2016, the peak year of the massive immigration wave of refugees arriving on the shores of Greek islands. It is also the year where the Greek-FYROM borders closed, leaving over 500,000 asylum seekers stuck in Greece in overflown shelters and camps. As the influx of refugees doesn’t seem to be decreasing, many are left to their own devices, hoping to get a chance for a better future.
But besides needing food and shelter, many express their desires to read or study and somehow busy themselves. That’s when Zijthoff and Naude got the idea of providing a library, a place where anyone could access and use to cultivate their mind. And so, the duo – along with friends from Belgium, Canada and the UK – launched the Education Community Hope and Opportunity (ECHO) project and created a library in the Vasilika refugee camp, located in central Macedonia, Northern Greece. But to accommodate more people and make it available to other refugees scattered in several camps in the area, the group, backed by a crowdfunding campaign, created a mobile version of their brick-and-mortar library in November 2016.
Since then, the mobile van has been visiting multiple camps before resettling in Athens in 2017, as many refugees are forced to relocate to the capital, as part of the asylum application process. In the library, refugees not only find books but they also have access to online learning and educational resources, advice on higher education and professional application processes and can attend workshops.
Furthermore, the library includes a small collection of over 1,300 books in Arabic, French, English, Farsi and Greek, and the team is always looking for ways to expand their Farsi and Greek book collections, as the demand is high.
Now under the direction of John Gibb, a special needs educator from Britain and Aliki Tsoukala, a retired librarian from Greece, ECHO works thanks to its pool of volunteers. But given the needs of the Greek capital, the mobile library has expanded its activities and visits several camps and centres, including Velos Youth, a centre for youth in Exarchia, the Khora Community Center, the Victoria Social Centre, where Greek lessons are offered to women and the Jafra Foundation, a community centre led by a team of refugees. Pretty soon, ECHO will also collaborate with One Stop, a temporary space open to homeless Greeks but also refugees and migrants, while waiting for approval to enter the camps of Ritsona, Malakasa, Lavrio and Schisto.
As mentioned earlier, the library team hopes to expand their book collection and they need your help. Even if you cannot come to Greece and volunteer for a few weeks, you can still make a difference, either by sponsoring a book, by donating via PayPal to firstname.lastname@example.org or through the link, paypal.me/refugeelibrary. And remember, no amount is too small.
If you want to learn more about the ECHO Refugee Library, make sure to follow their Facebook page.