ATHENS, Greece - "On October 25 an Iraqi Kurd died here at this camp," Abou Ali, a member of the executive committee of the Kurdish Refugees from Iraq at the Agios Andreas camp, told this reporter. "He had marched for over 20 days from Iraqi Kurdistan through Turkey and much of Greece. He arrived the evening before. The next day he was dead, a victim of the march. These are the conditions our people face."
Two weeks later, on November 7, the bus service that takes some of the refugees to their day jobs was cut off, as were the telephones. The 1,300 refugees at the camp -most of them Kurds who have fled repression by the Saddam Hussein regime in northern Iraq - responded by refusing all assistance from aid groups, and 72 began a hunger strike. "We contacted all the antiracist organizations, as well as the press, to get our story out," Ali said. "After 36 hours the government issued a decision to grant all of us immediate residence and work permits for six months.
"This is a major victory, since it is the first time the government has been forced to grant such a number of permits in bulk," he continued. "However, we will not be demobilized. Our main demand for political refugee status has yet to be granted and we will continue to fight for this until the end. With this in mind we will participate with other immigrants and antiracist organizations in a joint contingent during the November 17 student mobilizations."
On November 17, thousands of students and workers demonstrated in the yearly commemoration of the 1973 student uprising against the U.S.-backed dictatorship of George Papadopoulos. The Kurdish refugees, as well as Albanian immigrants, demonstrated in a large contingent of immigrant workers.
Entering the Agios Andreas camp, which is about an hour and a half outside of Athens, one is met by a large banner reading "Political Refugee Status for the Kurds!" At the entrance are residents of the camp who welcome visitors. Every aspect of camp life has been organized by the residents themselves. The visitors are taken to a conference room where they are briefed as to the conditions and the demands of the residents.
A walk through the camp shows the indifference of the Greek authorities. The camp is a summer vacation spot for Greek youth and belongs to the Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs. Located near the sea, it is designed for summer occupancy for about 300 people. Tents designed for about 6 people now have 16 people or more living in them. About 300 sleep out in the open, as there are not enough tents. With the approach of winter and the rapid drop in temperatures, these conditions will lead to diseases.
A small clinic staffed by volunteers from Doctors Without Borders is operating, but with its one bed is totally inadequate.
Last April about 200 Iraqi Kurds occupied a square in downtown Athens. They set up a camp with houses made from cardboard and wood. This action was in protest of their lack of housing. They demanded housing be given them. They were all undocumented. The police threatened them with arrest and deportations. At that point the Kurds appealed to the Coordinating Committee of Anti-Racist and Immigrant Organizations. The Coordinating Committee responded with a campaign aimed at preventing the arrests and evictions. The mayor assigned a task force and promises of housing were made.
In September the city administration proposed moving the Kurds to the Agios Andreas camp. By then the war in Iraqi Kurdistan had erupted again and the ranks of the refugees swelled to close to a thousand. The proposal was debated at a general meeting in the occupied square September 15, and the protesters decided to move to the new camp.
In the time that the Iraqi Kurds have been at Agios Andreas, there has been a constant flow of well-wishers bringing food, clothing, or just passing by to give their support. Fighters from the immigrant communities of Athens are also starting to go.
"Your fight is a fight for all immigrants here," explained Samsideen Iddrisu, former President of the Pan African Association of Greece (PANAG), during a visit to the camp on October 22. "We must focus on your demands, they are morally, politically and legally just. And we know that a victory for you will open the door for others. This is why the government is being so obstinate."
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