Before I ever arrived in Greece, I knew I wanted to volunteer with the Echo Mobile Library. I’d come across them on Facebook and instantly loved the idea of a mobile library visiting the refugee camps of Northern Greece. I ended up spending two weeks helping out, teaching English classes and learning about education services (or lack thereof) for the refugee community of Northern Greece.
Echo Mobile Library
There were a few reasons that I was drawn to this project. There’s my obvious love for books for one thing. I’m also a huge believer in the power of education. But I’ll be honest and admit that there was a more selfish reason. Echo Mobile Library struck a chord with me because of my late Grandmother. Indulge me, if you will…
The Original #GirlBoss
A pioneering woman and early feminist, my Grandmother Vera McCarthy (or Mamo, as all the grandkids called her) was the county librarian in Leitrim from the 1930s until her retirement in the 1970s. She was quite the trail blazer and the first woman in Ireland to be employed in a civil service job after marriage (women were required to retire upon marriage to take up ‘wifely’ duties). This, of course, was only because she put up a hell of a fight and entered into a legal battle with the state. She won. She was not a woman who ever lost. Ultimately, she set a precedent that changed the course of Irish employment history.
But that’s a whole other post.
The point here is that Mamo instilled in me a love for books, a respect for libraries and a fierce independent streak, passed down through the generations. Most importantly, she operated a mobile library out of her car and visited the most rural villages and areas of Leitrim to make sure that children all around the county had the opportunity to read and to learn. She was an innovator, a social entrepreneur and many other buzz words that get bandies about in modern society, though she herself never used any of these words. She just did what she needed to do. She was the original #GirlBoss.
So, Echo Mobile Library, to me, seemed like the perfect project to sink my teeth into when I first arrived in Thessaloniki. It’s not all about lending books. The library fills education gaps where they can and provide access to education and training courses for adults. This is a hugely important and largely overlooked service that I had the privilege of being a part of during my time with Echo Mobile Library.
My Experience With Echo Mobile Library
I worked mostly with fellow volunteers Emma and Malte who were keeping the show, literally, on the road while the project leaders Laura and Esther took long overdue holidays. The girls set up Echo Mobile Library towards the end of 2016 and have since seen a growth in library users and people within the camps and housing projects using their education services.
The people I worked with most were Syrian refugees who were living in a housing project called Filoxenia in the suburbs of Thessaloniki. The word filoxenia refers to a Greek tradition of warmth and hospitality. In that vein, the housing project provides for some of the most vulnerable refugees in Northern Greece. These are families, women and children who have experienced traumas most of us could never even imagine. One of the services provided by Echo Mobile Library are English lessons to the residents at Filoxenia. There are different groups from beginners to advanced, so I dusted off the old TEFL certificate and tamed the West of Ireland accent to deliver a few lessons.
It became apparent quite quickly that there was more support needed than just English lessons. Emma, Malte and I learned that what the students in our advanced class really wanted was help to find work. They had the correct paperwork in place and with the delays and long waiting period in their relocation programs, they were likely to be stuck in Greek Limbo for a long time to come. They want to be productive. They want to contribute. They want to work.
This discovery came initially from the girls. They were intelligent, ambitious, funny ladies. I loved classes with them. It didn’t feel at all like work. Emma, Malte and I often just hung out and chatted with them before and after classes. I was energised by their stories. One of the group in particular had overcome the worst of horrors. In her home city of Aleppo, during her final year of High School, her school was attacked with White Phosphorous – what the world knows more generally as chemical weapons. She watched most of her classmates die during the attack and suffered such severe burns that she had to be rushed across the border to Turkey where she could get the medical care she needed. Her face was, essentially, burnt off and she underwent extensive restorative surgery. Now, she wears perfectly applied makeup and a strategically positioned hijab to mask scarring. She presents herself with such beauty, pride and poise that you would never know she had once been through such an ordeal. What’s more is that once she made it to Turkey for her surgery; once she had escaped Aleppo; once she had the possibility of a future free from war – she went back. She wouldn’t leave her family behind and so she went back to help her mother and her younger siblings get out of Aleppo and while she was there, she and her sister volunteered with a UN agency to look after kids who had also experienced extensive trauma.
Now tell me, who wouldn’t want a girl like that on their payroll?
And what kind of a #GirlBoss would I be if I didn’t channel my inner Mamo to help and encourage her and others like her?
And so, within days of joining the project, I found myself responsible for organising a ‘Working in Europe’ Training Program for young adults just like her who needed help with searching and applying for jobs in Greece and in other countries of Europe that they were waiting to be relocated to.
In all honesty, I didn’t have to do an awful lot. People in Need, a Czech NGO operating internationally, had a dedicated team to provide training and all of the resources needed. The girls from Echo Mobile Library spread the word and before too long, we had a group of enthusiastic participants. In the end, it was mostly young men who took part and each of them arrived with an appetite for learning. Help Refugees offered a space to hold the training. We even got some of the yummies from Soul Food Kitchen to keep everyone fed and energised. It was a real group effort and it couldn’t have gone better.
The team at People in Need were brilliant. The participants raved about the training they received and said they felt a lot more confident about their future prospects. One guy who took part and was reputed to ‘never smile’ was beaming at the end of the day. When I asked him if he learned anything, he told me that he couldn’t wait to work and that he felt hopeful. Hope is a rare commodity in a refugee camp.
We can’t underestimate how important this kind of response is, or how important it is that there are services available to refugees who have lost out on the opportunities for education and employment that most young adults of the world have been afforded. They have been robbed of the chance to learn and to build any kind of foundation for a stable future. Helping refugees is not just about emergency support. It’s not just about clothes and blankets and food. It’s about rebuilding lives, safeguarding futures, protecting and respecting the dignity of every individual who had come through the worst of times. To my mind the key to that is providing education, promoting language skills and improving literacy, just as Echo Mobile Library strives to do every day within refugee camps and refugee communities in Northern Greece.
If you’d like to help the Echo Mobile Library project continue its good work, you can contact them or donate through their facebook page.
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