Metelkova, Slovenia, is home to a vibrant art scene, electric car charging ports, dreadlocked Slovenians, and a community of Syrian refugees. It’s an unusual place. But, as Darmon Richter puts it, “Real life is often stranger than what you predict.”
When he first arrived in Slovenia, he headed straight to the semi-autonomous social center in the heart of the country’s capital, Ljubljana.
He was enchanted by the community he found in Metelkova and its history of rebellion. He’d heard about its unorthodox founding — originally a quarter filled with Yugoslav military barracks, the area was then occupied by squatters in 1993, who eventually persuaded the government to let them stay and, in a large sense, govern themselves. In the years since, a vibrant arts community has flourished in the Mesto, and with it an abundance of art galleries, cafes, street art, and what Richter calls an “anti-establishment culture.”
On his first day in the city, Darmon passed a pub where workers were doling out large portions of stew. After he expressed interest in a bowl, the server smiled, noting that the food was only for the refugee community.
Hoping to learn why refugees had settled in Slovenia, Darmon and a friend ventured to the city center one night to speak with the many Syrians congregated outside Metelkova’s token bars and nightclubs. While Darmon was hesitant to question the men they befriended about their experiences, his friend bluntly asked if they were fleeing from ISIS. The three men nodded.
They told Darmon and his friends that their town had just been taken, that they had tried to flee to Germany before settling (like a handful of others) in Slovenia when Germany temporarily closed its borders last fall. Their wives, girlfriends, children, family, and friends remained in Syria, with most of the men in the community unwilling to reunite via the dangerous Mediterranean passage. It’s an almost impossible decision.
While the hospitality the citizens of Metelkova showed the Syrian refugees is heartwarming, the streets tell a more complex story. The ubiquitous art that plasters the walls in Metelkova and Ljubljana reflects a conflicted Slovenian community, unsure of or unwilling to accept their new role as hosts. On a walking tour through Ljubljana’s narrow streets one afternoon, Darmon’s guide pointed out a specific wall.
Graffiti was plastered across it: The original message, “Islamists go home,” had been replaced by “refugees welcome.” These types of conversations were splashed across various walls around the city.
Some restaurants and bars in Ljubljana have also closed their doors to Syrian refugees, accusing them of public drunkenness and fighting in an attempt to further exclude them from society. As evidenced by the painted city walls, there is a continuous debate in Ljubljana between those who want to help the displaced and those who do not believe Slovenia has enough to share in the first place.
In Metelkova, it seems, there is more than enough to go around. One morning a white van pulled into the center of town. Darmon stopped to watch as volunteers unloaded refurbished mountain bikes, which they distributed to the refugee community so they could travel around the city and find work. He was heartened by Metelkova’s attempt to help the refugees gain autonomy.
While Darmon, a tourist, feels sympathy for the refugee community, he understands that there is an almost incomprehensible complexity to the issue, admitting that people could interpret the facts to support arguments both for and against offering aid to the refugees.One night he spoke with a young Moroccan who confessed that he threw his passport into the sea, got on a boat bearing refugees, and never looked back. The attraction of a fast-paced, more prosperous life was too enticing to pass up.
Prior to arriving in Slovenia, Darmon had had little to no contact with anyone involved in the refugee crisis. After his time in Metelkova, his understanding of its complexity has expanded, but his conviction in prioritizing aid to those who desperately need help is unwavering.