Refugees escape boredom with books

A minivan fitted with shelves of books in Athens, Greece, allows visitors to browse books.
A minivan fitted with shelves of books in Athens, Greece, allows visitors to browse books.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

ATHENS • A new chapter has opened in the story to help refugees.

In Athens, a brightly coloured minivan that pulls into its food market, drawing a group of refugees around it, is not carrying something edible.

The contents - hundreds of books - are there to satisfy a different sort of hunger.

For tens of thousands of refugees stuck in Greece for the past two years after European states shut their borders in rapid succession, survival is no longer an issue.

Instead, boredom and creeping despair about their future are their new enemies as they wait for months, even years, for their applications to relocate elsewhere in Europe to be processed.

Now, at least two separate initiatives have emerged to help refugees fill the long hours of their day.

One of them is Echo Refugee Library - a minivan that is fitted with shelves and carries more than 1,000 books.

The vehicle does a weekly round of refugee camps in the greater Athens area, plus poorer districts of the Greek capital where many refugees live in United Nations- rented flats.

The goal of the initiative is to "make culture accessible to all", said Ms Esther Ten Zijthoff, 25, the Dutch-American coordinator of the project.

The books - in English, Greek, French, Arabic, Kurdish and Farsi - have been provided by benefactors in Greece, Belgium, Britain and Lebanon or bought with money donated online.

Ali, a 26-year-old Syrian, is among those who never misses a delivery at the food market.

"I love having something to read. It does me good," he said, an Agatha Christie novel under his arm.

The English mistress of the whodunit is proving a top page-turner for refugees, said Ms Zijthoff.

"The mystery and romance present in her stories are well-liked by Arab speakers. We would like to have her whole collection."

Language dictionaries are also in demand, with many readers borrowing them to photocopy and keep close at hand.

In another part of the city centre, a similar initiative draws Syrian and Afghan refugees to the offices of We Need Books.

The volunteer group was formed last year and also gives language classes in Arabic and French.

We Need Books has the largest collection of Farsi books in Athens, including more than 150 sent directly from Afghanistan, said its co-founder Ioanna Nissiriou.

Here, the most popular book is Arabian Nights.

The sole copy in Farsi, delivered in June, is already in tatters, she noted with pleasure.

"Initially, our goal was to help refugees escape through literature.

"But now, we also seek to educate the children and help them integrate," said Ms Nissiriou, a 38-year-old former journalist.

Seated on a brightly coloured pouffe, 16-year-old Zahra from Afghanistan just discovered the works of iconic Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis, author of Zorba The Greek and The Last Temptation Of Christ.

"I like this book because it's a new culture for me," she said while poring through Kazantzakis' Odyssey, a sequel to Homer's classic opus.

"But my favourite is Grimms' Fairy Tales, which is similar to fairy tales I used to read as a child," the young Afghan said as her family waited for their own happy ending to their quest for a new country to call home.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 22, 2017, with the headline 'Refugees escape boredom with books'. Print Edition | Subscribe