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Syrians of Metelkova: Street Art & Refugees in a Slovenian Commune

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Castles, lakes and mountains: that’s what the guidebooks promise. Slovenia looked like a paradise on earth, all rolling green landscapes and wooden houses straight out of some cartoon ski resort. But not one of those things was my reason for going there.

I was always more interested in visiting Metelkova.

The site just off Metelkova Ulitsa once served as the Slovenian headquarters for the Yugoslav People’s Army. A cluster of barracks, stores and courtyards in the capital, Ljubljana, the base fell out of military use when Slovenia quit the union in 1989. Left semi-abandoned, it was squatted by artists and dissidents in September 1993… and to cut a long story short, the squatters won.

 

Exploring the unique decor of Metelkova Mesto, Slovenia.
Exploring the unique decor of Metelkova Mesto, Slovenia.

The squat would grow into the ‘Metelkova City Autonomous Cultural Centre’ (‘Avtonomni Kulturni Center Metelkova Mesto’): seven buildings over 12,500 square metres, a city block of galleries and workshops, nightclubs and live music venues, all spilling out into a cannabis-scented courtyard in the middle.

Nowadays Metelkova pays its own way. The centre is legally connected to Ljubljana’s power and water grids – rather than siphoning off illegal resources, as before – and bills are paid with the money raised in bars and gigs and galleries. It remains passionately antiestablishment, playing host to LGBT and anti-racism events… and despite ongoing battles with the Inspectorate for the Environment and Spatial Planning (they succeeded in demolishing one building, in 2006) the place is now permanently settled and legitimised, a self-governing alternate reality at the heart of peaceful, green Slovenia.

That much, for me, was enough to make Metelkova irresistible; but it was the Syrian refugees I met there over the course of three days who would make it a truly educational experience.

 

Day One

As we sped down Slovenian Avenue (formerly Tito Avenue) from the airport into the heart of Ljubljana, I glanced nervously at the taxi meter. It rolled past the 40-euro mark, and carried on climbing. We certainly weren’t in Serbia anymore.

Later that night, after the obligatory welcome shot of rakia at our hostel (Slovenia and Serbia had at least that much in common), my two Australian travel companions and myself went looking for Metelkova Mesto.

 

The famous Dragon Bridge of Ljubljana, Slovenia.
The famous Dragon Bridge of Ljubljana, Slovenia.

The streets of Ljubljana were empty, silent and immaculately clean. A gentle rain fell undisturbed on smooth tarmac and cycle paths. We passed the brewery, a large, modern building bathed in lights that pulsed and morphed through a rainbow of colours apparently for no audience but ourselves. The city felt more Belgian than Balkan; a contrast rendered all the sharper considering how just a few hours earlier I’d been looking out on the noisy, dirty, beautiful streets of Belgrade.

The train station was a little busier, small crowds spilling into the Slovenian night or gathering into a civilised queue at the kebab stand. We walked towards the pin on my map, until we hit a wall: an old cement wall, the kind they used to put around military barracks. Beyond, a row of barn-like buildings stood dark and silent.

The place looked abandoned… but we carried on regardless, following the wall around in search of an entrance. I wondered if there was anyone awake inside. Everything I’d seen so far of Ljubljana had been quiet, reserved and orderly: it was hard to imagine finding anything different inside these walls.

What a surprise it was to step into Metelkova.

 

Perhaps my favourite art installation at Metelkova is this bizarre collection of mutant babies.
Perhaps my favourite art installation at Metelkova is this bizarre collection of mutant-baby-worm-things.

Slovenia-Ljubljana-Metelkova-18Slovenia-Ljubljana-Metelkova-19

 

"Welcome to Metelkova."
“Welcome to Metelkova.”

I didn’t hear the bass until we came round the corner – through a gap between the buildings, an alley that funnelled us down into the heart of the commune. Here the music oozed heavy and sweet beneath the doors of nightclubs, pulsing bass and the muted rattling of drums ascending the steps from basement bars. Every wall was plastered in street art and gig posters.

Between the clubs, where the patrons of bars spilled out into the central court of Metelkova, there rose a steel-frame structure resembling a bandstand. There were children’s playground things nearby, a slide, a roundabout, all of it coloured now in rainbow graffiti. In the shadows of the bandstand, hooded figures spoke in muffled conference. There were bottles all about them, some full, some finished. Nearby a man lay sprawled out lengthways on a wooden bench, apparently fast asleep.

