Books change lives in Greece’s refugee camps

2nd February 2021 | Blog

ECHO is a mobile library based in Athens, Greece. Founded in the summer of 2016, its mission is to provide people seeking asylum with books, learning resources and a shared community space whilst they live in the camps.

Since 2017 we’ve sent over 2,000 books, including 326 books in 2020, to support ECHO with their mission and help reach those who need books more than ever.

We spoke to one of the coordinators of ECHO, Becka, about the library, the people who use it and the ways it impacts the many lives it reaches. 

The educational services within the camps are extremely limited, the WiFi is patchy or non-existent and these camps are not safe places. There is no neutral community space, nowhere you can just relax that’s warm and comfortable, like a library. If we wanted to set up permanent library spaces it would be extremely challenging, so we bring in our lending library service once a week. Even though it’s just once a week and it’s an outside space, which isn’t ideal, we have a rug for children and we have spaces for adults so people come to us to relax and learn. 

People come to us to relax and learn. 

There’s very little to look forward to in these camps, and one of the very few things you can actually do is sit and read a book, either for study or for the sake of exploring a different world.

With the pandemic affecting our access to the camps, it’s clear that people notice when we’re not there. Covid-19 has exacerbated a situation which was already very bad.

One of the very few things you can actually do is sit and read a book.

With very little to do in the camps, many enjoy coming to the library to read.

Getting the desired books for the camps is a constant source of stress. Thanks to Book Aid International, English books are fortunately one of our less stressful things. These are one of our most used resources because they support people who are learning English. Greek is a very challenging language, and not everyone living in the camps will settle in Greece for life.

There is no effective long-term integration programme or much holistic support for refugees. Most people imagine Greece as a sort of stopping off point; so learning English can be a useful tool for the future. It’s part of building up self-reliance and self-confidence to be able to support yourself in a new life in Europe. Without access to books that becomes really difficult.

Without access to books that becomes really difficult.

Children gather at the mobile library to read, write and draw.

For many people, like young mothers, grappling with the alphabet and being able to start to have basic conversations in English can be extremely empowering. It’s almost like repairing that sense of ‘I am capable, even in really terrible situations, of taking control of my own learning to benefit me and my children for the future’.

It’s quite powerful to see, and more importantly, the library can provide people with resources that they need in a form that they can use.

Covid-19 has made it difficult for the library to operate as usual, leaving many people without access to books.

Without Book Aid International, our English section wouldn’t look nearly so nice. Some of the books we get can be dog-eared and a bit inconsistent; people like new books… who doesn’t!? It makes a difference seeing something that is not battered and torn. It’s like, ‘this is for me. Everything else in this camp and this life is old and horrible. But here is a new book that they brought for me to use.’ 

I think people often say ‘if the library wasn’t there, people would still be living’, and yes, they’d be alive, but they’d be existing. For our library users and friends in the camps, books are invaluable.”

For our library users and friends in the camps, books are invaluable.