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An interview with the organisers of the ECHO library

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ECHO is a mobile library based in Athens with a philosophy that "everyone should have a comfortable shared space to come for a chat – and access to the wonderful world of books!" The library is a grassroots project which helps some of the 80, 000 displaced people stuck in isolated and run-down camps in Greece to read, learn and exchange knowledge. Verso talked to the organisers to find out more about their work. 

Verso Books: Can you give our readers a brief introduction to the history and work of ECHO? 

ECHO: ECHO is a mobile library founded in northern Greece in 2016. Pandemic permitting, the library travels around 400km a week, visiting 11 locations in and around Athens, providing a book lending service from a multi-lingual collection built into the back of a van. Our locations include large, organised refugee camps on the outskirts of the city and more informal public spaces in the centre of Athens. As well as lending out books from our collection – which includes novels, poetry, text books, technical manuals, political treatises, children’s stories and many more! – the library offers free language-learning resources and play-based educational activities for children.  

ECHO sees itself as part of a radical tradition of public libraries. Why is this an important tradition to maintain? 

The sharing of literature, knowledge, culture and information has been central to political and humanitarian struggles throughout history. We see libraries as infrastructures for this sharing, whether they are publicly-funded institutions or lesser-recognised ‘guerilla’ or ‘fugitive’ libraries, such as ours, which operate in more precarious, temporary or marginalised positions. Continuing in this radical tradition, ECHO shares printed materials with a multitude of uses for our different readers; whether that’s someone seeking to broaden their political education with Marx, escape into the stories of Isabel Allende, reminisce with the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish or learn more about the European context in which they find themselves. Regardless of the specific need of the reader, the library provides an infrastructure that is free and safe to access while offering potentially boundless imaginative experiences. 

That said, libraries have never just been about books. As with libraries all over the world and through history, ECHO provides more than just reading material. We try to create a safe and comfortable space to visit – somewhere with a bit of shade in the summer or shelter from the rain in the winter – where anyone is welcome for a chat, a cup of tea or just a sit down. 
 

Who uses your library, and for what purposes? 

We are used by all sorts of people: older Greeks, young mothers with children, husbands teaching wives French, teenagers working on their English, philosophically minded Kurdish refugees, young Afghani women into poetry, the list goes on. Last week we were asked for books on anarchism by a young Greek-speaking resident who stopped us in the street, and the week before a couple of young people requested radical political literature in Farsi. Many of our library users are looking for reliable information about Europe, from its history, through to contemporary society, culture and politics. Others want literature from their home countries, particularly Afghanistan. We have lost count of people requesting books on Afghani history and books by Afghani writers. 

A slight majority of the books we loan are in Farsi, followed swiftly by English books, normally staged readers, and then Arabic. Most of our library users are asylum seekers living in the camps around Athens, but we also get people living in the city who have been here longer as well as non-refugee volunteers looking for resources to support their own work, often English classes.

We get a large number of people coming for language learning resources, mainly for English and Greek, but also for German, sometimes French and other more obscure languages such as Swedish, Dutch and even Finnish. Most of the camps where people are living have very restricted education programmes where, even if you are signed up for a class, you will only get a lesson once or twice a week. Many people cannot attend these classes, for example if you happen to be the single mother of young children and childcare is not available. The added complication for adults is also that many left education early or had negative experiences at school. I remember one Kurdish man laughing as he remembered hating school so much because he was bullied by both the other pupils and the teachers for being Kurdish, to the extent that one day he simply climbed out of the window and never came back. The result is that often you come across people who are not comfortable in a traditional classroom setting and/or not fully literate in their own language. Some Syrian Kurds, for example, cannot read Kurmanji, their mother tongue, as it was illegal to study in Kurmanji in Syria, whilst they are also not confident in reading or writing Arabic.

Many of our most ardent fans are the children and this year we have been fortunate to partner with a small group of volunteers dedicated to devising play-based activities for our smallest library-users, aimed at preparing them for entry into full-time education. Unfortunately, even before the global pandemic, a large majority of school-aged children were not in full-time education, and this does not look set to change. Although we cannot take the role of such a large institution(although I think many of the children and their parents would like this) we can support children to develop skills they will need later on, including handwriting practice, basic English and Greek, social skills and, of course, the joys of books, whether it’s reading them or simply pointing at the pictures.

Has the political climate in Greece affected your work? If so, in what way? 

Yes. There is a general disgust and vilification of the NGOs and grassroots organisations working with refugees and asylum seekers amongst the Greek right wing. Accusations that these populations and groups are “stealing money” from the rest of society are not limited to the UK. 

In more pragmatic terms, government regulations have made it increasingly difficult to provide a regular library service. There are evermore strict bureaucratic requirements to operate in the camps and it has become impossible to keep up with the paperwork required. As a result, we have recently been denied access to some camps which had been part of our regular service for two years. It’s hard not to see these requirements as deliberate attempts to prevent outsiders from witnessing camp conditions (Malakasa, for example, is currently at 140% capacity) but also to further reduce the sustainability of life for those living in these spaces.

