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Monday, October 24, 2016

Article on We Need Books by

Ioanna is Creating a Library for Refugees

by Themos Rizos
translated by Eleni Elizabeth Patsiatzis
photos by Theofilos Venardos

Ioanna is worried she might come across as one of those people who always do good and wear pink, have rosy cheeks and love Jesus. I see how she feels: many articles of this type end up being depictions of sainthood instead of focusing on the essence, in this case the We Need Books initiative.

I hope I don't disappoint her. One thing is certain though, when I came up with the idea of my Esteemed Friends column, I could not think of a better person to get it started with than my friend and colleague, Ioanna Nisiriou.

When some were shouting “if you want the refugees, have them in your house!” she was one of the first to do so, opening her home to Nadir. But she did not stop there. This past summer she created the crowd-funding campaign We Need Books which aims at collecting books for refugees.

“Why books?” I ask her, bearing in mind the daily calls for clothes, food and medicine. “Whoever is offering towards this cause acts well. Especially when it comes to baby food, toys for infants and children's shoes for which there is still great need” she responds. “Books cover other basic needs. The need for free time to be creatively put to good use, all the time refugees have on their hands trapped in a daily life that is foreboding and without stimuli”.

But it's not only the matter of escape from routine. Books are, at the same time, probably the best medium through which “to support historical memory, connect with ancestral civilization and familiarize with the western way of life and thinking, to create common touchstones”. Thus, among the books to be bought one can find “Afghan and Iranian writers and thinkers, poem collections, historical and folkloric works. But one will also find 'The Little Prince', the 'Tale of two cities', 'Les Miserables' and '100 years of Solitude'”.

In the space of three months money has been collected for the purchase of almost 130 books in the refugees' mother-tongues. An additional 100 books in greek or english have been donated and another 400 books in persian are gradually arriving. The first library, in the arrivals hall of Hellinikon (Athens' original international airport which closed down in 2001 and currently functions as a refugee camp), will soon be up and running since space has been provided and individuals to run it daily are available. As long as the books arrive safely from Afghanistan to Greece, for which a significant percentage of the money collected through the Generosity platform will be used, this should soon become a reality.

If Ioanna's vision is realized we will not be talking about a simple library. Adding to the above “I am trying to find sponsors to support the printing of school books, at least those needed for maths, language and english, all of which I now have in PDF format. I am also trying to secure the donation of a computer, a television and a DVD player for those who need to use language teaching programmes and for the screening of children's shows in greek and english and of films in their mother-tongues.

However, We Need Books will not stop there. “When the creation of the first pilot library has been completed my goal is to move on to the next one, raising money from the beginning. And then to the next”.

I ask Ioanna what it is that urges a person to individually and from scratch initiate such a project. “You don't feel that alone once you have started something like this” she replies, reminding us that the word “solidarity” has never been heard as often as it has these recent years. “At some point I sat down and wondered who I am and how far that is from who I want to be. Thus I decided that I want to be someone who does something, who tries to be part of the solution. Everyday, as I can, whatever the problem”.

Crowd-funding Campaigns, however, face a very big problem, especially in Greece: support is very often confined to “likes” and “shares”. It stops, therefore, before the only crucial click - that of a donation. Ioanna's campaign is not an exception. “Of course I came across this issue very early in my campaign! But I was the same. At some point I caught myself “liking” something good someone else had done and I froze. What is in a “like”? How many of us hide behind it? In order for things to change for the better something more is needed and it is needed everyday. Even if it is something small. It just has to become part of our lives”.

In any case, some reach the point of the so desired donation. Many others also devote time, money and energy everyday to help refugees (and others), in various ways. At the same time however, “indignant” parents lock schools so as to avoid their children's coexistence with those of refugees'. In the end, who are we? A people worthy of a “Nobel peace prize nomination” or a people of merciless racists?

Ioanna believes that “Greeks wear their traumas and complexes like medals. Instead of exorcising them
and bidding them farewell, we pass them on to the next generations like family heirlooms” while our educational system and our culture of abstaining from any type of responsibility combined with the “international political system which emphasizes on profit, consuming and the ephemeral” don't help at all. Whatever the interpretation she finds it very hard “to understand the way of thinking of a person who  would prevent a child, who has already encountered so many devastating obstacles to get here now, from going to school”.

