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People Example11

Get to know the newcomers, activists and volunteers we met in Athens, Berlin and London, as they share their personal experiences of refuge, welcome and the digital city.


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Brittany, The Unmentionables
Exarcheia, Athens, November 2018

I think that showers are the first reason people come to us initially, not the sex education courses. We had to close down for three days last week so this morning was like a madhouse. Everyone wants to get on the shower list. I’m like, ‘calm down, we’ll make sure everyone has a shower, don’t worry.’

It's right for them to feel anxious though as opportunities and resources for hygiene are few and far between. Between 20 to 30 people a day use our showers, a lot of whom are men but also there are a lot of families with their children, so we need to factor that into the timings. Most of the people you see here have no access to showers or housing. They are homeless, living up in the mountains or in squats without running water. This is a safe space to get menstrual products, condoms and other things. I think what we do is so important: dignity through hygiene.


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When people initially come to the workshops, especially the guys, they are a bit like, ‘Sex ed? I don’t need that!’ Men don’t have a lot of programmes. If they have wives, many rely on them for information, and others have no one. We try to explain that this is to protect you and others around you — it’s about your rights, even information on how to travel safely, like if you're going to leave Greece to look for better situations in other countries by walking across borders. Many face violence and abuse on their travels, including sexual abuse, which you don't hear about as much but it happens to a lot of guys.


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Before coming to Greece, I worked in the US on refugee settlement programmes. I felt I needed a broader sense of their experience and I wanted to see what they had gone through before until they arrived through a resettlement programme. I flew to Lesbos and worked with a few organizations before transitioning to Athens and The Unmentionables six months ago. I really want to stay in Athens now.


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Exarcheia Square is right there; it's a well-known hang out for drug dealers, smugglers and even mafia. So this is a safe space to come to instead of hanging out there. The men, especially, really like coming here. I think they feel safe here, comfortable, and they bring in their friends. Male refugees are very stigmatised and a lot of people are scared of them. There are not many people who cater to this group. People are always asking me, ‘Are you sure you’re safe?’ And I’m like ‘the guys are great!’ Once in awhile, something may come up, but it’s usually triggered by something from the outside.


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We’re thinking that we need to discuss the concept of ‘manhood’ as part of talking about gender violence. A lot of the men here had to be the supporters and providers of their household, the ‘man of the house,’ and they come here all alone with the plan of establishing themselves and bringing their families to join them as soon as they can but there’s no money here. A guy I was speaking to explained it like this, ‘where I come from we all belong to a tribe, and when you come here, you need to find a tribe.’ And the tribes they find here are most often dangerous drug dealers because there is no way to make money here, there are no jobs, especially if you don’t have the right papers. So people end up falling into this sort of thing. I think it's important to try to take them out of that and ask, ‘what does it really mean to be a man? What did it mean to you growing up? What does it mean now?’

(solidarity, Athens)

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All our instructors are from migrant backgrounds and they are part of the communities they work with. We’ve trained them as part of the program but they speak the language. I think this is one of the things that enables the program to work. The people who come here trust the educator and space, because they're very good at making people feel comfortable, it’s their personalities. So people come in initially because of them, and then they start bringing other people in. Today’s group is very engaged. They keep on asking us for more courses, more stuff. So we are currently taking polls on what is their next priority, is it relationships, or is it something else.


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We have plans to launch an app which I feel will be very helpful. There will always be issues with getting people through the door. Many just don’t feel comfortable, or their husbands don’t let them, or they just can’t be here. The app will be a good resource for correct information that isn’t otherwise available. I think most people are just learning from what other people have told them, or they're learning from YouTube videos — generally spaces that are not giving them the correct information.

(digital lives)

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Sometimes I feel like Athens is a really welcoming and open city. I have seen so many good people, Greek people, doing good things, but while many are welcoming there are others who do not share the same mentality. We have seen the Golden Dawn* active with demonstrations, riots and far-right propaganda. But on the whole, I would say it is very welcoming, especially considering the number of people who are here.

* Golden Dawn is a far-right political party in Greece.


Update June 2020 — The Unmentionables closed at the end of 2018 and I got a new job as the manager of CRIBS International, a housing and social work organisation for women and children. I also started a library called The Book Collective, which is currently housed in the Amina Centre in Athens. Exarcheia Square was raided and all the squats have since been evacuated. It's crazy how much things have changed! We still live in Athens, although I'm currently in the US apart from my partner due to travel bans as a result of Covid-19.

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