going back once we opened. (Laughs) It’s not like any other project we’d ever taken on! It’s not like we were organising an event or a protest, with a date. It wasn’t a question of putting up posters. City Plaza has no end date, it’s not an event. It’s required a huge amount of commitment, time and work from all of us.
Self-organisation is at the heart of the City Plaza project, how does this work in reality in day to day life here?
I think a lot of people think that the idea of self-organisation almost happens spontaneously. But it is not like that. It requires a lot of meetings and organisation to maintain this system of equal participation. It needs control. Some people think it’s all about freedom. No. It requires a lot of work.
The reality is that we live in a harsh world. And for City Plaza to run as it does, with 400 people working and participating equally, it takes a lot of organisation and it is not in any way just a romantic and smooth process.
It’s very important that we all, every single one of us living here together, understand our place. Every room (there are 126 rooms at City Plaza) is part of a rotation system. Everyone has a shift at least once a week, whether it’s chopping vegetables in the kitchen, serving food or cleaning the building.
The philosophy is that everyone is equal here. Everyone participates as much as they can. We have to press this philosophy sometimes, if anyone does not wish to participate in the day to day organisation of the space, they cannot live here.
But self-organisation of a space like this is not just a practical issue but a political goal. Self-organisation is also a way for emancipation starting from the everyday life. Everyone is able to feel that what they do is not just for them but for the whole community to function as a safe and stable accommodation space.
At City Plaza we are creating a way to live together more collectively, by collaborating. It’s always important to contrast City Plaza to the camps. Here refugees can be active, be part of the running of their everyday life and of the decision-making processes here. They are the ones who assist others, not only being the ones who are always assisted.
What are the challenges in organising this way of living at City Plaza?
The basic thing is that we live in a world which is becoming more and more individualistic. It’s a question of political emancipation. For many people working and living in this collective way, it is out of their comfort zone to begin with.
There are many women in particular who arrive at City Plaza and have never been part of a meeting where general decisions are made. They have never been involved in a space where they are able to participate equally in day to day life. Something which is great to see is when these women gradually take more and more initiative and responsibility. A self-organised space fights oppression and enables empowerment for all involved.
We try not to promote dependence, but to encourage people to become independent and to look after themselves. As much as it is possible we provide the tools and platforms for people to think and act for themselves and understand their own personal and political situation and status.
For us it is the most important thing that between the co-ordination team, international volunteers, Greek locals and refugees there is an equal relationship. We are not ‘giving’ solidarity, we are saying ‘we are here as support but we cannot do everything for you’. This is really the challenge, to achieve a real sense of collaboration, independence and freedom for everyone here.
What is the difference between City Plaza and the camps and detention centres?
The basic differences can seem obvious. Here refugees have dignified housing, they live in dignified conditions. Refugees here have enough food, hot water, friends and relationships which are not based on hierarchy or that revolve around their refugee status. City Plaza is located in the centre of the city and people can leave freely, go to markets, have a social life. They are not so isolated.
It is important for City Plaza to exist for many reasons, not just to provide an alternative to the camps and detentions centres. This place is not a solution to the refugee crisis. 400 refugees can live in this space, but there are 59,000 others in Greece outside of these walls. They are on the streets or in camps, or in detention centres.
We do not say ‘we are saving refugees’. City Plaza is an example. An example that it is possible for alternatives to exist. The state does not provide anything like this. We demonstrate that it is possible to provide dignified ways for refugees to live in these times. We exist as a political statement. We are an example, a voice that says ‘an alternative is possible’.
How would you describe your day to day life at City Plaza?
To be honest it can be really exhausting. I am a member of the reception group. We are there to resolve problems, organise, co-ordinate, deal with emergencies. It can be a huge pressure.
There is also a huge pressure from people who need a place to stay and want to live at City Plaza. Everyday there are at least 5 people or families who arrive at the reception to ask if there is a room. It’s not easy. And when people are desperate, they can be really persistent. Having to say ‘no’ is not easy.
Logically, I know that we have to say no. We have to keep a balance inside the building so that it can continue to run to effectively and support everyone who is already living here. There are 59,000 refugees living outside of City Plaza. It’s really not easy to be faced with this reality everyday.
Where is your favourite place to be at City Plaza?
In the bar. (Laughs) If I’m in the bar, it means I have a free moment to spend just talking to people, to drink a coffee. I also love to be inside the kitchen. I would love to have more time to spend in the kitchen!
A favourite moment at City Plaza?
Recently a family left City Plaza to travel to Germany to be with the rest of their family and to start a life there. When we said goodbye one of the women asked me, ‘if things don’t work out, can I come back home?’.
It’s in these moments that I’m reminded that we’ve done something really important. We have created a home.
3 words to describe City Plaza:
Struggle, encounters, sharing
City Plaza is not supported by the government or NGOs, it relies completely on donations. What does it mean to City Plaza for people around the world to be in solidarity with this project?
In the context of the economic crisis in Greece it’s very difficult for most people to donate even if they want to because they just don’t have enough money. There was a day in the summer when a local woman arrived at City Plaza with 2 small packets of pasta. It was clear that she wasn’t in a position to give anymore than this. There are 400 people living here and the pasta would feed maybe 4 people. It was very touching. And actually these small donations really do accumulate.
I think that because this is a big project, people reading this from afar can feel that if they are only able to give a little, it can’t help. But that’s not true. Actually part of the beauty of this place is that it has been able to exist for this long as a result of a lot of small acts of solidarity and donations, which add up to make all the difference.
However small or big your donation, every little will help. Everyone at City Plaza thanks you for your kindness and support in helping us to continue to live and work together in our home, to continue to live here in peace, togetherness and solidarity.