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A refugee library story

ECHO Mobile Library is a grassroots project active in Greece since 2016. A multilingual lending library on wheels which caters for the ‘food of the mind’ of thousands of people living in secluded refugee camps around Athens. Two of their current coordinators were interviewed for WE-Hope.

For the past years our work has been, essentially, rocking up to a handful of ‘refugee camps’ around Athens with our library van. We open the backdoors and set up our outside space: tables, rags, chairs and bench, a rack with printouts of language learning resources, and all the materials needed for our activities with children, teenagers and adults. The inside, like the TARDIS, is bigger on the inside, transforming a white metal box into a temporary community space, with wooden shelves, drawers, stools and corner sofa, plus around 1,000 books in 12 different languages: Harry Potter in Farsi, Zorba the Greek in Arabic, children books in Sorani and Kurmanji and The Lord of the Rings in Turkish, together with hundreds of books by Afghan, Iranian, Syrian, Lebanese authors. For two hours, people can sit, read a few pages, choose a book to borrow, escape from a dire reality, but also have a chat, bring tea and biscuits, speak their native language or try to learn Greek, English or German. Books are essential, but so are our readers and volunteers, the backbone of our library.

Ideally, ECHO wouldn’t need to exist, or at the very least we would meet our readers in much more positive environments. Refugee camps remain in Europe the major obstacle to inclusion, being the incarnation of a separate society, with different rights and rules. In 2015, they were created as a temporary response to an ‘emergency. Seven years later, camps have become a seemingly permanent feature of the European landscape, and the rights and freedom of those living inside have been increasingly curtailed. On the back of the pandemic, refugee camps in Greece have become even more secluded than they were before. New “modern” camps have been discussed, planned, project, built and now, finally, open. Modern, in this case, has a peculiar meaning: 8ft high concrete walls have replaced metal fences; biometric turnstiles let people in and out after checking fingerprints (very modern, isn’t it?), remotely directed cameras and alarms that go off when too many people gather together. But also, they are (almost) the only place people can register for financial support.

At the same time, our work has become increasingly difficult. Groups and NGOs intending to work with people on the move have to register with the Migration and Asylum Ministry, a process that is being challenged by many organisations for being arbitrary and anti-constitutional. It achieved one goal: fewer groups can now work with those living in these structures.

Over the last 18 months, our library was denied access to the majority of camps where our readers live. 2022 saw more camps turning into closed structures where our services are “not needed”. This, despite the high number of books loaned, children taking part in our sessions, language resources distributed.

Our van doesn’t stay still, it continuously goes around, adapts and finds solutions, parking lots, back doors and community centres; it seeks new ways to reach our readers, building bridges over fences and wall; it doesn’t stop advocating for the one thing needed right now: closing the camps.

Pictures and Interview: Giulio D’Errico, Project Co-coordinator, ECHO Mobile Library


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