By Abriana Jetté
Sayreville, NJ, USA

[Winner of a 2011 MacArthur Fellowship, A.E. Stallings was named a Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry in 2019.]

Three years ago, in the summer of 2016, I spoke to the poet A.E. Stallings about the humanitarian crisis in Athens. During that conversation, I asked Stallings what a “typical” day might entail and her answer revealed a deep empathy and heightened awareness of the refugee struggle. She described how a “Tuesday or Thursday might mean spending the morning at a refugee squat with volunteers” or “direct a refugee mother and child to a metro stop”, or that she might be late to an appointment or meeting because she had stopped to find out if a “Syrian child travelling on his own…has a family and place to go.”

As the seasons passed, Stallings and her cohort of volunteers began to refer to themselves as the Central Athens Irregulars and they dedicated themselves to acclimating refugee families living in the 5th School Squat to life and culture in Athens. The Central Athens Irregulars spent their days working with families, children and adults alike, on painting, drawing, baseball, music, poetry, and even English grammar lessons on a weekly basis. They set up community-raised funding to buy school supplies, from pencils to erasers to book bags, for the children of the Squat. Jan Sanders, picking up from Stephanie Larson, managed a weekly food delivery from donations as well. Most importantly, the Central Athens Irregulars welcomed these refugee families into Athens, reminding them that good does exist in the world.

Stallings may not identify as a humanitarian (she is mostly known as one of the best contemporary poets writing in English and translating from Greek), but I can find no other word to describe the ethos by which she lives her life. She and her husband, the journalist John Psaropoulos, have provided the world with sharp, necessary insight into various refugee communities. Together they have given voice to the men, women, and children that so many governments have tried to silence. 

A.E. Stallings

I caught up with Stallings in response to the closure of the 5th School Squat in late September 2019.

ABRIANA JETTÉ: As part of your activism, you have brought the love of baseball and poetry into the lives of young and old alike. You’ve worked endlessly to supply shoes, lipstick, jackets, art supplies, and music to those living at 5th High School squat in Athens. In just three years, you brought happiness and peace back into their daily ritual. I was hoping we might be able to talk about your experience spending time with these families.  

Baseball coach Benjamin Lewis pitches to a young baseball player at the 5th School Squat in Athens. 

A.E. STALLINGS: Over three and a half years, we’ve met many families. Generally, families were at the squat only until they could move on, to Germany or to an apartment in Athens. But some families were there for two or more years. One man has been there since the squat opened in March of 2016. His pregnant wife and daughter went on to Germany—so now he has a daughter that he has never met, who is a toddler. It did sometimes strike me as strange that the Central Athens Irregulars (the name I dubbed our FB page for volunteers) had actually been at the squat longer than most residents.

ABRIANA JETTÉ: Were you, or were others around you, able to sense any impending changes? Were there any signs or warnings that the families living peacefully would be evicted?

A.E. STALLINGS: I think there was an awareness that it was unlikely a squat could go on forever. Although I think the 5th School Squat was an exception in many ways. It was in an abandoned public building rather than a private one—a school—and on the edge of Kolonaki (a swanky neighborhood) rather than in the heart of Exarcheia, a traditional stronghold of students and anarchists. The families were well-integrated into the neighborhood, spending time in the local parks, doing their shopping etc., and many of the children were enrolled in local schools. SYRIZA, the previous government, that had, in many ways, turned something of a blind eye to the squats, had, as of the Spring, changed its policy and violently evicted one of the squats. (By violently, I mean riot police in full gear kicking down doors in a dawn raid. One pregnant woman miscarried from the shock.) And the new government came in with the campaign promise that the squats would be evicted. I think on some level, everyone knew it was a matter of time. We were hoping for more time, or for some real government plan to move the families into proper housing.

ABRIANA JETTÉ: How would you describe the tone of the Athens community in response to this eviction?

A.E. STALLINGS: There was very little reaction to the other evictions—the 5th School eviction came after a series of such evictions, including of the 2nd School squat. But I think, again, the government understood the 5th was a special case. It is probably the most documented of the squats, with articles in the New York Times (
“Anarchists Fill Services Void Left by Faltering Greek Governance” by Niki Kitsantonis) and National Geographic (See Captivating Photos of Refugees in a Converted School” by Kristin Hugo with Photographs by Aris Messinis). And it had a lot of support from volunteers, including local and Greek volunteers. Former graduates of the 5th school used to come in once a week and cook for the residents. A French group had set up a Montessori-type school in one of the classrooms. Our own group came once or twice a week for three and a half years with art projects, games, baseball. Our group also helped to organize a food delivery once a week (first organized by archeologist Stephanie Larson, and then taken over by Jan Sanders).

