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In conversation with ECHO Refugee Library

Updated: Dec 28, 2021

In 2015 the migrant crisis reached its peak on the Greek shores of Europe. Borders closed as part of the new EU-Turkey agreement and many were left stranded with nowhere to go. On the island of Thessaloniki, some found shelter living in a disused gas station called ECHO, and this was the site where the eponymous mobile library project began. It started out by independent volunteers Esther and Laura along with a small group of refugees, who sought to devise an education programme to address the growing problem of isolation and displacement and demand for educational material. Today, it runs as a mobile library service based in Athens that brings books, education materials and activities to ten different camps and community centres around Greece. Last summer, we caught up with Becka and Keira who now run the library to discuss the intersections of language, space and belonging, as part of a wider podcast series in collaboration with Paper Airplanes organisation.

Many displaced people were sent to camps where they faced a great deal of unanswered questions over what the decision process is going to be like, where to seek support, and how long to wait to obtain legal documents. What kind of impact does this uncertainty have on their physical and mental well-being?

Becka: People find themselves with no structure, lose track of time and find it difficult to focus. There’s a mood of listlessness and hopelessness. It has a real chronic psychological impact. This has in large part to do with the asylum process, which is very complicated and often people are not given much explanation. This is partly because of bad communication, but it also serves the higher powers for them to be in a state of ignorance about their rights.

To give an idea as to how long people are waiting at the moment, the shortest processing time for someone, say, from Syria, is to enter the ‘Syrian fast track’. You do this by submitting all your documents and completing the interview, and you can get a decision within a day. But even so, it can take at least two years before your residency and travel documents are processed. And this is the fastest process you can go through.

Keira: Alongside the uncertain time conditions, it’s also largely a matter of space. The camps are deliberately isolated places that are not integrated into town structures. This makes it difficult to build a community and because of the lack of stability, it is impossible to have any influence over the decision-making process of the camp’s governance.

B: This is the mechanism through which agency is taken away from people when forced into these spaces.

K: A common idiom through which people express their distress is through comparison with animals. ‘This is a place for dogs’, or ‘it’s not possible to live here like a dignified person’.

This is the first time in Europe that we are having mass camps to host refugees. Similar levels of displacement resulted from the Bosnian war, and the method then was civilian housing. But because the discourse this time is of migration from outside of Europe coming in, that method has been overlooked. Instead there is now a policy of containment, of putting individuals in isolated and detached camps. This is the first time this is happening in European history.

B: It has now been acknowledged by governance over the camps that they are not a temporary solution. People keep coming and the EU and Greek government continue to pour money into the camps. Unfortunately nowadays in Greece the political discourse around this issue has become increasingly corrosive. The Néa Dimokratía government has come to power, and often makes use of negative and inflammatory vocabulary to describe not just refugees but the grassroots organisations that support them.

K: Like the language of pollution, and dirt, or calling solidarity workers ‘bloodsuckers’. The words associated with dirt all point to a larger discourse of contamination, and it has been frequently and explicitly vocalised in Greek parliament. The minister of civil protection has been particularly vocal about ‘cleaning up’ the dirt.

B: The first thing the new government did when they came to power was to get rid of the ministry of migration and delegate its responsibilities to the ministry of civil protection and so has been militarised. All of this is grounded and legitimated in the speech of ‘clearing up dirt’ or containing the potential contamination from outside. Testament to this is the mass clearing of the squats in Exarcheia where many lived communally just a few months after they came to power.

K: This kind of rhetoric attains some popularity which allows the party to usher in other even more caustic policies that have been less popular previously.

What you’re pointing out here is how the labels we use to designate certain groups of people can have real normative significance. How does language play a role in the asylum process?

B: When you are an asylum seeker you have to seek out support. If you don’t speak English or Greek it’s unlikely you’ll be able to find someone who can help you prepare.

K: The reason why you need someone to help you prepare is because the language parameters of what is and is not acceptable to be granted asylum are very strict. For example if you mention that you had to leave because your farmland was destroyed, this is a big problem because you’ve now become an economic migrant. But these things aren’t intuitive and need to be explained via fine analysis so you know how to package your story so that it is legible to the state so they can give you a yes. This is why pre-interview training is essential but this is immensely difficult to attain.

