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A lending library by and for refugees

03 April 2017


For refugees living in camps in Greece, one of the greatest challenges they have to face is the endless waiting time and monotony of each and every day. Most refugees feel like time stands still and struggle to find ways to spend their time in a meaningful way.

At the refugee site in Philippiada, Western Greece, adults trick inertia by playing football; youngsters attend language classes, organised by humanitarian organisations; and little children participate in recreational activities and games, organisedby volunteers. However, everyone, young or old, have a common place to meet and "travel" in space and in time: the community library.

This small but welcoming library was born from an idea by refugees themselves. "Inertia is unbearable. We wanted to do something creative and after multiple conversations with UNHCR, we proposed the creation of a library, in order for us to be able to read, just like we used to do back home", 22-year-old Abed from Syria explains in fluent English. He learned the language during his stay at the site. Abed used to study in Deir ez-Zor University, in eastern Syria, but had to leave everything behind due to the war. However, he never lost his thirst for knowledge. He was one of the first to suggest the creation of a small library for the community: a common space for people who love reading.

With the support of the European Commission - Humanitarian Aid, the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, installed a housing unit to host the library and bought furniture and bookcases. Refugees, volunteers and UNHCR staff worked together to transform the space into a warm and functional library.

Humanitarian organisations offered the first books in Arabic, Farsi and English and soon a few Greek books were added up. The library's reputation went beyond the bordersof Greece and,as a result, the library of the University of Castilla - La Mancha and the Toledo School of Translators in Spain sent some 120 books to support the refugees' initiative. Latest additions include the Mini Lexicons for Basic Communication in six languages, produced by the Embassy of Switzerland in Greece, in collaboration with UNHCR, EADAP (Society for the Development and Creative Occupation of Children) and the NGO METAdrasi.

"We have literature and poetry books, but we also have books for anything you can imagine: history, ancient civilisations, geography, science and of course many fairy-tales and illustrated books for children. Many books are bilingual which is really helpful for those learning English", adds Abed, who helps to manage the library. "The number of refugees coming here everyday to borrow books is impressive. Some of them prefer to sit here and read, because it's quiet. When children come; the whole space fills with their voices and laughter, as they try to decide which book to borrow", Abed adds. He also uses the library space to teach Arabic to younger children that never had the chance to go to school.

Six children, all siblings, run towards the shelves, as soon as they walk into the library. The youngest look for fairy-tales and books with illustrations, while 12-year-old, Kadri, wants one about animals, since he wants to become a veterinarian. As for 13-year-old Tabarak, she browses "Beauty and the Beast", asking her younger siblings if they want her to read to them the rest of the story. The children stay at the site along with their mother and the fact that this library exists help them forget occasionally the hardships of life in exile. "It's nice here because it kind of reminds me of my school back in Syria. I had to drop it a couple of years ago. I dream of going to Germany, where my dad and other two siblings are. I want to study there and become a teacher. Until then, I'm happy that I can read books", says Tabarak with a smile.

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