By Simon Cloudesley, a Library Assistant at the Bodleian Library in Oxford
What is the worth of a book? If you have been forced to leave your home in search of a safer and better life and now find yourself living indefinitely in a refugee camp, with few opportunities for mental stimulation or escape from the reality of your surroundings, a book could be worth everything. If you have to wait for months in uncertainty to find out what your future holds and where that future will play out, a book can help provide focus, ideas and hope for that future. Many thousands of refugees find themselves in this situation in Greece and elsewhere in Europe. But there are people who are working hard to help refugees live a life beyond survival.
Earlier this year I came into contact with the ECHO Refugee Library, a mobile library serving the refugee community in Athens. The Education Community Hope and Opportunity (ECHO) library project was formed by Laura and Esther, two long-term volunteers in Greece who saw that an essential need among refugees was not being met: the opportunity to read and learn, to be mentally and emotionally simulated, and to be able to just escape into a good book. It was recognition that after vital, basic humanitarian needs were met—shelter, food, clothing and medical care—lives needed to be led more actively and fully. Beginning in a refugee camp in Northern Greece, the ECHO library project became mobile in November 2016 and is now based in Athens, providing access to books, online courses and language classes, to help refugees continue with the education that they left behind or to develop new skills to use in the future. They have around 1300 books in their collection and welcome over 100 library users a week.
The strength of the project lies not just in the service that it provides, but also in its flexibility. The situation in Greece for NGOs and smaller grassroots projects is deteriorating rapidly, with many having to withdraw due to lack of funding and others being denied access to camps by officials. A mobile library, however, can adapt to the ever-changing circumstances and go wherever the people are. With many refugees being relocated to Athens while asylum applications are processed, ECHO is now able to serve the diverse refugee community in and around the Greek capital.
My personal involvement began in April this year when I was in Thessaloniki volunteering with the UK charity Help Refugees. A few days before my trip I was thinking about the role books could play in the lives of refugees; the very next day I found out about ECHO via a blog shared in a volunteer group chat. I was able to meet up with Laura and Esther on my final day in Greece, and after just a brief chat about the project and seeing the mobile library (affectionately named ‘Gary’), I immediately understood its importance and potential. As a life-long bookworm and believer in the power that education has to bring opportunity and hope to individuals, I was determined to help.
That is why over five days at the end of August I will be walking over 100 miles from the Bodleian Library to the British Library in support of ECHO and to raise money for the project. For me, the walk is a small show of solidarity with refugees who make difficult (and often dangerous) journeys; the origin and destination of my journey is recognition of the fundamental importance libraries have in our society. The contrast between these two institutions and the ECHO Refugee Library could not be greater, but their purpose is exactly the same: to promote learning, create opportunity, and realise potential.
For me, the ECHO Refugee Library project is about three things. It helps to bring some continuity to those who left careers and education behind, who had interests and hobbies which played an important role in their lives. This is an aspect of refugee identity that is too often overlooked. It’s about the possibilities of new beginnings, of being able to learn new skills and (especially) new languages to prepare for the future, or just the opportunity to pick up a new interest. It is wonderful to think that a successful future career, great achievement or world-changing discovery, could have its roots in a book borrowed from a small mobile library whilst living life as a refugee. But perhaps most of all, it’s about mental wellbeing. If I were in their situation, I would want to read. The power of books to bring inspiration is summed up perfectly in a quote I love from Alan Bennet’s The History Boys says:
“The best moments in reading are when you come across something–a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things—that you’d thought special, particular to you. And here it is, set down by someone else, a person you’ve never met, maybe even someone long dead. And it’s as if a hand has come out and taken yours.”
I hope that we can become more aware of the great work that is being done to bring books, information and resources to those is crisis situations around the world. Our support can help make sure that projects like ECHO can continue long into the future.
All the information about the walk can be found at www.chuffed.org/project/bodtobl.
All donations and support will be gratefully received.