The Athens-based NGO We Need Books fosters social inclusion for migrants through books. By creating the capital's first multilingual library, co-founders Ionna Nissiriou and Nadir Noori hope to help refugees and migrants blossom in Greece.
Hala from Syria is an 18-year-old refugee living in Athens. She dreams of going to university to study medicine, because she wants to help people. She's also an avid reader, and meets often with Athenian resident Ioanna Nissiriou, on the streets of Athens to pick up her latest batch of books in her native language, and in English.
Hala, like many of the 55,000 refugees and migrants in Greece, is aiming to thrive, rather than just survive, in spite of the difficult circumstances during the ongoing migrant crisis in the country.
Ioanna, one of the many "unsung heroes" of Greece's refugee crisis, is the co-founder of local NGO We Need Books. Alongside co-founder Nadir Noori, himself an Afghan refugee who left his home at age 12, the duo aim to provide the cultural bridge for the country's migrant population to connect with the local community, and reconnect with their own culture, through books.
Looking for ways to help
Over the last year, the organization has collected over 12,000 books, created small libraries, participated in conferences, and started fundraising for the next step: an ambitious, large multicultural and multilingual public library. "While many hard working officials, NGO staff and citizens are working on ways to help refugees and migrants survive the ongoing crisis, there are very few efforts focusing beyond survival, towards helping refugees and migrants blossom in Greece," Ioanna tells Infomigrants.
A journalist who was also formerly head of production at MTV and Nickelodeon channels in Greece, Ioanna quit her job to dedicate herself to the We Need Books project. "Like most people, in the beginning of the crisis I was rummaging my closets to find suitable clothes to give to the organizations that were looking after the newly arrived thousands of refugees," she explains, when quizzed about how she became to get more involved with refugees.
Connecting refugees with their heritage and culture
"A few months later I got to work for a foreign news broadcaster covering the refugee crisis in Greece. What I saw was a suspension of hope and a suspension of time. I saw vacant eyes, loneliness and despair", says Ioanna. "There was nothing to offer even the briefest of distractions, nothing to stimulate the mind, nothing to please or soothe, nothing to connect people with the country they had left behind, their culture, their heritage and the country they arrived at, for which they hardly knew anything."
She adds: "Books are an amazing tool through which all that can be achieved. Books cultivate empathy, they educate, they fill our minds with ideas and our hearts with hope. Books provide bridges through which civilizations and people can connect. So one day I got back to the office and started a crowdfunding campaign to raise money to buy books in Arabic and Farsi. And a few months later Nadir and myself registered We Need Books as an official NGO."
Athens' first multilingual library
Ioanna and Nadir have already made great strides. But they are not stopping now. "We've been active for almost two years now, working closely with other grassroots organizations, supplying books, fundraising and growing. We are ready to take our next step, which is to create Athens' first multilingual library. A friendly space where refugees, migrants and locals can come to read, socialize, use our resources or even meet up with friends and have a cup of coffee. The short term goal is to have this library up and running by the end of the year. We even have some of the furniture we'll need waiting in storage!"
And the long term goal? Ioanna says that they want We Need books' library to then become a multicultural center, run by the community, which will offer language and music lessons, homework support, access to online course, a children's library, a café, networking, training and job opportunities that will help refugees become independent.
Convention space to thrive
"We see the library as a structure that will embrace and celebrate multiculturalism, foster social inclusion and ultimately, contribute towards the strengthening of our society," she explains. We Need Books' establishment of the library will be a vital cultural point of reference for the likes of Hala, and eight-year-old Ali from Afghanistan. Like Hala, he also has big dreams. He loves football, and attends Greek school since he hasn't been able to be taught how to write or read in Farsi - yet.
"Since we began, two years ago, we have created two small libraries; one is in a refugee camp and the other one in a shelter - combined they have over 1,400 books in Arabic, Farsi, Pashto, English and Greek," adds Ioanna. "They both have books for children and adults and are accessible to approximately 1,200 refugees. We have also given books to schools in squats, to shelters outside of Athens and to other libraries around Greece." For the multilingual library, We Need Books is not thinking so much in terms of numbers. It will have books in all the languages that are spoken in Athens and it will be accessible to all. "This is what is really important to us; the main thing, the thing we will judge our success by, is the quality of the connections that will be formed under our roof and the extent by which we will able to support refugees in making Athens their home," Ioanna explains.
Migration policies 'a disaster'
With Greece's creaking infrastructure and limited resources struggling to cope with the sheer numbers of asylum seekers and to offer basic essentials, many refugees and migrants are heavily reliant on NGO's and volunteer organisations like We Need Books for "the day after". "To be honest the Greek government's policies - or lack of - are a disaster waiting to happen," says Ioanna. "Our government has been criminally slow and cowardly during this crisis and the price that is being paid is unbearably high. Suicides, prostitution, all kinds of exploitation, drugs, mental health deterioration, isolation, trauma and so much potential just wasted. No consistent plan with regards to integration has been implemented. Yet how I wish we were an isolated case of incompetence. Look around you, in Europe, how other governments are treating refugees. How the US is treating migrants. We are in a very dark place globally."
Like many volunteers and NGO workers in Athens, Ioanna is always looking for potential solutions to problems to making refugees‘ lives easier, and dare to say it, more "normal". Most of them, as she says, are staring us right in the face. "Central Athens is full of vacant properties, and there is no registry; we don't know if the owners exist, if they died decades ago, who inherited them, what country they live in, if they're ever coming back," she says." The state needs to create a legal framework to take over properties that have been abandoned; buildings that no one has paid taxes for for over a decade and buildings that are becoming a safety hazard due to their deterioration. Then we can use these spaces, work together, fix them up and house the homeless and the hundreds of refugees that will need housing once the camps are vacated."
Keep the debate going
While the refugee issue in Greece is not the top news item it used to be as the country tries to deal with its many other problems. Still, ordinary people do - and can do - a lot to help with the minimum of effort, according to Ioanna.
"What can the general public do? Just keep reading about the refugee crisis. It's not being reported on as much anymore, but refugees are still coming and will be coming until their houses are not bombed anymore and their families are not threatened."
"So keep talking about it. What we really need is for people who believe that what we are doing is important, to become more involved. If you are in Athens, come and meet with us. If you are abroad, get in touch. Each person can make a difference and they don't have to change their lifestyle or devote a lot of time. We are always in need of people who can speak for us and of money, of course, to buy books in the languages of refugees and migrants living in Greece."
There is a simple but beautiful art installation by British artist Tim Etchells placed on the side of the mighty Onasis Cultural Centre building in central Athens. Echoing [Samuel] Beckett's quote, Etchell has created a two-line, giant phrase in neon lettering, which says: "All We Have is words, all we have is worlds". It's a simple, punning shift to create an apparent contradiction, intended to invite the viewer to reflect on the question of what it is that makes up and comprises our lives; i.e. the concrete material of a world or the ephemeral material of language and ideas. Few organizations encapsulate this concept quite like We Need Books.
Author: Graham Wood
More information: We Need Books homepage