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Books waiting for a library | Photo: Ryan Lucas

A Multilingual Library For All In Greece

“We Need Books” started with providing material to refugees and now to Greeks and tourists.

Elvira Krithari
Aug 10, 2018 · 6 min read

In 2016 Ioanna Nissiriou worked as a fixer and producer for foreign media that covered the so called “refugee crisis”, in Greece. She had been to the camps, she had observed closely what it means to live there, to wait endlessly for your turn to be taken somewhere else and sometimes even to wait in vain.

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Ioanna Nissiriou, “We Need Books” founder | Photo: Ryan Lucas

Apart from pain, exhaustion, sorrow and often hope, there was also something else that shaped the days of the people in the camps: boredom. Being a refugee or an immigrant stranded in the camp means you have very little else to do but wait. In 2016, AthensLive met RefugeesTv in Idomeni camp, a team of four brilliant young people who had managed to turn endless waiting into satyr. But not all managed that; and as Ioanna loves reading (and Nick Cave), she thought that there shouldn’t be an easier and more effective way to fight empty time, than books.

In 2016 she was still just by herself when she managed to contact a bookstore in Egypt to ask if they would be kind enough to send her books in Arabic, because she wanted to build a library for refugees in Greece. The same year she started a crowdfunding campaign to raise money for books and a few people responded positively — Ioanna started to store in her house hundreds of foreign books that could provide comfort to the people who needed it the most.

At that time she teamed up with her friend Nadir Noori, who came from Afghanistan to Greece 15 years ago, and little by little their project grew bigger. From just the circle of friends and colleagues, now more people knew about the idea of a library in the camps and were willing to help. Others would donate books, educational material or time and on January 2017 the “We Need Books” project became a small NGO in order to manage to get access into camps and fulfill its cause.

However, as the project grew the founders understood that libraries inside the camps would inherit the structural problems that the camps have, while they wouldn’t facilitate refugee’s integration.

“The situation has changed since when we started”, Ioanna says. “People are left here now. They have begun to accept it and are slowly investing in their future in Greece, by learning Greek and English and sending their kids to school. So, what we want to do now is to create a library that will be a permanent place of integration, not inside the camp, but out, in Athens. Even those who stay in apartments and who are in a much better situation than those in the camps, are isolated. They have nowhere to go. A library is a safe place to spend some time”, she notes.

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Photo: Ryan Lucas

For them, this library is not just about lending books. They want it to look like a home -a notion well missed. “So we have begun to collect furniture as well, carpets, armchairs, chandeliers!”, Ioanna adds and continues: “As we think it, it can be a place to have a cup of tea and at the same time meet someone from your country or from another and have a chat”. It will also have rooms for various educational activities.

In order to realise their plan, the team of “We need books” have searched all types of spaces. Ioanna believes that after so many she could start a realtor career, as well. They even found a couple of suitable ones intending to rent them. “The prices were good, but while we were fundraising for this cause , Airbnb changed everything. Athens is very different than 2 years ago. Two times we came to an agreement with landlords and both times the prices got increased during the negotiations ”. The day we met Ioanna she would go to see another space in one of the non-touristic Athenian neighborhoods, untouched by Airbnb -for now.

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Photo: Ryan Lucas

Yet, the library is ready to start being built any moment. Municipality of Athens offered them a temporary space and a small version of the multilingual library will open in September. Many people are waiting for it -not only refugees and immigrants.

“The library is is equally addressed to Greeks”, Ioanna explains, “and although in the beginning we did not collect books in Greek, we now have many. We got messages from people saying I used to buy a lot of books, but now that I’m unemployed, I have no opportunity and a library would be much needed.”

Refugees and locals, but also the universal nation of tourists: The library of “We Need Books”, intents to be for them too. “Tourists are in the game. They are our voice out”, Ioanna says. “They can see how things really are here, that crisis still exists, both economic and refugee crisis. Most media have stopped talking about these issues. One has to talk about it”.

“There is a lingo for NGOs that we necessarily use when making proposals for funding. For example, “beneficiaries” “. But essentially it is people we are talking about. We all benefit somehow, like me that I’m working on this project”, Ioanna highlights.

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Photo: Ryan Lucas

“When I take a distance, and see how we started, with what nerve I have approached people to ask for help… it is not easy for me, but when you deal with these things, you have to ask for help. My mom teases me, she reminds me that I was too shy to go alone to the grocery store. And then you see how this library can be useful to people. It is based on facts. I did not suddenly decide that people needed it. The other day I met a poet from Iran. Where will this man find a place to be? Or another girl from Syria who is now perfecting her English. In order to give her books we meet her in the streets of Athens”, Ioanna concludes.

The NGO “We Need Books”, gets support in every form. People who can’t help with money, offer their books or volunteer to help in any way. But the NGO’s intention is to hire a proper librarian to run the library and also people to run a small cafe inside the building that would serve various purposes: a job and working experience to unemployed refugees or Greeks and a source of a small income for the library.

For these, the “We Need Books” needs your support and really soon you’ll be reading your book in a cozy library or have a coffee in the cafe, listening most probably to Nick Cave.

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