ATHENS – ECHO (Education, Community, Hope, Opportunity) for Refugees was begun by four individuals who spent time volunteering in EKO, an informal refugee camp 20 kilometers (about 12.4 miles) south of the Greece-FYROM border, in the spring of 2016.
Recently featured in The Guardian for its efforts, the mobile library which helps those in need is now in need itself, launching a fundraising campaign for a new van to continue to provide this vital service. Librarian Keira Dignan joined ECHO as a volunteer in 2018 and has continued on with the organization since then. Dignan spoke with The National Herald about ECHO.
TNH: What has been the most rewarding aspect of running the mobile library?
Keira Dignan: It is worth every excruciating drive in heavy traffic when a regular visitor beams up at the sight of restocked shelves, when a warm and intense discussion on Persian poetry gives us all new insight at the reading table and when you get asked for a very specific book – like ancient philosophy in Kurmanji – and you can say yes! You will find that on the bottom right shelf.
There are many rewarding aspects of running the mobile library. What we want to happen when we roll into a camp is to create a community space where people can meet across language barriers and share their love for books.
At the library it does not matter where you are from or what asylum case number you are: you are a person looking for a book, for education, for inspiration, for escape: it’s humanizing, something we can all relate to.
I’ve asked the whole team and everyone’s got a different favorite part. One of our pedagogues, Frans Jansson says “When we run our children’s sessions we do a lot of language games. It gives me so much joy when children who speak different languages transcend that barrier and start teaching their languages to each other.”
TNH: What has been the most challenging aspect?
KD: In a library full of books there are so many stories and worlds to explore. In refugee camps, there are also many stories, some of them terrifying. We believe that the books and the community space brings out stories. It is challenging to hear what those who use the library have been through, and are going through still trapped in the conditions that they live in.
Seeing the human effects of the European border system can be chilling. People are put into a state of paralyzing insecurity and deep boredom.
A more practical challenge is that people are always being moved around, often at very short notice. This means that every week when we go to collect books, we knock on doors only to find that the people who borrowed the book we’re looking for only a couple of weeks ago have been moved to a different camp on the other side of the country or evicted. We can only hope to get 80% of the books back which means we have to always be on the hunt for more!
TNH: How has the coronavirus affected the mobile library?
KD: We have currently had to suspend our services due to COVID-19. Here’s a statement from our social media about the situation:
“We fear for our friends in the camp right now. And Anne Boyer has said, ‘fear is a vital and necessary part of love,’ and this fear ‘is right now particularly justified, because we have a pernicious virus that travels inside the healthy to sicken and kill the already fragile, and therefore requires that the healthy and strong deepen their moral commitments for the benefit of the sick and weak.’
“The camps have always been dangerous places to live. They have always been both isolated from the world and internally overcrowded. They have always been bad for physical and mental health and they have always been paralyzingly dull and lacking in activities and they have always made it difficult to obtain or sustain a job. They have always made it difficult to build community and to politically organize.
“Now this pernicious virus is set to light the fuse. Alarm Phone warns us that conditions in there, along with lack of access to medical care, make a deadly outbreak almost impossible to contain. People must be evacuated immediately and given safe housing and asylum – in Greece or elsewhere. But instead, the government is pouring more people in – on Saturday, for example, 50 were evicted from an informal housing project in Athens and moved to camps and prisons.
“We must shout as loudly as we can and demonstrate with all that we do that the lives of the vulnerable do matter, and that the deaths of the elderly and the sick and the imprisoned and the migrants and the refugees do matter. All of this has always been true, but this virus has made the less visible starkly clear to all of us. And we can use this to fight, when the smoke clears, for a better world.”
More information about ECHO is available online: http://echo-greece.org.