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.

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