While refugees in Greece’s refugee camps are provided with food, shelter, clothing and medical attention, one thing often missing is a sense of purpose.
Having witnessed this firsthand, four volunteers including Laura Samira Naude and Esther ten Zijthoff set out to fill the void with the launch of Education Community Hope and Opportunity (ECHO) – a library on wheels.
They shared their ambition with friends in England and Belgium, who assisted with fundraising and sourcing an old minibus, which they fitted out with shelves and computer points for internet access.
They drove the minibus to Greece, where Naude and Zijthoff put a call out for books in Greek, English, Arabic, Kurdish, Farsi and French and managed to fill the shelves.
Since launching in November, the response to the mobile library has been overwhelming. With 1,300 books, both on shelves and in storage, they welcome 115 readers of all ages each week.
“We have also lost many books along the way, as they inevitably go missing, and sometimes, especially with language-learning books, we let people keep them and then make copies to keep up with the demand,” Zijthoff told The Guardian.
“In the freezing winter we’ve had in Thessaloniki, the van was sometimes warmer than the tents, and people would come inside just to get warm.”
The library on wheels has become a familiar safe space, giving refugees the chance to read in a peaceful environment and to learn English through informal classes.
Run by Zijthoff and Naude full-time for no salary, along with the assistance of volunteers, they have had some challenges along the way, sometimes not being granted access to camps or being shut down without warning.
But with ongoing positive feedback from users of the library, the pair remain positive about their initiative, and hope that it will spread to other countries with people in need.
“When we started the project, we had a vision of duplicating the library setup in multiple regions in Greece,” Zijthoff said.
“We are looking for people to hand over the project to, and many volunteers and organisations, not only in Greece but Serbia, Italy, Palestine and Lebanon, say the set-up could work very well. So, even if we are not the ones starting them, we hope that the concept will spread.”