The three of us, we grabbed beers from the bar at Klub Gromka – then headed back out to the bandstand, where the real party seemed to be going on.

I sat down on the bench, squeezed in between two men in hoods. One was Moroccan, he told us, the other a backpacker from France. But then the Frenchman left and another Moroccan arrived, along with a third stranger who introduced himself as Yusuf; he looked about 20 years old and said he came from Syria.

 

Migrants, refugees and backpackers mingle in the courtyard at Metelkova.
Migrants, refugees and backpackers mingle in the courtyard at Metelkova.

Yusuf was not the first Syrian I’ve met while travelling… but here in the Balkans, and at a time when his home country was currently experiencing the largest exodus of war refugees in modern history, I had a feeling that Yusuf wouldn’t be travelling for pleasure.

It was soon clear, however, that Yusuf knew only a few sparse words of English.

I asked how he was – “Very good,” he replied. And how old? “Very good.”

“And how has your evening been?” I continued, guessing: “very good?” He agreed, so I gestured around at our surroundings. “And Metelkova, what do you think of this place?”

“Very, very good,” said Yusuf.

I asked what he thought of Slovenia; and there the pattern ended. “No good,” he said. “No-good place.” Before I could make any sense of it though, another Syrian had joined us.

 

Not all the art here is terrifying. This mosaic wall, for example, was actually rather lovely.
Not all the art here is terrifying. This mosaic wall, for example, was actually rather lovely.

Slovenia-Ljubljana-Metelkova-22The newcomer was called Ahmad; he was older, with a straight face and the wardrobe of an early 90s hiphop artist. Ahmad spoke English far better than Yusuf had.

“Slovenians are racist,” Ahmad told us, describing the stigma and fear he’d seen while living here as a refugee. “But Metelkova Mesto is good…” He was about to tell us why, when suddenly more people arrived.

The next few hours went by in a similar fashion. People came and went – most of them Syrians, and most unable to speak more than a few words in English. I wanted to know what life was like for these people: where they’d come from, and how they’d found themselves here in Ljubljana; but every attempted conversation would fizzle out, drowned in the noise from the clubs, or interrupted by the arrival of more figures out of the darkness beyond the bandstand.

Meanwhile the Syrians chatted around us all in Arabic. The Moroccan sat beside me spoke Arabic too – his English was basically non-existent, but I tried speaking to him in my half-remembered French and he understood. Suddenly, I was back in the conversation.

The man’s name was Mo, and he’d travelled to Slovenia from some town in Morocco whose name I heard and immediately forgot. I poured some of my beer into his empty cup and he hugged me, then knocked back his drink in one.

Why was he here? I asked, Why Slovenia?

“The money is better,” Mo told me, “so now I am Syrian.” I must have looked confused, so he smiled, patted my shoulder and repeated himself.

“Moroccan money is very bad,” Mo said slowly, as if talking to a child. “But I lose my documents, and now” – he gestured around us, and laughed – “I am Syrian.”

 

More salacious mosaics on the walls of Metelkova Mesto.
More salacious mosaics on the walls of Metelkova Mesto.

Mo started showing me videos on his iPhone, Youtube clips of men falling over or being attacked by goats. I tried to be polite, but I was more interested in listening to the people around me. Mo started showing me something pornographic then, nudging and grinning, making obscene hand gestures, and I explained – as kindly as I could – that I had seen enough videos for today.

One of my travelling companions, meanwhile, was attempting to converse in slow English with three Syrian men. Where I had been making careful, cautious conversation, my friend was surprisingly direct: he asked these Syrians if they were refugees, and if they were running from ISIS. I tensed – and leaned in closer to hear the response.

“Yes,” nodded Ahmad. He was running from ISIS.

Did he have family? my friend asked. “Yes.”
Here? “In Syria.”
A Girlfriend? “Yes.”
Here? “In Syria.”

I had questions… but then my friend pulled out his camera, and rose to take a photo of us all together. Yusuf grinned and put his arm around me – then lifted my arm to put it around him. It was a closer embrace than I was entirely comfortable with.

 

Klub Gromka at Metelkova Mesto in Ljubljana, Slovenia.
Klub Gromka at Metelkova Mesto in Ljubljana, Slovenia.

As the shutter clicked there were shouts from somewhere across the courtyard. A fight was breaking out – amongst a group of figures in winter coats, who sat around benches just beyond the bar. I saw a woman and a man on their feet… I thought they were playing at first, until she began swinging her fists at him with serious intent. He dodged a blow, then failed to dodge the next and her knuckles connected hard with his cheekbone.