“I realize we are compassionate, we are also racist. The point is not to allow racism to turn into an 'opinion' tolerated by society, tolerated by families, by neighbours, by teachers. Under no circumstance can this be justified.”

There is however a greater threat. “Apathy - it infuriates me. I believe, not without reason, that it is the most dangerous element in a society – a lot more dangerous than racism itself. Nevertheless, I believe it can be beaten. Guess how!”.

·                In case you haven't already guessed you can contribute to the collection of books for refugees through the Generosity platform. You can also find We Need Books on Facebook.

Translated from the original greek published on on 21/10/2016.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Let's vote.

In a parallel universe, when we were given the memorandum five years ago, the Greek people were asked by our government what we should do. All aspects of it were thoroughly discussed. By the time we had to cast our vote, every citizen knew of the risks of voting for a YES we sign or a NO we’d rather not. 

In that parallel universe, people thought long and hard. They wondered, how is it possible to ever get out of debt by borrowing more money? How is growth possible, when salaries and pensions are cut? What if we sign this agreement now and then the troika comes back with more severe demands? What will happen when the taxes keep rising, the prices of houses keep falling and in the end it will all be sold off for a quarter of its value, just to pay for those taxes? 

In that parallel universe we were worried about the pensioners even if we were not pensioners ourselves, we were worried about the teachers and the nurses and the cleaners and we protested along with them, because they were treated unfairly, even though at the time we weren’t doing so bad ourselves. We studied what had happened in other countries with similar problems. We started to suspect there was a bigger plan in place. We were to be boiled like frogs. Slowly, so by the time we realized it, it would be too late to react, we would have given away all of our freedoms.

But as I said, in that parallel universe we held a referendum. And because we weren’t just thinking for ourselves, but of our neighbour’s children and also of our grandparents who fought and suffered for us to live in a democracy, we voted NO. We did suffer, it was a very difficult time for all of us, but five years on and the worst is over. There is hope of growth in the horizon, we can just about start making out somewhere in the distance the end of the tunnel. And it looks like we might actually be alive to see it. 

In this universe where no one ever asks us anything, this opportunity has finally come. We are being asked to vote in a referendum about the long term future of our country. 

And even if it is five years late, it’s not too late.  

Monday, February 2, 2015

25 January, 2015

It’s been a week since the new government was elected and I am still having some difficulty putting my thoughts and feelings in order, much less in writing. This is the best that I can do for the time being:

Before the elections I felt scared. I knew that Syriza, for the first time in history, would get the majority vote of the Greek people. Syriza is the only party I have ever voted for, not because I am a κομματόσκυλο (literally “partydog”) but because in the past the most I could hope, for was for them to have as strong a presence in Parliament as possible, so that they could act as the moral opposition to what I perceived as unjust laws that were being passed by the previous governments. Also, I’m a leftie.

This time, however, was different because of the responsibility of voting for what would become the ruling party. I would be held responsible if they didn’t keep their promises, if they turned out to be corrupt, if they didn’t know what to do once they were in power (which was the public’s prevailing opinion until recently).

When Alexis Tsipras gave his first speech on the night of the elections, I cringed. At first it was his body language that brought back memories of Andreas Papandreou speaking to the masses in the 80s, not an association any of us wanted to make. This was made worse by his reference to symbols like the “sun”, which brought on more unwelcome associations: the logo of the PASOK party, its hollow rhetoric.

I went to bed weary and in the morning, as I read the news about the Syriza – Independent Greeks coalition, I felt even worse.

Then they swore in and as I was eager to see who is who, I read the CVs of all those who were given a position in the new government. I was impressed. They immediately started announcing the changes that would be made. Children born and raised in Greece by foreign parents would be given citizenship. The bars that had been raised outside the Parliament ever since the first riots almost five years ago, were removed. The hideously expensive cars driven by former politicians would be sold off. The privatizations of the Greek power company and Piraeus harbor were halted. And to top it off, Economics Minister Varoufakis refused to negotiate with the troika.

I should have been counting how many times my eyes have watered in the past week. I find myself renewing webpages like a news junkie. I want to know what the government is saying, what they are doing, who they are seeing. I had never, ever in my whole life, been interested in what politicians do. Syriza has made an informed citizen out of me and I’m not the only one. There is a whole disinterested, politician-hating generation out there that is being reformed.  
I don’t know how things will turn out. Life might get harder before the mess we’re in starts getting untangled. But I feel alive again. I don’t feel despair. I don’t feel ashamed, powerless, helpless. Like I don’t matter.

