In Athens, former Olympic venues now play host to refugees
Where lithe young women once competed for Olympic gold in rhythmic gymnastics, young men from Afghanistan now kick a tennis ball around in a game of impromptu soccer.
The venue is the driveway of Galatsi Olympic Hall, one of three 2004 Athens Summer Games sites now serving as way stations for some of the hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants headed from Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan toward affluent Germany and Sweden.
In its heyday, the monumental green-arched stadium in this Athens suburb was packed with spectators watching world-class athletes swirl ribbons and hoops. Now behind a secured fence, it’s a temporary home for asylum seekers, as many as 12,000 of whom have passed through in the last month. The pickup soccer game is the first sporting activity that’s been undertaken there in nearly a decade.
More than half a million people have made the sea crossing from Turkey to Greece’s Aegean archipelago this year, straining the resources of a country that has spent more than half a decade teetering on the edge of financial collapse. Although almost all intend to journey on to Western European nations, Greece has nonetheless scrambled to find temporary shelter for the new arrivals.
That is where the former Olympic facilities, which have fallen into disrepair, have come in. The taekwondo stadium on the Athens coast, the athletic complex at Hellinikon and Galatsi Hall temporarily house many who would otherwise be camping out in the capital’s parks and squares, where they would be vulnerable to the increasingly chilly weather and exploitation by smugglers.
“They’re athletic venues, so there’s sanitation — toilets, showers — and that’s why they were chosen when we had nowhere to put the people,” said Vassileios Papadopoulos, general secretary for population at the Interior Ministry.
The venues sat neglected as Greece’s ballooning debt left no funds for investment and development after the Olympics, which were a $10-billion enterprise.
Some argue that the cost overruns and delays associated with the Games contributed to Greece’s financial downturn, which eventually sparked the euro debt crisis and led to three bailouts for Athens. Manos Eleftheriou, deputy mayor of Galatsi, watched as weeds overtook the silent Galatsi stadium, nestled amid a sprawl of apartment buildings.
Then on Oct. 1, Eleftheriou was contacted by the Greek Immigration Ministry. Could the municipality get the venue into shape to accommodate hundreds of refugees now sleeping out in the open in central Athens?
“I got the call at 11:30,” said Eleftheriou, a tanned man in his 40s with curly black hair, who rides around the 6,000-seat stadium on a Suzuki motorbike. “By 11:45, we had promises to provide 400 cheese pies, 400 sweets, water. We ran through fixing broken locks, picking up broken glass, doing as much as we could.”
Eleftheriou says he now spends 20 hours a day at the Galatsi complex, which houses 700 people. Most are Afghans, split between families and young men in their late 20s. Freshly washed clothes dry on the fence near where some of the young men play soccer.
“They move on every couple of days,” Eleftheriou said. “Here we give them food, medical care, clothing. We provide theater, music, Spanish food, country music. We’re trying to show them the diversity of the Europe they are going to.”
Now, as during the 2004 Games, volunteers are central to the enterprise. Money is tight, Papadopoulos says. The terms of Greece’s austerity-laden bailouts from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund mean that the government can’t hire the staff needed to run the centers.
At Hellinikon, a tract twice the size of New York’s Central Park that once housed Athens’ airport, a gas station attendant had never heard the name of the sports facility that hosted the Olympic baseball and canoeing competitions. But asked where refugees are being housed, he pointed immediately in the stadium’s direction.
The asylum seekers, mainly families, have recently departed, leaving behind a skeleton crew of volunteers sorting through donated clothes, toys and battered shoes outside the stadium. Inside, blankets are piled high; handwritten signs in Arabic, Greek and English give directions for reaching the city center.
With Greece promising to provide temporary shelter for about 50,000 asylum seekers by the end of the year, Papadopoulos is considering whether to commandeer two more former Olympic venues.
But he knows that the athletic centers are just a stopgap and are often far from transportation hubs or ethnic enclaves favorable to refugees. The migrants want to move on from Greece as soon as possible, and some, like the Afghans at the Galatsi arena, rely on local compatriots for money and support.
Athens, Papadopoulos says, needs designated refugee centers that are more centrally located, such as Eleonas, formerly an empty lot that is close to a subway station, another legacy of the building spurt that accompanied preparations for the 2004 Games.
Eleonas can accommodate about 750 people in container homes that sleep up to eight people and have water, heating and air-conditioning, says Mahmoud Abdelrosoul, who helps run the center for the Interior Ministry. The center also provides translation and interpretation services, asylum advice and healthcare. The navy provides the food.
Since the center opened in mid-August, about 8,000 people have passed through, mostly families with young children. At the center, a volunteer shoos a group of children away from the main office, where they’re clamoring for more cookies. Two girls wearing head scarves play basketball; one picks her way gingerly through a large puddle of water to scoop up the ball.
It is the approach of winter that causes the most concern among officials. The stream of refugees shows no sign of abating as many rush to cross to Greece before the weather makes the sea voyage impossible.
Having people sleep on floors in cavernous stadiums isn’t really a long-term solution, Papadopoulos acknowledged.
“The country’s economic capabilities right now are limited,” he said. “The Olympics lasted for 20, 25, 30 days. This is going to last a little longer.”
Petrakis is a special correspondent.
Must-read stories from the L.A. Times
Get all the day's most vital news with our Today's Headlines newsletter, sent every weekday morning.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.