Mo nudged me in the ribs, and asked for more beer. He held out his cup and I filled it from my can. Ahmad said nothing, though I could see he also held an empty cup in his hand. I wondered if his religion permitted alcohol… but when I tentatively offered him a drink, he accepted with a nod.

People kept coming and going, and one of the Australians had disappeared; the other one went looking for him. I stayed behind though, at the bandstand, and chatted with Ahmad – who sat with his shoulders hunched, cap pulled down over his face.

“Do you have a job here?” I asked him.

“No,” he said, “I can’t get work papers.”

“Do you like Slovenia?”

“No, the people are not friendly… but Metelkova… yes, this place is good.”

 

During the day, many of these buildings function as art galleries, community centres and soup kitchens.
During the day, many of these buildings function as art galleries, community centres and soup kitchens.

Another Syrian arrived then, an older man with a thick beard wrapped round his thin face. He greeted his friends in Arabic, then looked to me – the stranger in their midst. He asked me where I was from. Britain, I said, and he nodded without smiling. I offered him some of my beer to break the silence, and he took it.

By now it was just myself, a Moroccan and four Syrians; they talked together in Arabic, voices low and subdued, and I realised I was beginning to feel slightly uncomfortable. For all the friendly enthusiasm of Yusuf and Mo, there were new energies in this group now; and I thought I sensed a lurking animosity.

The Australians suddenly returned – I breathed a sigh of relief – and with that kind of cheerful insensitivity that the Aussies do so well, one of them turned to the older, bearded Syrian and said: “So are you running from ISIS too?”

He seemed surprisingly happy to answer. “Yes,” he said, and explained how the fighting had driven them from their homes; how he, like the others, had left his family behind to go scouting for safer places to live. He became more animated as he spoke, first putting his hand on the Australian’s knee… and later, before leaving, leaning to kiss him on the cheek in a brotherly gesture.

 

A bird's-eye view of Metelkova – seen from a nearby fire escape.
A bird’s-eye view of Metelkova – seen from a nearby fire escape.

I began to talk to Mo again, when suddenly there was shouting across the courtyard. Our older, bearded friend was yelling at another two figures in the darkness, while a fourth Syrian hovered nearby on a bicycle. Then he lashed out, swung a punch and missed. Voices were raising all around us, and someone tried to restrain him; but he tore lose, and threw another punch at his target. The young man on the receiving end dodged the full impact, but he staggered as he turned and fled towards the main road.

Ahmad turned to me, and put his arm tight around my shoulders. “Sorry for my friends,” he said. “Sorry for this unpleasantness.” He told me how these people were desperate and hungry, and how that desperation sometimes led to fights. “Fighting is not normal for us,” he explained, “it’s not our culture.”

The other Syrians were on their feet and floating nervously about the courtyard, all speaking fast in angry Arabic. We decided it was a good time to get out of here.

So we passed through the crowds that milled about the colourful courts of Metelkova, under twisting sculptures, walls thick with faded concert posters… then quite suddenly we were outside, and like stepping through a looking glass we emerged into a city plaza of clean, modern buildings; square, minimalist and empty. There was no litter here, no graffiti, no people. A different world.

 

The Ljubljanica Sluice Gate – footbridge, triumphal arch, and now preserved as an iconic landmark of Ljubljana, Slovenia.
The Ljubljanica Sluice Gate – footbridge, triumphal arch, and now preserved as an iconic landmark of Ljubljana, Slovenia.

View from the Dragon Bridge in Ljubljana, with the Cathedral of St Nicholas just visible in the distance.
View from the Dragon Bridge in Ljubljana, with the Cathedral of St Nicholas just visible in the distance.

 

Day Two

“There are many, many Syrians here in Slovenia… too many.”

On our second day in the country, a friend of mine had come to pick us up from Ljubljana. We would visit Kamnik, a picturesque town to the north, to explore the remains of a former gunpowder factory; and along the way, we chatted about the Syrian refugees at Metelkova.

“Slovenia is only small,” my friend continued. “We can’t support these people. They only got stuck here because of Germany closing its borders, and now we’re forced to give more than we can afford.”

 

Hostel Celica: a guesthouse built inside the cells of a former military prison.
Hostel Celica: a guesthouse built inside the cells of a former military prison.

