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People MCH LSE Refuge City ATH Refugee Info 003

Get to know the newcomers, activists and volunteers we met in Athens, Berlin and London, as they share their personal experiences of refuge, welcome and the digital city.

Megan & Varvara

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Megan and Varvara, ECHO Refugee Library
Victoria Square, Athens

ECHO Refugee Library is like a pop-up, we respond to what people want in each space. In some spaces, it's language instruction, in others we just play board games and chat. We try to go where the need is most, where people want us and where they’re hanging out anyway.

People are always coming up to us and asking for specific information like health services or the immigration process, so we have to make sure we only share correct information or there could be consequences. There was this young girl here without papers and she asked us if it was true that she needed to go to the police station to get registered. This wasn’t true! She could have likely ended up in jail and deported. And this was information given to her by an official organization! So, sometimes they come for books, but many times they just want to have a conversation with us. This is amazing, this is the real role of libraries — not just for books but a place for information. A social centre.


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We don’t just park randomly on any street, we have regular stops around Athens in collaboration with other organisations, like One Stop that does amazing work with the homeless community. They have food, music and a mobile laundry, something I’ve not seen in England. It’s my favourite spot because it makes it so easy to hang out with people, to really hang out. And we visit three refugee camps, two of which are outside the city and really isolated. Eleonas is well supported with activities and volunteers, but Malakasa and Oinofyta have nothing — they’re our most important stops. Sometimes our work has been affected by the closure of other organizations that we work with. Khora was a place that attracted huge communities, but when their building was forced to close, those communities dispersed.


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We have a free Wi-Fi portal too. I think most of the people visit us use it to message family and friends, maybe look up information. But last month we had a lot of Coursera sign-ups; we have a collaboration with Coursera for free certified courses. Having qualifications and proof of education is important to many people we speak to. Many of them are highly educated but have no papers to show it or their education qualifications mean nothing here. So, this is important to them.

(digital skills)

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We depend a lot on Facebook Groups like Mobile Info Team or websites like refugee.info to keep updated on legal processes that affect refugees. There are also helpful WhatsApp groups like ‘Greece Information’ and ‘Athens Coordination’ group. They each have 100+ members and when you post a question generally it gets answered very quickly. The Athens Coordination Group has biweekly meetings for anyone working with a grassroots organization, so there is different information from different points of view and that enables you to get a cohesive perspective, which is nice.


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Being the Greek coordinator, I am responsible for dealing with the Greek bureaucracy. It’s a lot of craziness. You have to prove – as we say in Greek – that you are not an ‘elephant,’ which means it’s obvious that I’m not an elephant but I’m expected to prove it as well. But we deal with all this bureaucracy because of a choice we made: to be rooted in Greece and to engage the Greek public. If you want to work only with refugees and volunteers from Europe, you don’t have to deal with this, you can just exist. But that doesn’t make sense to me, so we try to work with the municipality too, to be present at local book fairs and projects.


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The founders, Laura and Ester, drove this van to Athens from London but they aren’t based in Greece anymore. Varvara and I do the day-to-day management and coordination. There is definitely the sense of an international presence in Athens, of international volunteers that are not connected to the city. I think it can be damaging to come here for a short time, to do work and then leave. For those that can't leave, it’s a reminder of just that. For Greeks, there is a feeling that people come here and only see the refugee crisis, that they don’t see the Greek crisis, engage with or show respect to Greeks.

(hospitality, Athens)

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I’ve always appreciated that I came into this alongside Varvara. I think I would have been more uncomfortable if I was working on this alone, without Greek partners. When I leave in January, finding someone to drive the van will be the biggest challenge. Not only is it big and difficult to drive, especially in Athens, but the steering is also on the right. So to Greeks, it’s on the wrong side of the car and to English people, it’s the wrong side of the road!


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We’ve been with Mobile Library for seven months but we are both leaving soon, hopefully passing it on to someone else. Many times after a visit to one of the camps, I can’t socialise, talk or just be nice to people. I keep on saying, ‘it’s okay to not be okay.' I do feel supported by the team of course, and it has been useful to meet people from other organizations, to hear about their experiences and how they deal with these challenges. There is no right or wrong answer. There are many things that have no solution, and this is what you need to learn to deal with.


Updates June 2020 —

Looking back at my time at the Echo Library, I remember so many beautiful moments. The Library was a really big lesson for me, a great school. It taught me about refugee and mobility issues as well as the responses of Greek communities and the government. It also introduced me to great people to hang out with and to develop a human net with. This human net has offered tremendous help and support. We still have discussions on things that need to be done now and, in the future, and we imagine collaborating again to work on them together. I encourage anyone who can help to do so, to connect with both refugees and with the Greek public. I just want to stress the importance of long-term support and initiatives and not temporariness. Things that come and go are part of the problem, especially in Greece. Support needs to be viable, to continue, in order to make a difference. — Varvara

European nations and the UK are continuing to use increased violence and policy to stop those seeking asylum from reaching land, claiming asylum, and settling. There is so much trauma and damage being done, and it’s incredible that pockets of safety can exist within spaces like the library. Echo is now run by two incredibly skilled and resilient women, and is continuing to play a central role in information and resource distribution across Attica alongside it’s library duties. I am so proud to be a part of that story. — Megan

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