What the hell. I’ll go on and say it. For the first time in my life, I feel proud of my people.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

And you don't get what you need, either.

“Life is a constant struggle”, my grandfather told me when I was 8 years old. I have no idea what he meant exactly, but the phrase has been hanging over my head like the blade of a guillotine ever since. I am not allowed to forget its existence or it will fall on my neck. The problem is, I could never figure out what it was I was supposed to struggle for.

The Greek word he used, “αγώνας”, is also used for sports. Therefore, I assumed that life according to my grandfather was a football match, where you run up and down a field, chasing a ball and some people are on your team and others are against you and you could be running up and down the field all your life and never score a goal. Now, in my mid thirties, I am slowly coming to the terrifying realization that not only can this football match be completely pointless, but it can also turn out to be utterly and mercilessly boring.
I’m bored of seeing me running up and down a football field and I’m so very bored of being in the game. I don’t want my life to be a constant struggle. I want it to be a long walk across the world with the man I love. Or at the very least, a walk around the block with someone who can keep me stimulated.
“You can’t always get what you want” Mick said, but I wasn’t listening.


Monday, September 1, 2014

This is War (not that kind)

Like most of us, I'm sick and tired of thinking about it. The Crisis, I mean. Its effects are very much present still, in the workplace, at home, in the streets of Athens. But today I'd like to focus on another crisis that I am personally facing.

There is this bug that is quite common in Greece called βρομούσα (stink bug), which belongs to the not-so-charming family of pentatomoidea.This bug loves tomato plants. The thing is, I also love tomato plants and this year I planted two varieties from heirloom seeds, looked after them, watched them grow, had a gastrorgasm (sic) eating the first buffalo heart tomato of the season and was really looking forward to inviting my favourite people over for some nice caprese, upon returning from my summer holidays. Little did I know that while I was away, these bugs I used to feel sorry for for their horrible name -as you do for children named Εφραίμ or Χάιδω (check here for English equivalents)- had been greedily feeding on my gorgeous tomatoes.  

The Enemy (this is not my βρομούσα)

The Damage (these are not my tomatoes)

So, in the voice of that guy who does the movie trailers (in a land where only one guy -or maybe two- in Hollywood's history ever do voice overs), this is the post of (here your voice should go deeper) "one heroic woman's journey of self discovery and her relentless war against stink bugs... ".   

It is a battle that should have started months ago, thus the war is already lost. But knowledge will be gained and some bugs will die in the process, so I guess there is some fun to be had still. Oh boy, do I know how to have fun.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

fear of oblivion

"Beaten and Broken"

... to quote Dusk.

There is no excitement anymore. No spark. No hope that through the crisis we would be reborn as conscientious human beings.

We are withdrawing into ourselves, for many of us an unknown territory, and we try to focus on the challenges of each day, never, ever, making plans for the future.

We try to keep it simple. A trip to the super market. Paying a bill. Getting through another shitty day at work. We try not to look further than that. The only thing we allow ourselves to look forward to, is the weekend.

And then somebody close to you dies. Someone who was good, nurturing and honest, someone who contributed all her life to her students, her family, her friends. Who was making plans for the future, for when she would retire and then travel -mostly by train, she was afraid of flying- and spend time with her daughter, and do things for herself. Everything she had endured would have been worth it then. She died two days ago, barely 63 years old, after having spent the past two years in and out of hospitals, fighting cancer. And losing.

I mourn her loss. She meant a lot to me. I was lucky, because to me she was a teacher, family and friend. It's not easy to explain. She was like a second mother, the one who united us as a family. I don't know if I ever told her that she was the one who made me want to study film. She had taken me and my sister to see Nuovo Cinema Paradiso in 1989 and afterwards she commented that I was too young to understand the film. I felt offended, and stubborn as I am, I made sure I learnt more about film than anyone I know. To get her approval.

There is no hope for my generation. This is what will become of us, too. We will work hard all our lives, postponing life for later, for when we retire, when we'll have time to go to America, to visit our friends abroad, to see the world, only to realize that time has run out, that we managed to save no money at all and that we are not well, we have cancer, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, whatever, and that this is it. All our life has already been lived and no dream left for the future will be fulfilled.
So fuck it.