“It’s not just Syrians though,” she said. “We’re getting Iraqis, Afghanis, Pakistanis all slipping though… anyone who’s looking for work in the EU.” I told her I’d met a Moroccan in Ljubljana, passing himself off as a Syrian refugee. She nodded, glumly.

“They think this is the land of milk and honey,” she said. “They have no idea how poor we are.”

In Western Europe it has become easy to dismiss any anti-refugee sentiment as uncharitable at best; xenophobic at worst. But nations like Britain, Germany or France, post-imperial states whose wealth was built partly from the exploitation of less developed nations, have no excuse not to help. I was beginning to find that in Slovenia, meanwhile, the problem was more complex.

The GDP of Slovenia is roughly $44 billion, to Britain’s $2.8 trillion. But despite having less than a sixtieth of Britain’s gross income, Slovenia is one of the handful of countries carrying the greater weight of the refugee crisis. Over a million refugees have crossed the Aegean to Greece since 2015, many of them in response to an open invite from Germany… and when you draw a line from the Greek beaches to Merkel’s promised land, it’ll run straight through the heart of little Slovenia.

 

"Radio Turk."
“Radio Turk.”

Later, when Merkel closed Germany’s borders against the influx of migrants and refugees, the lined backed up; and suddenly, all those people who were only passing through Slovenia were here to stay.

The population of Slovenia (2 million) is little over twice the number of refugees who’ve arrived in their corner of Europe since the crisis began. Britain in comparison, with its 64 million people, has nobly pledged to resettle a grand total of 20,000 refugees over the next five years. We’re not even nearly having the same conversation – and when one considers that Slovenia never once dropped a bomb, drilled for oil or destabilised a regime in the Middle East, the situation they find themselves in now begins to seem all the more unfair.

I heard a lot of different perspectives during my three days in Slovenia: from angry, anti-immigrant rhetoric to awe-inspiring charity and compassion; and all shades of commentary in between. But all of it was valid, and as the privileged citizen of a fortified island kingdom grown fat on the spoils of global colonisation and now failing completely to pull its weight in the crisis, I didn’t feel particularly well qualified to judge anyone.

 

Your guess is as good as mine...
Your guess is as good as mine…

Besides, I had already seen evidence for some of the more common anti-refugee comments I would hear…

They complain about their host countries.
It’s mostly young, healthy males, who leave their vulnerable families behind.”
It’s not only Syrian refugees coming, but also economic opportunists from all across North Africa and the Middle East.”

Check, check and check. I wondered perhaps if the liberal West, in its eagerness to atone for a dirty history of colonial exploitation, was overlooking the very real chaos of the situation.

A week later, in Sarajevo, I’d hear another passionate critique from my Bosnian host. “These are not real refugees,” he said. When Bosnian refugees had been fleeing their own war, he told me, they were looking for food, for shelter, grateful for anywhere they’d be safe. In the last year Bosnia had even offered to help with the current refugee crisis, promising food and shelter… but no Syrians came to them. “These people aren’t looking for safety,” my host said, “they’re looking for money… and we’ve got none.”

On our second night in Slovenia we went back to Metelkova. I was hoping to find our Syrian friends again – but it was the weekend, and the place was heaving with young Slovenians. Dreadlocks, piercings and tattoos; it was clear that Metelkova drew a more alternative crowd, a world apart from the aura of pleasant, clean conservatism that seemed to define the rest of Ljubljana.

 

The entrance to 'Gala Hala': one of the various venues located at Metelkova.
The entrance to ‘Gala Hala’: one of the various venues located at Metelkova.

Blues gig at Gala Hala.
Blues gig at Gala Hala.

At a club called Gala Hala we watched a musician playing fierce, angry blues on a cigar box guitar. I met up with Domen, a Slovenian I’d previously only spoken to online. I tried to talk to him about the Syrians in Slovenia, but then the next band came on – some noisy, thrashy post-punk act from France – and our conversation was strained against the din of feedback and guttural screaming.

Domen told me that Metelkova was the only place in Ljubljana that welcomed the Syrians. The other bars and restaurants in the city would turn them away, he said. He explained how Slovenia was doing its best to provide food and housing for them. Then I asked him why I was only seeing Syrian men – and no women.

“They need to stay for a certain amount of time,” he shouted over the music. After that, they could potentially apply for asylum and would be free to bring their families over. After 10 years, they could apply to become citizens. So the strongest had arrived here first, and now they were playing the long game.

