Masafarhána: Inside the invisible refugee houses in Athens

In Athens, refugees pay to live in small apartments which accommodate up to 22 people. They often fall victim to exploitation by their compatriots. But sometimes the masafarhánas offer them the forgotten feeling of home.
Masafarhána: Inside the invisible refugee houses in Athens
In Athens, refugees pay to live in small apartments which accommodate up to 22 people. They often fall victim to exploitation by their compatriots. But sometimes the masafarhánas offer them the forgotten feeling of home.
ARTWORK: KYRA SACKS
TRANSLATION: GIGI PAPOULIAS

After a 30-minute drive from downtown Athens to the northwestern suburbs, the car stops in front of an entrance of a three-story building. There’s a metal door, which prohibits passers-by from seeing the interior courtyard of the building. A man in his 40s is standing by the door. He’s wearing a dark blue jacket, which resembles an imitation of an expensive clothing brand.

He leans slightly forward, his gaze lowered, offering his hand to greet us, then motions for us to follow him. “Come on, come on.” An internal staircase leads to the first floor. After taking off our shoes, we enter the apartment and the man invites us into the living room.

There’s a strong damp smell and the aroma of food.

The shutters on the living room’s balcony doors are closed, blocking out any natural light. The long narrow room is illuminated by a bare lightbulb hanging from the middle of the ceiling.

Behind the half-closed door of the living room, shadows pass fleetingly through the dark hallways of the apartment. The line of shoes at the entrance indicates that there are many people living in the three-room apartment.

“Twenty-two guys live here. Some have gone out now,” says Máma, our host, the one who is in charge of the house.

Masafarhána: the house of travelers

The house we are in is called a masafarhána. The term is derived from the words masafar (traveler) and hana (home), and in Dari (one of the languages spoken in Afghanistan) it means “the house of travelers” or what we’d call a hostel: a place where one spends the night during a journey.

Although their actual number is unknown, as these houses operate informally, it is estimated that there are at least 20 masafarhánas in Athens today. Most are located in downtown Athens, around neighborhoods with a strong presence of Afghans such as Acharnes, Pedion tou Areos, and Victoria Square.

Some are located outside the center, in suburban areas where there’s a demand for manual labor, jobs that Afghans often undertake, either in the informal economy (collecting scrap metal on the streets) or in agricultural production (working in the fields of Marathon).

The usual cost of a night’s stay at a masafarhána is between €5 and €7, while a month can cost from €100 to €200 per person. The apartments are usually in horrible condition. As a rule, they accommodate many people in relation to their capacity, with more than 20 people sharing a four-room apartment, and the person behind the masafarhána ensuring an income from their compatriots’ misery.

During the past two pandemic years, Solomon got access to two masafarhánas located in different areas of Athens and conducted multiple visits and interviews with tenants. Today we present, for the first time, a snapshot of the invisible life inside these unique accommodations.

The masafarhánas − there are similar homes for other nationalities, such as Syrians or Ivorians − provide cheap accommodation for people in need: asylum seekers who have just arrived in the capital and don’t know what to do; undocumented migrants living “off the radar” of the state; single men who don’t earn enough money or lack the necessary documents to rent an apartment.

Despite the extremely bad living conditions, at times, the masafarhánas also offer a sense of home.

Carpets and a flag of Afghanistan

In Afghan tradition, the living room is the most important room in the house.

It is so important, that it’s believed that this is where the design and construction of a house should begin. In fact, it’s so significant, that a family can be ridiculed by the community if their living room isn’t big enough or well maintained.

In Afghanistan, the living room is the main room where visitors are received, as well as where overnight guests are accommodated. In the masafarhánas of Athens, the living room is the common area where most men spend their non-working hours, and where they sleep.

In the masafarhána we gained access to, the entire floor of the living room was covered with large carpets. Square burgundy pillows lined the perimeter of the space. The furniture was limited to a wooden wall unit with a large TV with speakers on each side.

The only decorative items were crammed on the wall above the unit: an Afghan flag, a clock, a cheap landscape painting (its frame almost touching the ceiling), and a globe next to a wooden model of a ship.

Máma sits at one of the big pillows and urges the others to do the same. As he’s talking, other young men are in the kitchen preparing the tea he ordered. Trays filled with pitchers and plates of cookies and nuts quickly appear.

There are two packs of Marlboro in front of Máma, from which he smokes alternately. Along with the damp smell, the smoke makes the atmosphere in the room even more suffocating.

After 16 years in Greece, Máma speaks Greek with confidence, despite his errors in grammar and usage or his limited vocabulary. After all, both he and all the other men in the house learned the language through work, rather than attending classes.

“No businesses, no businesses”

How does a masafarhána operate?

Máma says he started this house because he was “alone, without a wife” and there were other people in the same situation. He categorically refuses to describe the masafarhána that he’s been operating for more than ten years as a “job”.

“No business, no business,” he repeats in English. However, we don’t get a clear answer whenever we try to find out how much he charges the young tenants, who, every now and then, shyly look into the doorway to see who the guests are.

“Depending on what the expenses are,” says Máma, “we see how much everything is and one pays a little, the other a little. It’s not a problem.”

He knows that other landlords at masafarhánas charge tenants extra for hot showers in the winter, but he insists this is not the case at his place. Being the oldest among his compatriots, and having experienced all kinds of work and day jobs in the past, Máma is somewhat protective of the younger tenants, and sometimes finds jobs for them through his connections.

He says that some Sundays, when not all the men are out working, they gather here, in the living room which is the main room of the apartment. They turn on the TV and speakers and then, via the songs on Youtube, a sort of bridge covers the distance of more than 5,000 kilometers from Afghanistan, and the room is flooded with music and images from back home.