B: There are also so many issues around who your interpreter is. I volunteered doing legal interpretation in a previous position with a community centre and was coordinating the other interpreters so we had the best we could manage for the client. Technically as an interpreter you’re supposed to be unbiased, not making judgements. But whether you can automatically be trusted by the client is a different question. People don’t always feel they can trust the interpreter to deliver their story faithfully and accurately.

K: There was one story about a client trying to express something about a brother. In some contexts this can be ‘a man of a similar age to me from my village’, in others it can be ‘my kinship’. In the context of an interview when, you say your ‘brother’ was killed, whether he is a man from your village or your literal brother makes a huge difference in terms of a yes or no situation.

B: If this is misinterpreted in the asylum process and has been interpreted differently, the process picks up on this and says that there is an inconsistency in your story, and they will suspect that you’re lying. Also, often when trying to express deep trauma, people revert to euphemisms and figurative language to express the unimaginable, and this doesn’t work in the yes or no situation of the asylum process.

How does the library step in and try and address some of the issues we’ve discussed?

K: Children’s education along this journey is very severely impacted. They have usually been out of formal education for over two years, and after this point it becomes very difficult to go back into formal education. The children are allowed a place in Greek schools but there are no buses to get there from the camps.

B: A lot of the schools don’t have the capacity. Local educational authorities would say there isn’t space or capacity, and there is not the right training in the islands.

K: So with our kids programme we try and provide an informal education environment to practice the soft skills you need at school. To enjoy this space in a way that is positive and fun.

Because we’re only in each space for one or two hours a week we’re under no illusions that we’re going to be able to teach everyone to read and write, but we try and encourage a love of books and reading. We have also been working on developing a repertoire of non-verbal forms of communication like hand signals (not borrowed from any particular culture to ensure non partiality) for the children to be able to express themselves.

B: We have a lot of fiction to encourage a useful way of spending time to relax and use your mind imaginatively. To help people feel supported in self-study, we offer access to structured university programmes online, hold conversation classes, and self-study learning resources designed for people with little or no experience.

A lot of the time if you’re in a camp there are very restricted educational opportunities, it’s not easy and affordable to come into Athens for oversubscribed language courses. The people who use our resources are often single mothers, or people with previous negative experience in education. For example, a lot of people coming from Syria are ethnic Kurds. Because Kurdish was outlawed, they were not allowed to study in their mother language and as a result their education was severely impacted.

When you’re coming to a new country and being expected to integrate, even the first step of learning a language presents so many barriers, which makes it so difficult to make that first step. So what we try and do is build a more positive experience for language learning.

These people often feel silenced because they can’t communicate in Greek. The narrative of them not wanting to integrate is perpetuated because these people are not helped out to learn Greek to be able to speak their story. People are being isolated and separated in camps and not given the tools to reclaim some of the agency that has been stripped of them, and that includes being able to express themselves comfortably in the language of the country that they live in so they can communicate directly with Greeks who might have their minds changed.

K: It is a form of discursive violence where your mother language is being denigrated and the use of foreign languages is imposed. This is why it is so important to have literature and language skills available to celebrate these languages as a community, which is what we aim to achieve in our library space.

Fostering a sense of community seems to be at the heart of this. How does the library space facilitate community-building?

K: There’s an important distinction to be made between individual relationships and the notion of community. People are naturally predisposed to be in communities, because we’re social creatures. Community is the relationship with the people around you and crucially also with your space. When you look at the role of libraries as spaces where you come in, you don’t have to give your identification details, you just come in as a reader, come and be a human being. That’s what library and community spaces can provide: a levelling space that doesn’t discriminate based on your language, or your ethnic background. We’re seeing a real attack on public spaces like that across Europe and the world. And so we can see the role of ECHO as an extension of a particular intense manifestation of the importance of that humanising library space.

You can find out more about the work and history of the ECHO mobile library via their website.

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