For Migrants, an Olympic Village in Ruins

Shonagh Rae


ELLINIKO, Greece — Until the torch was lit and world records began falling in Brazil, the poor condition of the Olympic Village in Rio de Janeiro was a favorite theme of the news media. But Rio isn’t the only place with a housing problem at its Olympic sites.

Here in a suburb of Athens, a new Olympic Village has sprung up in the old hockey and baseball stadiums built for the 2004 Olympic Games. In and around these long-abandoned and crumbling stadiums, about 2,000 migrants, most of them from Afghanistan, endure the sweltering August heat in tents and makeshift huts.

On the old playing fields, the migrants get a few square feet of sleeping space to share among extended families. By day, gangs of children and teenagers chase one another through the stadiums’ corridors and down the steps. Listless men wander from one arena to another across cracked concrete in vast and empty parking lots. It seems a scene from a post-nuclear disaster.

The No. 1 complaint? Boredom.

The derelict stadiums are part of the Elliniko Camp — a complex supervised by the Greek government with help from several humanitarian organizations. In addition to about 2,000 migrants living in the athletic venues, there are at least 1,000 migrants in an abandoned international airport nearby. There, signs still list flight times for Berlin, Paris and other first-class European destinations — one more cruel joke for the new residents.

According to the Olympic Charter, the goal of the Olympic movement is to “place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.” In the Elliniko Camp, if you want to work on your soccer skills on what used to be world-class turf, you’re in the right place. But if you need schooling or a job, you’re out of luck. Migrants can enter and leave, but visitors to the camp must show their credentials at the guardhouse before passing through barbed-wire fencing.

Recently, I visited the camp as a volunteer for the Melissa Network, a Greek nonprofit organization that provides classes and activities for young migrant women. The camp was holding an exhibition of refugee art, including some by our students. It was held in the former administrative offices of the hockey stadium, one of the few parts of the building that wasn’t stuffed with migrants’ belongings, blankets and clotheslines.

At the exhibition, two things stood out: a yearning for aesthetic beauty, and a working through of traumatic wounds. In one teenage artist, a beginning painter, I sensed a flowering of talent and passion. Her watercolors of the sun rising over the desert and a wolf howling at the moon had style. She signed her works “Hosseini” in confident letters. Then another painting — striking and less sure of itself — caught my eye. It was of a dismembered corpse on the ground, with blood pooling from it, and bone protruding. When I asked the young painter what had inspired this anomaly, she opened her phone and pulled up a photo, on a Facebook news feed, from which she had sketched. It showed the result of a suicide bombing that had killed at least 80 people in Kabul a few days before.

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Most of the victims of the Kabul bombing were ethnic Hazaras, as are many of the Afghans at this camp. While some Afghans in Europe are considered economic migrants by several European countries and are therefore given less opportunity for asylum, the Hazaras, an ethnic minority, are in a particularly precarious situation. They are persecuted in Afghanistan by the Talibanand the Islamic State. If they reach Iran, their rights are severely limited.

A teenage student of mine, Fatemeh, whose best friend in the camp recently left with a smuggler to try her luck at the border, pointed me to her favorite work. It was a close-up in charcoal of a man staring forlornly through a chain-link fence that he grasps tightly with both hands. She was drawn to the sadness in his expression: the sadness of being left behind.

When I ask, the migrants almost invariably say they want to go to Germany. Why? Because they won’t deport us there, they say. Some families have already made the perilous journey to Europe twice, only to be returned to the migrant trail.

A bubbly girl introduced herself as Zahra, which means “sparklingly beautiful” in Persian, and pulled us over to show us her favorite arts and crafts. She was just old enough to be entering elementary school, had there been a school for her to attend. When she turned her head, half of her face was masked by rough, protruding scars. Her wounds were not from war. She had been hit by a car and thrown to the ground while on her family’s weekslong trek through Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey to the shores of Greece.

It was an in-the-flesh reminder of how migrant families risk everything to make it to Europe, where they are met by bureaucratic indifference and untenable conditions. Taking into account other legal camps and illegal squatting grounds across Greece, almost 60,000 migrants to Europe have been trapped here since Macedonia closed its border in March.

The migrant artists at the exhibition took great pride in their creations, no matter how small. Seeing this, and the familial mood that day in this humble exhibition space, I was awed by the power of art to lift people beyond their suffering, to create something of beauty and meaning, however stark.

The border to the rest of Europe shows no sign of reopening. It can take months for Afghans just to begin the uncertain asylum process through Greek channels. One of the best ways to overcome the daily boredom and bureaucratic limbo of life in this Kafkaesque camp is to create.

Or there’s soccer. Stalled in place for months, possibly soon years of their adolescence, the migrant youth of Athens’s decaying Olympic Village play soccer, every day all day. As the world focuses on the flashier spectacle a continent and an ocean away in Rio, they can only dream of someday winning a future for themselves.

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