However, as much as Máma refuses to acknowledge the financial benefit he receives from the apartment, and although he presents himself as being in the same position as the others, there are issues in which he differs from the others significantly.

In one of our meetings, he admits that he does not live in the apartment. He lives in another apartment nearby, which is for him alone.

“I go there to rest and to meet my Katerina.” As he speaks, he gets up, disappears for a while somewhere in the back rooms, and returns holding a framed photo, the glass slightly cracked. “This is Katerina, my wife here in Greece.”

Afghan masafars in Athens

Máma‘s confidence and self-assurance reflect his privileged position in relation to the men of the masafarhána, who for the most part remain silent and seem almost frightened.

Like Ahmad, who had to get permission from Máma in order to talk to us. While the young Afghan tells us his story, Máma remains in the room at all times. When he began his journey to Europe, Ahmad could never imagine that two years later he’d end up living in a house in Athens with 21 of his compatriots.

It was one of Ahmad’s first days in Athens, he was eating at an Afghan restaurant downtown and he was worried because he lacked the documents that would allow him to remain in the country legally, and he worried about continuing to central Europe. Someone approached his table and asked him if he was looking for a place to stay.

Ahmad went with the man he had just met. He spent one night at the masafarhána, then another, and he’s been there ever since. Besides the few times he was ill and had to isolate for a few days in one of the bedrooms (which otherwise is used mainly as a prayer room), he sleeps in the main room, with all the others.

Ahmad speaks some Greek, and when we ask how he learned the language, he tells us “at work”. But the first words he learned were in Romani, as he worked at a store that sold fake imitations of brand-name clothing, run by a Roma family. He was fine then, he says, he may have worked without insurance but he was earning €25 a day.

Now, the jobs he finds in the area offer a daily wage of €5 or €10.

The young men of the masafarhána wake up in the morning and go out in search of any available work: construction jobs, painting houses, plumbing, washing carpets, warehouse jobs, passing out leaflets. They often fall victim to exploitation and end up working exhausting hours for little money, which their bosses refuse to pay them at the end of the day.

And sometimes they are even less fortunate. Like Haddad, who was working in Argos in the orange groves, when one day the police stopped him while he was going to buy something, and he ended up spending 6.5 months in the Pre-Departure Detention Center (PROKEKA) of Corinth because he is undocumented. Or Ibrahim, who worked in Aspropyrgos, and was found to have no papers during an inspection, and was sent to jail for four months at the local police department.

For the older ones, who managed to get their papers, other opportunities – although limited − open up. When we visited the masafarhána at the beginning of last summer, we met Faisal for the first time. He had just returned from the province where he worked.

After ten years in Greece, Faisal speaks Greek well and tells us that he now has a residence permit. Before then he had done all kinds of manual labor: in the city, in the provinces. At the time of our meeting, Faisal was waiting for the season to begin so he could go to Santorini, it would be his first time going to the island.

He had secured a job there as a dish washer, he said with satisfaction.

How can you socially distance yourself in a house with 20 people?

For the past two and a half years, Hamid Naseri has been living in a masafarhána near Victoria Square. When the pandemic broke out, 17 men of Afghan descent were living in the house. The pandemic turned their lives upside down.

Until that time, regardless of whether they had a steady job or resorted to whatever temporary day jobs they could get, the residents of the masafarhána lived day-to-day in terms of their income and expenses.

During the first wave, the lockdown meant they could no longer work. Hamid Naseri, who worked as a gardener in the northern suburbs, was afraid to take the train to the suburbs. Other residents of the masafarhána, who collected scrap metal from the streets or worked at houses, also felt that if they went out to work they would risk being stopped for police checks, since there were fewer people out on the streets.

Five days passed, ten days, then 20, and then 40 days went by without any of them earning an income.

They learned from friends that, in other houses, the owners were throwing tenants out on the street because they were unable to pay and had now run out of money. At Hamid Naseri’s house, the rent money for those who couldn’t pay was covered by recently-arrived compatriots, who still had some money leftover from their journey.

Among the recent arrivals, there were two unaccompanied minors, who had just arrived in Greece via the Evros River. There are many cases of minors who reside at masafarhánas because they want to stay off the authorities’ radar in order to continue their journey to Europe, or of those who run away from shelters and stay at a masafarhána until they plan their next journey with the help of a trafficker. It is not uncommon for the people behind the masafarhánas and trafficking networks to be identified.

Morteza is one such case. He ran away from a shelter for unaccompanied minors in downtown Athens, where he lived, to continue his journey to Europe via the port of Patras. But the pandemic broke out, and with the lockdown, he was trapped in Athens. He didn’t have enough money to stay at a masafarhána, but for a lower rate, he could visit one a few times a week, for a meal or to take a shower. But then he’d return to the streets, where he slept.

At the masafarhána, the residents were confined to the living room during the lockdown and they shared the housework, such as cooking, and passed the time on their phones. They watched movies and TV shows, talked to their families and friends back home or in other European countries, and tried to find information on the pandemic and new restrictions.

When things got difficult, the roles were reversed. For many of the tenants of the masafarhána there came a time when instead of sending money to their families back home, they needed to receive money from their families.

As soon as the lockdown eased, and travel between different regions was allowed, some residents chose to leave Athens and attempt to travel to Europe via Bosnia and Herzegovina. Some of them succeeded, others remained stuck for months at perhaps Europe’s most dangerous borders.

The rest were left behind, in the masafarhána. Trying to adapt to a new reality due to the pandemic.

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