The economic crisis in Greece has led to a rise in support for the far-right Golden Dawn and an increase in racist attacks. Jamal Osman talks to one man who is fighting back.
Michael Chege and his friends patrol their neighbourhood in Athens, Greece, most nights. After many encounters with the neo-Nazi group, Golden Dawn, they set up their own brigade, nicknamed the Black Panthers.They want to protect themselves from the fascists who are targeting people who are not ethnic Greeks.
Since the economic crisis tore Greece apart, people have been trying to find someone to blame. Some blame immigrants for the high unemployment and crime. Racist attacks against immigrants have been rising steadily. In the last year alone, more than 150 racist attacks were recorded by police, but most go unreported.
Greece is a gateway to Europe and many immigrants travel there as an entry point in the hope of reaching the richer nations on the continent.
Newly arrived immigrants, who do not speak the language or have proper documentation, live in fear. But Michael and his friends are taking on the extremists.
‘We will exterminate them’
“I’m not afraid of this neo-Nazi, stupid, idiotic group,” he told me. “In WW2, they were crushed. In WW3, we will exterminate them out of the face of the earth.
“I am a member of the Black Panthers and everybody knows that. So I am giving them (Golden Dawn) a straight warning – don’t mess with black people, anyhow. And I mean it.”
Members of the Black Panthers rescue each other if one is attacked. Using mobile phones with instant messaging and social media, their response is swift. “It has turned our lives better, at least in our neighbourhood,” Michael told me.
Michael arrived in Greece from Kenya at eight months. Although he has lived there for 28 years, he is treated as a new immigrant. Police stop him on a regular basis to check his identification papers. So he has to carry a bag full of documents to prove that he is legal in the country.
For immigrants, the situation in Greece is worsening. They accuse the Greek police of harassment. I joined one of the many police patrols as they rounded up immigrants.
We came across drug users but the police did not bother to chase them after they ran away, but carried on arresting immigrants, which seemed a more important job than dealing with drug users. Thousands of immigrants are languishing in detention centres.
Growing up in Greece, as the only black child in his school, he had to fight every day to “get respect” from fellow pupils. He took up martial arts at the age of seven and has been doing it since then. That gave him the confidence to confront people like Golden Dawn members.
One of his latest encounters happened while he was on a bus in the city. Two men with “a neo-Nazi look” entered the bus. Some of the passengers were signalling to Michael, telling him to “leave, run or get down”, but he defied it. One of the techniques he learnt in his martial arts lessons was that “when you see a danger, you don’t wait, you go for it and push out”.
Although the fight inside the bus was “really hard”, Michael left the scene with minor injuries. He said: “It is not the first time and certainly not the last time â€¦ if you need respect, you must earn it”.
A day later, on live television, he challenged the Golden Dawn leader, Nikos Michaloliakos, who thinks Africans are cannibals. In the television debate, Michaloliakos said: “The pygmies are boiled and eaten by other blacks in Africa â€¦ and they’re considered special too.”
But when Michael asked him whether he had ever been to Africa to witness that, the far-right leader replied: “No, I only read about it in newspapers, I know what I’ve read in newspapers.” Consequently, the Golden Dawn media wing made a video mocking Michael.
Michael says it is unfortunate to be a “stranger in your own land”. Greece, where he spent all his life, is the only place he knows. But as a father, it is no longer about him. He does not want his children to experience the same abuses he has. So he wants to raise them in Kenya, where they will not be treated as foreigners.
But for now, while Michael and his gangs continue to guard the neighbourhood, thousands of immigrants are facing uncertainties.