Reaching displaced people in Chios, Greece

10th May 2017 | Blog

In late 2015, we received a request from a small NGO supporting displaced people in a transit camp in Chios, Southern Greece. They asked for books to help them set up a small library, and we responded by providing over 729 books.

Book lover Jamie Osborn was a volunteer in the camp for several months. We spoke to him about his experiences in the camp, the challenges people face and how books are helping people stranded far from home cope with the challenges they face.

Could you tell us a bit more about the camp generally? Who lives there and what is their situation?

The camp is called the Souda camp and it’s located on the island of Chios. When I was there in summer 2016, there were about 1,100 – 1,400 refugees stranded there.

There are young single men, but also many families, and at that time there were quite a number of unaccompanied children, even though they should have been in a dedicated camp. Families were living five people crammed into a tent designed for two. They aren’t allowed to work, so while many of them want to contribute their skills or to continue their educations, they find they can do nothing but sit in the camp, cook, eat, sleep, and wait for their interview.

It is an incredibly frustrating situation, and a degrading one, as if these people weren’t worthy of an education or of working, when many are really among the friendliest, keenest people I know.

What was your role in the camp?

I was a volunteer with the NGO A Drop in the Ocean. We carried out regular food and clothing distributions. We also organised activities like swimming lessons, chess, dancing sessions, and an outdoor film screenings. Perhaps most of all we were there to try to help as human beings, rather than treating people as just refugees, as if that defined them.

It sounds like people in the camp faced huge challenges. In these difficult circumstances, how did a library become a priority and how did you manage to secure books for local readers?

Many of the refugees desperately wanted to continue their education. Many wanted to learn European languages so that they could integrate when they arrived in the countries they hoped would finally give them safety. Others simply wanted to have some space where they could be quiet for a time, and let their imagine roam.

A number of refugees talked about wanting to read – anything from “Game of Thrones” to engineering textbooks to books for the young children. A group of wonderful Italian volunteers who I met in Chios made the first donations to start a library for those refugees that did want to read, and we went from there. Book Aid International was also very helpful in providing a list of suggested books and then sending a whole container-full to the Drop in the Ocean warehouse.

Where was the camp’s library and its book situated within the camp? Can you describe the scene?

There wasn’t a safe place for the books within the camp, so every morning we would bring the books into the camp, and set them out on blankets in the shade under the trees in the car park next to the camp. That was the quietest and also the most open space. The children would be waiting, and we had to work hard to get them not all to grab at the books when we laid them out.

Reading under a tree in Chios

What impact do you think the library had on the people in the camp?

The books really made a huge difference, particularly for the camp’s children. In the first few days, when we started the library, it would only take half an hour for the children to start to lose concentration, misbehaving, even fighting. Many had never been to school, or if they had, it was several years ago and they’d been through some terrible things in between, so they weren’t used to taking part in regular, calm and concentrated activities like reading.

But after just 3 weeks, they would not only stay on for hours reading without getting distracted, they also started helping each other, translating for the younger kids or pointing things out in the pictures. Other organisations working in the camp said that the children who were regularly attending the library were much better able to concentrate in other activities. Reading became a space for them, away from the stress of the camps, where they could be excited in productive and enriching ways, not traumatic ones.

One of the best things about the library was when children and adults sat together to read. There were a few adult refugees in particular who were wonderful at helping the children. They would come every day to teach the children or just to sit with them and listen to them read and go through the colours and the numbers in the books.

Was there a particular person who was using the books that stands out in your mind?

I remember a young boy from Sudan who arrived barely spoke at all and never wanted to play with the other children when he arrived. For a week, we didn’t hear him make a sound, but then he came to the library. After being very shy at first began to really smile and talk excitedly over the books.  It was one of the most transformative moments I’ve seen yet.

Has the experience changed how you think about books, refugees, our work, etc?

It’s proved to me how powerful books can be, not only as something to be enjoyed on one’s own, but as something to be shared.

We would like to extend a warm thank you to Jamie for his hard work and for sharing his powerful experiences. The future of the Souda camp where Jamie worked and its residents is unclear, but we are proud to have provided them with learning opportunities and the chance to escape from the day to day realities of life in a transit camp through reading.

We hope to support more displaced people around the world as we release our vision for 2020. You can find out more or get involved using the links below.

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