ATHENS, Greece — When he was still a Taliban fighter, Zaher Muhamad never thought he would end up in Greece.
But as the might of the United States Army made itself felt in the post-Sept. 11 invasion of Afghanistan, Muhamad was forced to lay down his arms and flee, first to the Pakistani city of Peshawar, then onto Greece via Iran and Turkey. Today, he heads an Afghan immigrant association and lives in St Panteleimon, a gritty Athenian neighborhood balancing awkwardly along the racial fault line dividing the Greek capital.
It is not a good time to be in Greece. The country is in the middle of a crisis, with official unemployment skyrocketing to over 12 percent in general and 25 percent among young people. Now that construction and industrial jobs are drying up, immigrants are less welcome than ever.
Muhamad is just one in the tapestry of immigrants crowding into St Panteleimon from Asia, Africa and eastern Europe. Tensions skyrocketed in recent years as immigrants began outnumbering Greeks and members of the Greek far-right moved there to fight “de-Hellenisation.” They rented or bought apartments overlooking the square, stretched Greek flags taut across their balcony railings, and began almost daily patrols harassing immigrants.
Although many left, others like Muhamad refuse to be intimidated.
“Why should I be guilty of being in the West when it was the West through NATO that invaded my country?” Muhamad asked, as he sat with a group of friends in the Thousand and One Nights cafe, around a table strewn with cigarette packs and beer bottles.
Immigrants form an estimated 10 percent of Greece’s population of 11 million according to the United Nations. The trickle became a flood after Greece joined the Schengen zone in 1997, meaning once a person enters Greece he can travel to other Schengen countries without passing through immigration controls. As other EU members with long Mediterranean coastlines, such as Spain and Italy, tightened their border patrols, immigrants desperate to access Europe’s employment opportunities landed in Greece.
Periodic legalization drives and political inaction have exacerbated the racial divide and turned locals against the foreign presence. A chauvinist party called LAOS steadily gained in popularity. In the 2009 elections, it won 15 seats in parliament and became the third most-popular party in Greece’s second largest city, Thessaloniki.
Its success reflects changing popular attitudes toward immigrants.
"It's not possible for us to welcome people who enter our home through the window," wrote one anonymous reader of Ta Nea newspaper in an online comment responding to an article about the lives immigrants lead. He went on to criticize the governing party, PASOK, for leniency toward immigrants.
“In the past two years the harassment and intimidation have got worse and worse,” Muhamad said. “The right wing parties’ foot-soldiers often attack us, more as a vote-getting mechanism and to convince the electorate that they’re doing the job the police are not up to doing than because of anything else.”
On May 4, knife-yielding vigilantes assaulted two Afghan laborers waiting to be picked up for a day’s work. A week before that, they had attacked the cafe where Muhamad spends his time.
“There’s a heavy police presence but they do nothing when the fascists attack immigrants,” said Elektra Kouta, a human rights lawyer.
Just opposite the cafe, the domes of an enormous concrete Greek Orthodox church soar over the neighborhood square. Adjoining it is a padlocked playground. Half-empty cafeterias cluster around the open area, affording patrons a front-row seat to the frequent race-related attacks that occur. Asian and Middle Eastern children play in front of the church, shouting to each other in Greek.
“It was the playground that started it all,” said Stamatis Petropoulos, a 47-year-old taxi driver. “The Greeks felt that the immigrants’ children were stopping their children from entering the playground, or maybe they didn’t want their kids to mix with the foreigners’ kids.”
One local who works at a neighborhood flower shop claimed that she had been turned back after she tried to register her child at a nearby school. “I don’t have anything against immigrants but I was offended that even the kindergartens here give priority to their children.”
“The situation is miserable because thousands of people are trapped here,” said Gregory Valianatos, a human rights activist who lives in the neighborhood. “The politicians who have trapped them here are to blame for the pissing in the street, the thousands of people trapped in cement apartment blocks and low-paying labor, not the immigrants themselves.”
Last June, St Panteleimon’s trash-strewn streets claimed another questionable first, when Muslim immigrants belonging to criminal mafias clashed. About 150 men struggled with each other in a street-brawl, just one of several to have occurred in Athens as public order crumbles.
“Things are falling apart every day that passes,” said Myrto, a local business owner who refused to give her last name. “We watch and wait.”