 

Hardcore / Screamo / Post-Punk / Whatever. I wasn't a fan.
Hardcore / Screamo / Post-Punk / Whatever. I wasn’t a fan.

Back outside, I didn’t see any of the Syrians that night. The courtyard at Metelkova was filled with a mass of young people, with blue hair and nose rings, while the air about us hung heavy with the sweet smell of cannabis.

 

Day Three

On our last day in the Slovenian capital, we took a walking tour: a guided journey through the street art and graffiti of Ljubljana. It was a good tour, offering a novel perspective on the city… even if I did sometimes find our guide overgenerous with her use of the word ‘art.’

Much of the graffiti we saw was inherently political: with corrections, cover-ups and overwrites that highlighted a heated battle between left- and right-wing ideologies. Often these exchanges used a numerical code, unintelligible to all but the initiated. For example the number ‘161’ sprayed on backstreet walls stood for the first, sixth and first letters of the alphabet: AFA, for Anti Fascist Action. In other places we’d see, ’88,’ or HH: meaning Heil Hitler.

 

A street art mural in Ljubljana honouring Martin Luther King. I was slightly disappointed to learn it's an advert, commissioned by a local phone company.
A street art mural in Ljubljana honouring Martin Luther King. I was slightly disappointed to learn it’s an advert, commissioned by a local phone company.

The figure 161 is a numerical code for 'AFA': 'Anti Fascist Action.'
The figure 161 is a numerical code for ‘AFA’: or ‘Anti Fascist Action.’

One piece, just up a hill from the city centre, commented explicitly on the refugee situation. “Islamists Not Welcome,” was what the slogan had originally said, but a recent edit had changed this to read: “Refugees Welcome.”

I asked Tina, our guide, about the Syrians in Metelkova. “It’s the only place they’re allowed,” she said. She told us how other bars in the city had banned the Syrians from entering, accusing them of getting drunk and fighting. “But really,” said Tina, “they just don’t want their venues to look dirty.”

Tina told us how Metelkova welcomed the refugees: feeding them, even putting on concerts for them. Their latest project, she said, was raising money to buy the Syrians a bicycle each – enabling them to get out and find jobs, commute, earn, contribute.

“I don’t know why they choose to come here,” she added. “There are much better places for them to be… but at least we’ll help them.”

 

A graffitied slogan in Ljubljana reads 'Refugees Welcome!'... over an older piece, reading 'Islamists Not Welcome.'
A graffitied slogan in Ljubljana reads ‘Refugees Welcome!’… painted over an older piece, reading ‘Islamists Not Welcome.’

The walking tour finished up back in Metelkova Mesto, where we were left to our own devices. We walked for a while, admiring the street art with a newfound critical eye. Later I stepped into the bar to grab a beer, and found tables laid out with huge metal pots of rice, stew and soup. The barman caught me looking – “For the refugees,” he said.

We sat outside in a corner; around the same benches where the fight had broken out two nights earlier. A van pulled into the courtyard and it parked up on the tarmac near the bar. People began to gather from all corners of Metelkova, drawn towards the vehicle in an ever-expanding horde. They were all men, and they all appeared to be Syrian. I recognised some faces from our first night: Ahmad was there, and I spotted both of our Moroccan friends as well; grinning and following the crowd.

 

At Metelkova Mesto, a group of Syrian refugees (and Moroccan migrants) wait for a delivery of free bicycles.
At Metelkova Mesto, a group of Syrian refugees (and Moroccan migrants) wait for a delivery of free bicycles.

Syrians in Ljubljana, Slovenia.
Syrians in Ljubljana, Slovenia.

The group congregated about the van and a man appeared at its centre; a young Slovenian in a white t-shirt, shouting out something in English. It was hard to follow though, above the excited chatter of several dozen Syrians. Meanwhile a woman with dreadlocks – she looked very Metelkova – was trying to organise these people: ticking off names against a clipboard, it seemed, and trying to herd them into a queue.

Suddenly the van doors were opened, and people were passing bicycles out into the crowd. One after another they came, a stream of bikes being handed out to the Syrians of Metelkova. Each man, on getting his, was taking it for a test run; there was an air of celebration as one by one the refugees began cycling out around the courtyard, orbiting the ever-smaller group that waited for their turn.

 

Bicycles and refugees outside Metelkova's 'Klub Gromka.'
Bicycles and refugees outside Metelkova’s ‘Klub Gromka.’

Slovenia-Ljubljana-Metelkova-32

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