Dear friends and supporters,
We hope that you all had a restful and enjoyable festive season and enter 2023 with energy and optimism. Whilst ECHO re-started library sessions on the 9th January, we have also been doing some long-term thinking in response to the situation on the ground here in Athens.
Contrary to our hopes, Greece's refugee camps have become more and more closed with almost all NGOs, regardless of their size now being forced out. It appears that within 6 weeks or so, the camps will be exclusively government-run, with very little space for outside groups to hold the government accountable for the conditions inside. Residents tell of restricted access to even basic services, as illustrated in the tragic death of one man in Ritsona camp earlier this month who waited hours for an ambulance that did not arrive in time to save his life.
In addition to this the EU and Greek government's illegal actions in the Aegean sea to forcibly prevent asylum seekers from entering the country is not garnering the widespread condemnation that it ought to. Estimates suggest that the sea-wall, increased militarization of borders and these illegal push-back tactics along both land and maritime borders have prevented more than 75% of those who are trying to enter Greece from doing so.
Our job as a library to provide a sense of community and stability has become even more challenging in this past few months, with book use down due to many factors, including a large exodus of former loaners, lower numbers in the camps and the challenge of doing community outreach in places we are not allowed to enter. Still, in the face of all these challenges we feel our presence, even outside the camps, has become even more vital, both as an action of defiance of those who wish to isolate people in these camps and in solidarity with the camp residents, showing our common humanity and providing useful services, educational resources and respite for those who find us.
With the closure of Oinofyta camp, the number of camps we are able to visit has reduced, so this period we are experimenting with finding other places to reach out to migrant and refugee populations, with new ideas and collaborations. It is exciting to be working with our volunteers and other grassroots groups to find new ways to connect with people and keeping the library a dynamic and flexible space that provides useful resources for both camp residents and asylum seekers, refugees and migrants in the Athens region.
We look forward to sharing with you our stories throughout this year, as we continue to bring education, community, hope and opportunity to those who need it here in Greece.
Greetings from Athens everyone, this is Becka speaking, one of the library coordinators.
I hope that, wherever you are, that your summers held many moments of relaxiation and enjoyment.
These past few months it has been brought home to many of us here at the library just how treacherous it is for some to continue journeys towards safety, dignity and a future for themselves and their families. We were devastated and outraged concerning one tragic story that hit the headlines this summer. A young Syrian girl called Maria was part of a group of 38 asylum seekers who were stranded on an uninhabiltable islet in the Evros river between Greece and Turkey, having been illegally pushed back there by Greek police. As a result of their deliberate actions and neglect Maria died from a suspected scorpion sting, 5 years old and never able to reach a place of safety.
Illegal pushbacks, the forcible removal of people trying to seek asylum in one country back across the border, has been happening at an increasingly alarming rate, both on land and sea in Greece. It goes against human rights, including the right to seek asylum. It is estimated this year in Greece that 75% of people trying to reach Greece from Turkey have been subject to illegal pushbacks.
This last period also saw an accelaration in the Greek government's attempt to make life for asylum seekers even more miserable. This summer witnessed the struggle of camp residents and solidarians to prevent their eviction from Eleonas camp - the only camp which was reachable from the centre of Athens on foot, or via a short bus journey. Following the use of tear gas, stun grenades and riot police the camp was closed at the end of August, with remaining residents moved out to "other structures".
Whilst we repeatedly call for the closure of the camps, the residents of this one had asked for support from the wider community to allow them to continue living there, as it clearly appeared that alternatives had either not been provided for them, or were worse. The camps which we visit outside of Athens remain isolated, lacking in services, including public transport into Athens where many essential services are located. Moreover, the continued exclusion from these camps of grassroots projects such as the library means that there is even less information about the living conditions inside.
As the library took a month's break over August a lot of our friends moved on with their lives beyond the Greek camps. After several years of waiting, frustration and paperwork there was a large movement of people out of the camps, mainly onwards into northern Europe. Many this summer also left Greece in their attempts to reach Northern Europe via the dangerous smuggler routes through the Balkans before the weather shifts.
All in all, a bittersweet time. We are happy that people are continuing their journeys towards a more stable and dignified future, however it also has meant a lot of goodbyes and losing many of our most enthusiastic library users. Although it seems a large number have moved on, an equally large number remain and we are committed to providing our library services, books and access to education for anyone who wants them. It is a very small project, offered in the spirit of solidarity and we continue our work to reach as many people as we can during our weekly library sessions. We have refreshed our Arabic collection with 50 books acquired from Jerusalem, increased our Farsi collection and received a generous donation of children's books, including our first (and very much sought-after) Somali books from fellow librarians who were visiting from Sweden. A massive thank you to them and to yourselves also for your contiued support of our library.
Since we last wrote you, our mobile library has kept running Athens' and Attica's roads.
Despite not having access to camps, we have good sessions in front of their entrance gates, on side streets, parking lots and alleys. We keep visiting Malaksa and Ritsona camps, and the two Kurdish-led camps in Lavrio every week, Oinofyta every other week, and Korinthos every month.
Every week we also hold sessions at the Khora Social Kitchen, at Welcommon hostel and in Platia Victoria in Athens, and we started visiting two minors shelters in the city area.