Our volunteer group skewed heavily to artists, writers, academics, and archaeologists. Many of us are mothers and teachers. In general, the squats have been associated with anarchists in the press, but there was little to no anarchist presence at the 5th. (One anarchist who was involved early on—his name was Christos I think—who dressed in central-casting Che Guevara fatigues, got kicked out by the squat itself for smoking pot on the premises—the squat had a strict no-drugs policy—and possibly stealing the squat’s van.) Instead, a lot of middle-class and professional moms. I think the government has been surprised at the reactions to the 5th school closings—there has been more reporting, and in fact the PTOs of the schools where the children were enrolled have all released statements that the children are missed in school; they want their children’s classmates back. The government was not expecting that sort of reaction.

ABRIANA JETTÉ: It may be difficult for those of us not directly connected to the refugee crisis to fully conceptualize the pain and trauma that these families endure. Can you walk us through the 5th High School squat? What sort of policies came into place? How were the young children treated?

A.E. STALLINGS: The squat was a community, and a unique one. In the refugee camps, people are often grouped by country or ethnicity, in theory I suppose to minimize conflict. But the squat simply prioritized families. There were families from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Eritrea, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, all living together, two to three families to a classroom, which would be partitioned by blankets as curtains. Children did not even have languages in common necessarily (among the languages spoken: Arabic, Persian—Farsi and Dari, Urdu, Turkish, French), but somehow forged friendships and found ways to play games. The squat had its problems too of course—we battled with the plumbing for years; evidently the plumbing was what closed the school in the first place. Volunteers helped residents to replace the windows, fix the plumbing, and repair the electricity. But the squat was run by the residents themselves, who had rota for cleaning or distribution of food, etc.

Our last visit, I think we knew it was possibly a matter of days. I was lucky that the poet Adrianne Kalfopoulou (one of our stalwart volunteers from the get-go) had a heads-up from one of the residents about the eviction, which began at 6:30 a.m. on a Monday morning—as kids would be getting ready for school, but before people had left for the morning. I was able to get down to the squat after getting my own kids to school. Police would not let me approach anyone directly, but we were able to wave to people on the busses and to exchange phone numbers through the windows. That’s how we found out they were sent to an army camp in Corinth. Some of the images I didn’t see till later, when I saw the press photos. (In fact, I’m in a couple of those.) Close-ups of kids I know, putting their schoolbags, which we had bought them, into the luggage compartment of the busses.

Residents of Athens gather to witness the evacuation of the 5th School Squat.

The police were better behaved than in other evictions, as I think they knew there would be more scrutiny. And a lot were young policewomen, which I think did make it less traumatic for the women and children than a bunch of heavily armed riot police would have been. (One thing I didn’t like though—they wore hospital masks and gloves, as if being a refugee were contagious.) Some of that may have been for the optics, but the police were professional at least. Two garbage trucks waited behind the busses to toss any remaining belongings into—mattresses, blankets, the school room equipment, the food delivery. And then the municipality immediately bricked up the entrance to the school.

The 5th School Squat boarded up with bricks as of September, 2019. 

These are people who have walked out of warzones—they are resilient, and largely people seemed resigned rather than panicked or alarmed, but a few of the children were visibly very upset. I hope it was helpful that many volunteers turned out to wave to them and be present and offer their support.

ABRIANA JETTÉ: How would you say that this experience changed you?

A.E. STALLINGS: Every time I would walk through the door of the school, which could look dark and forbidding and covered with graffiti, resident men standing watch, I would think—this might seem crazy to someone on the outside. Yet as soon as I was inside, we were welcomed with courtesy and affection and kindness (and a sense of wry humor sometimes), offered tea or whatever people had to offer. Other volunteer groups would come in for intense bursts (two or three weeks, say), but I think what we offered, even if it was once or twice a week, was consistency. There is enough upheaval in these people’s lives. They knew we were always coming back, that we would be there in fact after they had moved on. And there was a great fellowship among our volunteers—for years this was essentially my social outlet as well. My fellow volunteers also encouraged each other, I think, to not think of our radical acts of kindness as crazy, as too much. If it was a child’s birthday, we made a party—baked cupcakes, had pass-the-parcel games. If someone needed medicine, we went out and got it. If the barber needed new clippers, we got new clippers. The poet Adrianne Kalfopoulou even drove children to the dentist.

Hands United

We’re still in touch with many people who have moved on to Switzerland, to Sweden, to Germany—and in one case, back to Iraq. 

(Photographs courtesy of A.E. Stallings. Baseball photo credit: Eirini Moutzouri; Eviction photo credit: John Psaropulos; Bricking Up photo credit: 5th School Facebook Page; Hands United photo credit:Eirini Moutzouri)

Abriana Jetté


Abriana Jetté is the author of the Amazon #1 bestselling women's poetry anthology 50 Whispers. Her newest poetry anthology, Stay Thirsty Poets - Vol. I, was released in February 2019.

All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.