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By Simon Cloudsley, MA student on the LIS programme

By Ian G Evans, on 18 June 2018

In the next few days I will be travelling to Athens with fellow LIS student Justine Humphrey to volunteer with the ECHO Refugee Library. As Justine has eloquently written in a previous post, this wonderful mobile library project aims to ‘nurture a space of learning and creativity, a place to cultivate the mind – that one part of us that can never be held captive.’

Like Justine, my involvement in this project came about in an equally serendipitous way. In April last year, just before a volunteering trip to Thessaloniki for the charity Help Refugees, I was thinking about the need that refugees in Greece must have for books as a vital way of stimulating their minds and escaping their difficult circumstances. The next day I came across a blogpost by a volunteer who had worked with ECHO and luckily, on my final day in Greece, I was able to meet with Esther and Laura, the inspirational co-founders of the library, who had run the project full-time for several months. I went away determined to do what I could to support them in their work. In August I embarked on a 5-day fundraising walk from the Bodleian Library to the British Library, and in November was privileged to ‘host’ the mobile library outside the Bodleian as well as attend a talk by Esther and Laura at the Refugee Studies Centre in Oxford as part of their advocacy trip around the UK.

In the meantime I had started the MA in Library and Information Studies at UCL and met a like-minded individual in Justine, so it was only natural that we organised a volunteering trip ourselves to work with the project on the ground. I am grateful for the solidarity and support shown by our department in the generous funding that has been given. My desire to help with the ongoing refugee crisis, finding the ECHO Refugee Library, and starting my librarianship qualification, have all combined to steer me in the direction of studying the vital role that libraries can and do perform for society, marginalised groups, and for those who find themselves in crisis situations. Like Justine, I hope my experiences and studies will provide a foundation for a dissertation within this area.

Why a library for refugees? I am reminded by what Simon Schama said in the final episode of the BBC series Civilisations, that refugees are the “shipwrecked of civilisation”, who are “cast adrift on an infinite ocean of terror and despair.” I returned to this thought due to the recent story of the rescue ship Aquarius, laden with migrants but sailing aimlessly at sea when no country would open its ports. This perfectly captures the refugee’s state of wandering and waiting: sometimes they cannot even find dry land, let alone a permanent new home. Having read much literature over the past year and having talked to people on the ground, it has struck me that there is minimal provision given to help refugees, as a friend of mine succinctly put it, ‘build a life beyond mere survival.’ Basic humanitarian needs of shelter, food, water, and medical care, are the priority of the major aid operators—and quite rightly so, even though these are sometimes woefully inadequate themselves. But beyond this, essential services that help motivate, educate, entertain, and maintain a healthy mind, are often only found where grassroots volunteers have seen a need and independently acted—like Esther and Laura. And the longer refugees are forced to wait, the more vital these become. Boredom, anxiety, depression and, tragically, suicide are on the rise.  The recent insightful book Lost Connections by Johann Hari talks about the need to be connected to various things to maintain your mental health. I have realised that refugees are disconnected from so much: home, family, friends, work, and a secure and meanignful future.

Access to a library is not, of course, a panacea. But the service that the ECHO Refugee Library provides is one important way in which a refugee can reconnect to reading, education, interests, and community, and to mentally start to build a future even if the physical reality of that future is still a long way off.

 

Simon Cloudesley, Library Assistant

Bodleian Library, University of Oxford.

Please show solidarity with us and the ECHO Refugee Library by going to:

https://chuffed.org/project/echorefugeelibrary