Your collection includes books in Farsi, Arabic, Kurmaji, Greek, English and German, to name just a few languages. What are some of the challenges of running a polyglot library?

There are many challenges. The most obvious is having people who can read these languages to be able to organise the library and be effective librarians! In order to try and overcome this, and to encourage library users to take ownership of the library, we are always looking for volunteers from amongst the communities the library visits. The camps in which we work are not fit for human habitation. Due to restricted resources and poor living conditions inter-ethnic tensions are often high and there is little communication across linguistic divides. Having a diverse library team helps us make the library a community space where people from all language groups and all ages feel equally welcome and provided for. People are always happy to help out if asked and we have found it makes for a much happier and healthier library team this way. Polyglot library = polyglot volunteers to run it.

The other massive issue is sourcing books. If we are short on Farsi books, we cannot simply order whatever we like online or pop over to Iran or Afghanistan to re-stock our collection. The main concern is Arabic and Farsi language books, some of which are available in Europe, but for a price. On average, they cost probably double what you’d pay for a book in English or, say, French, which makes it a pricey way of stocking the library. Alternatively, you can import books from Egypt or Lebanon, but then shipping is very costly. 

Add on top of that finding titles of radical literature in Arabic and Farsi and you have yourself a full-time challenge. When you get a keen reader in a particular language, the library is never big enough. So the challenge is in trying to maintain a balance of depth and interest with limited resources and space for a diverse population. Sometimes we just have to apologise and say we don’t have anything. For example, recently we have had a couple of Somali speakers asking for books for the first time. We have no Somali books at all. We can sometimes print online resources and then make a call-out to see if people have and are willing to send us books in a particular language, but it is a longer process which sometimes only comes to fruition months later when the people who made the requests have moved on. Still, it means that the books are there for the next person who asks. Also, the rare time that you can provide a requested book to a user holds a particular satisfaction that is hard to equal.

As for the books themselves we have relied entirely on donations of books which have come from places as far flung as the Iranian cultural centre of Damascus, a volunteer who was passing by India after a wedding, a student returning from their year abroad in Jordan, a closing multilingual library in Sweden and a Palestinian NGO that did a call out to supporters and brought us so many books it took months to catalogue them. In London we have been generously supported numerous times by Al Saqi bookshop in Westbourne Grove who have provided a lot of their own fiction for free. In short, we rely on our network of friends and supporters to enrich our library on a constant basis and so far it has more or less worked. A few months ago however we were fortunate to get a grant which has allowed us a small budget for Farsi books as well, which means much happier library users and much less stressed librarians!

How can Verso Blog readers support the work of the library? 

You can help ECHO in a number of ways. This is a difficult time for everyone, with unemployment rising in the UK, so we understand that it can be stressful to think of supporting a project like ours at the other end of Europe.

There is the old-fashioned cash donation through our Chuffed page.

You can volunteer time and come out to the project. Again, everything is so uncertain that perhaps at this time this is easier said than done. If you are thinking about it though, we are looking for book-lovers, linguists who can communicate with our library users (Farsi/Dari, Arabic, Kurmanji, Turkish, Urdu, Greek, French) and a minimum of two months’ stay with us. 

If you have special skills you think might help us (such as an exciting and user-friendly cataloguing system, experience with creating English language learning resources for non-native speakers for self-study) please let us know.

Donate us books. Getting good quality fiction and non-fiction on our shelves is what we are all about. If you can help us do this then please do contact us. We can support you to find the shops in Europe that can provide us with books we need, or if you happen to be travelling to Iran/Afghanistan or any Arabic-speaking country, consider walking into a bookshop and picking us a few books. It’s really the cheapest way of getting books for us! If you work in the publishing industry and think you might be able to help us, please also do get in touch.

Finally, we would ask any of you with the energy to support action that puts an end to the politics that is creating the need for ECHO to exist. Write to MPs, demonstrate, change some minds and challenge structural injustice. The refugee situation in Southern Europe is not the first and it definitely won’t be the last. We need to get better at dealing with large-scale human migration and that will only come about when people are better educated about the reality on the ground and what has caused it. 

What are ECHO's plans for the future? 

Ultimately we would like ECHO not to have a future! We all recognise that our service is part of an imperfect response to a situation that should not be happening. We would like to see the camps closed and people properly housed or relocated to areas where there are public libraries that cater to their needs in a dignified way. We would like to support the establishment of permanent multilingual libraries that are welcoming and support people who want to make a life in Greece while staying connected to their own cultural literary heritage. Essentially, we would like to not have to exist in our current form.

However, being realistic, we would like to continue to grow as a project, extend our reach and not have to struggle at every turn with political decisions that make it difficult for us to function. We would like to work on our self-study English-language resources to make them even better. And then...a second van for the camps in northern Greece and a publishing house that translates radical literature into Arabic and Farsi?! Only half-joking...