Half the House by Hanna-Katrina Jędrosz
As an outsider I initially wanted to explore the idea of contemporary ruins appearing in a city famous for ancient ruins, as a result of the financial crash. Ruins as a cultural attraction, and how this sits in the conscience when the sites are modern, and the occupants are, in some instances, in states of extreme hardship. The search led me to a number of different types of buildings which, as I discovered, now symbolise how sites have been re-appropriated, both literally and metaphorically, to meet the new and necessary needs of the people of the city, both newcomers and locals. I was struck by how the grass-roots “movements” of people organising themselves as a result of the government’s austerity, has collided with the “movement” of people across land and sea who are fleeing war.
In recent memory Athens has undergone huge change. In 2009 Greece was hit by the financial crisis and more recently in 2015 the European Migrant/Refugee Crisis has made a huge impact on Greece with unprecedented numbers of people migrating across the Aegean sea via Turkey, arriving on the shores of Greek islands. People have travelled predominantly from Syria and Afghanistan, fleeing Daesh.
This body of work was possible because of the people I met in each building. It is their presence which reverberated between the walls and steered my path.
Excerpts of accompanying text for Half the House
I speak to different students at the university. There is a sense of parallel planes of activity converging in the campus. The students express their desire to do the right thing, to help their fellow citizens and the asylum seekers landing on the Greek islands each day. But they are also profoundly aware of the economic erosion in their country which makes it difficult to get by, day to day. Their expectations of the future are shifting. Will they have to leave Greece to find work? The students on this campus study architecture and there is a feeling that their plans are being built on sand.
Originally built to house Greek refugees from Asia Minor who were relocated after World War One, the Prosfygikas Estate is a set of 1930s buildings which have faced demolition a number of times. The site was ultimately saved from being turned into a mall in 2008 when it was declared historically important. However, without the finance to renovate the site, the buildings have fallen into further disrepair. Today a number of descendants of the original tenants live here, along-side squatters, anarchists, and immigrants.
We tap on our phones and forge a conversation through a translation app. “My family in Syria under the war, beatings and mass…My husband was threatened with danger every moment. It was not in our power to stay.” She tells me she is a teacher, her husband an economist. It’s no longer possible to keep her child safe in Syria. But she loves Syria, speaks of it’s beauty and her hope to one day return. Her parents have refused to leave Syria. Now she passes her days in Athens with no sense of what her future holds.
The squat has not been open long the first time. There are people temporarily housed here that have arrived from Afghanistan and Syria. There are not many people who speak the same language amongst the volunteers and refugees. The volunteers are organised, efficient and willing. The refugees are tired, waiting, their futures uncertain. Most people living in this building have arrived via boat. There is an endless supply of art materials. People in the local community are willing to help. I spend some time with two volunteers who have travelled from Denmark to help. “In Denmark refugees are arrested at the border.” In Athens it is possible to take direct action as part of the grass-roots movement to help refugees.
In the organising assembly there are more than thirty volunteers, and many languages spoken – Greek, English, French, Farsi. We sit in an old house in central Athens left long ago by it’s owners. The ceilings are high. There is much work to be done. There is a British girl who seems to be leading the meeting. She runs a tight ship and has been involved in establishing a number of squats that have opened up for the refugees. There is fundraising happening in Paris, London, money will arrive soon to cover the cost of timber. The word “beams” is confused with “beans.” This entire house is undergoing a major renovation.
This family of four will soon be five. She is eight months pregnant when we meet. Her husband’s direct look solemnly communicates how he feels at the prospect of his wife giving birth to their next child in an old airport terminal building currently housing some 2,000 people. The airport is in a suburb of Athens, out of the way, slow to reach without a car. They have travelled a long way from Afghanistan, across mountains, to get here.
I’m invited into the museum, closed at the moment to the public. Memorabilia of an era that no longer exists. Not here anyway. I’m told the museum doesn’t have the funds to open, and there is a much larger archive of artefacts in storage.