Our kids activities are now organised and led together with PiliPala, a group we partnered with to create art-based workshop and learning-through-play activities.
Thanks to our fantastic team, we got donations of beautiful new Farsi, Turkish and Kurdish books, for both adults and children.
And this is only possible thanks to your support!
Thanks so much,
The library team
ECHO Mobile Library
Here is Giulio, one of the coordinators at ECHO and I want to tell you a story.
Since I took over from our amazing Keira in May, our work has been, essentially, rocking up to a handful of ‘refugee camps’ around Athens with our library van. The van, that we kitted out ourselves, has wooden shelves, drawers, stools and corner sofa, and around 1,000 books in 12 different languages. We have Harry Potter in Farsi, and Zorba the Greek in Arabic, children's books in Sorani and Kurmanji (the two main Kurdish languages) and the Lord of the Rings in Turkish, together with hundreds of books from Afghan, Iranian, Syrian, Lebanese, Pakistani authors… We open the backdoors of our van 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. Quick tidy up of the van, turn the string-lights on if it’s dark, and our library is open. A bit like the TARDIS, it’s bigger from the inside than from the outside, transforming a white metal box into a temporary community space, where people can sit, check out our collection, read some pages, loan and return books, escape from a dire reality, but also have a chat, bring tea and biscuits, discuss the weather, the latest rejection to their asylum application, or the books they wish to read; speak their native language or try to learn Greek, English or German. Our role, as much as we can, has been to facilitate the use of this space, making sure that it is welcoming and safe for everyone, that the van is roadworthy, with enough fuel and with people inside with the right skills. Books are essential, but so are the volunteer librarians, the backbone of our library.
Ideally our library wouldn’t need to exist, or at the very least we would meet our readers in much more positive environments. ‘Refugee camps’, whatever the living conditions, remain in Europe the major obstacle to inclusion, being the incarnation of a separate society, with different rights, different rules and less freedom.
Now, if possible (and yes, it is possible), things have worsened considerably. It doesn't exactly come as a surprise: over the past two years, the work of our library has become increasingly difficult. On the back of the pandemic, refugee camps in Greece have become even more secluded than they were before. A new process of registering NGOs and groups working with people on the move with the Migration and Asylum Ministry has been implemented, for the security of everyone involved – we’re assured.
At the same time, new “modern” camps have been discussed, planned, built and now, 'finally', open. Modern, in this case, has a very 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 look over the camps population, with alarms that go off when too many people gather together. But also, camps are now the only place where you can apply for asylum, and (almost) the only place you can register for financial support (which has been interrupted altogether for the past 3 months).
The registration of NGOs, or the actual lack of it, made sure that fewer and fewer groups are allowed to get in touch with people stuck in these camps. Already over the last 18 months, we had lost access to some of the camps where our readers live. We still visited them, finding alternative and creative solutions.
The point that 'our service is unnecessary' is disproved by the constantly high number of books loaned and returned, the requests for new books and materials, the participation in our sessions.
2022 started quite sadly, with an increased presence of security guards at the gates of the camps, with a further limitation to the freedom of movement of the residents. And with an increasing number of camp's authorities refusing us access to the camp's premises..
Our van doesn’t stay still, it continuously goes around, adapts and finds solutions, parking lots, back doors, community spaces, trying to maintain the bridge we built with our community of readers across Attica.
Thanks for all the support we received throughout 2021
Keep supporting us through this new year!
In 2021, our library held 194 sessions
- 1814 books were loaned
- 1281 books were returned
- more than 2300 language resources were distributed
Hello global givers,
We hadn't been this busy as in the past three months for a long time, and we are very happy about it.
Not only we restarted all our library sessions all over Attica, but we received and collected hundreds of new books in Farsi, Dari, Arabic, Turkish, French, German and English, so many that we are still cataloguing them. Moreover, we started a beautiful collaboration with our friends at Pili Pala (check them out on Instagram) to run colorful art-based children sessions in Korinthos camp.
After a few quiet weeks after the Greek 6-month-long lockdown, our sessions in camps are busy as before with adult and teenage readers.
Our readers had to fight with the blistering heat of this Greek summer and the wildfires of the past month. Malakasa camp was evacuated for a few days in early august, due to a wildfire approaching the camp. No one was hurt, and the "homes" of 3,000 people were luckily left untouched by the fire.
We took a short break in August, but September has been a month full of potential new opportunity. We are working to start new sessions in Elefsina, which is now a safe-zone for unaccompanied teenager waiting for family reunification in different European countries, and we will soon start collaborating with the residents of the largest camp in mainland Greece, Ritsona. And we also have a new website (check the link below)
Camps remain the biggest challenge to inclusion. So far in 2021, under the brand of 'modernisation', camps closer to Athens have been closed (or will be by the end of the year), while those more isolated grow bigger and more controlled, in the form of "close and controlled" camps, the first of which just opened on Samos.
Mosier Renè, our new library van, runs an average of 450 km per week in order to reach our readers in these camps and offer them narrative, poetry, comics, non-fiction, textbooks and language resources in their native languages.
Please keep supporting us!
SOME NUMBERS FOR THE PAST MONTHS:
91 Sessions Run
1012 Books Loaned
701 Books Returned
1310+ Language Resources Distributed
AND SOME PHOTOS:
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