The ECHO blog has arrived!

First off, the most colossal thanks must be said to every person, organization and creature that has supported this project over the last two years. Whether that be through time, donation, finance, emotion, advocacy or simple respect – thank you. The current political and economic climate makes work for grassroots organizations analogous to hurdling through mud – so every inch of support that carries us we are truly grateful for. Those who are interested in Echo and the wider happenings here in Athens deserve the low-down. We also hope to encourage thought and dialogue surrounding the context of our everyday experience.

Advocacy is a most crucial tool in democracy. And what is the use of having knowledge, passion, and a voice, if not to promote freedom and equity. Echo serves refugees in Athens, but we are part of a wider global movement; one that stands against xenophobic, repressive and violent responses towards migrants and asylum seekers. We thought perhaps some reflections from within this environment might encourage readers afar to become more engaged in these issues.

First things first – an Echo update.

You might already be aware our trusted van (Gary) has been out of action, which may actually have turned out to be an expensive blessing in disguise. Time to catch our breath, reflect and plan ahead.

Gary on his way to the doctorGary on his way to the doctor

Gary on his way to the doctor

Over the last two months we’ve been really focused on setting ourselves up at Malakasa, a camp 40km north of Athens, whose residents have close to no recreational activity and educational opportunities. New arrivals from the islands over the last few weeks have meant that there are now up to a thousand people living here in iso-boxes and tents. This makes it all the more important we can provide books and learning resources to those who want them, as a form of respite, to assist learning and to show we care. We’ve got high hopes we can facilitate more activities here, in collaboration with Musikarama, a grassroots musical project, we’re hoping to help provide guitar lessons during our sessions, and in the future perhaps we can bring teachers, workshops, and put on films too. Our film project was our second focus over Ramadan, screening films on the side of the van at Ritsona camp during the night, serving tea… and doing a little less loaning.

The rest of our energies have gone to ensuring we are providing a consistently high-quality service. Part of this process has been ensuring we have the correct resources; printing and binding language learning resources and contacting organizations, charities, and universities in the hunt for donations. We hope that once we secure funding we can allocate a budget towards buying more difficult to obtain resources, such as Kurdish books or more comprehensive language learning materials from Arabic and Farsi. For now, we must make do with what we have, but having the ability to provide these resources would greatly improve the support we can give.

In terms of the near future, now Gary is fixed, we’ll be hitting the road straight away. We’d like to continue to expand our reach, with visits to new potential sites and collaborations with more organizations planned as we approach summer. Over 13,000 asylum seekers have entered Greece this year, contributing to the 60,000 stuck here due to Europe’s closed borders. We are determined to give support and respect to these people who have been forced to leave their homes. As long as it’s physically possible for us, we will offer the little refuge we can though our library.

In the meantime, we’ve been busy with our involvement in last weekend’s antiracist festival in Athens!

We were so lucky to be a part of this – we made some wonderful new contacts and even received our first Kurdish book! –  and on the note of antiracism, here’s a little something to chew on…

The ECHO team!The ECHO team!

The ECHO team!

Reflections on nationalism and the World Cup.

Football has this power to engender this incredible sense of collective belonging. It’s unavoidable in Athens. Every café with a television will be showing the game, with cross-continental audiences at every screen. This is the capital city of the gateway to Europe, the center of the world, multiculturalism in its richest form. It’s a delight to watch such an international event unfold with an equally international audience. What gnaws at me, though, is how to reconcile support for the World Cup whilst working with asylum seekers, knowing the political reality is that this situation is sustained by that same invigorating feeling football summons.

I’m going to signpost here that this not a crusade against football, nor an attack on its fans, only an exploration of a dissonance within me, with the hope to inspire conversation around the subject, and while I try to keep it lighthearted, I cannot disguise its more serious undertones.

Nationalism is undeniably on the rise in Europe, and each of us knows that explosive passion football seems to engender has much more sinister consequences than the odd fist fight. Of course, players and watchers of the game will argue the enormous discrepancy between football celebrations and xenophobia. However, given nationalism is expressed along a spectrum of extremity – one end of which rests upon hatred – is it possible to draw a line between this end and the other? Would we know where to draw that line if we tried? Or is nationalism a little more insidious than this?  Let’s have a look at the current state of Europe.

Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, along with Austria – all of which opposed a European responsibility to accept migrants under the relocation scheme – each have rising or leading nationalist parties. Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán states their position: that Europe must ‘defend’ its borders. His use of language is more appropriate for an invasion than a humanitarian crisis, and his actions follows suit. One hundred miles of two 10-foot electric razor-fences, patrolled by soldiers with dogs and the criminalization of aiding asylum seekers with no papers. Endless stories of beatings and harassment of migrants come from this country and its neighbors, and while the EU condemns their refusal to comply with the relocation scheme and their migrant abuse, is the rest of Europe so different?

In Sweden, support for the nationalist Democrats is at a record high, and refugees are consistently scapegoated for recent increases in crime rates. The new coalition in Italy has mass deportations on its agenda and is urging aid ships in the Mediterranean not to rescue thousands of peoples. Attempting to shift responsibility to Libya; a country under UN sanctions for its human trafficking networks which are associated with EU-funded coast guards. While Macron publicly criticizes Italy’s boat rejections, the CRS are beating, tear-gassing, and stealing from asylum seekers, while simultaneously harassing aid workers in Calais. With the CRS being partially funded by the UK, Theresa May has equal responsibility for these abuses. Brexit is symbolic for the level of nationalism in the UK and you don’t need to look far to gain insight into the levels of xenophobia and institutionalized racism plaguing the country either. Here in Athens, the neo-nazi party Golden Dawn have an unnerving presence and refugee attacks are common.  Even in Germany, hailed as Europe’s most progressive, Merkel is calling the 1 million refugees granted asylum in 2015 a ‘humanitarian exception’.

Clearly nationalism is rife, and with it has come fear and violence against vulnerable people attempting to find a safer life. More than 200 people drowned in the Mediterranean in the last 3 days.  Now let’s return to football.

I could point to the World Cup’s host and its growing neo-Nazi football culture, FIFA’s commercial values stomping on wider ethics, and the apathy surrounding this topic amongst many fans. Or I could point to media where football serves as a mask to more toxic undertones, such as The Sun’s recent headline: ‘Shadenfreude: Pleasure derived from another person’s misfortune’. Perhaps even the outright racist abuse that players suffer is enough to illustrate my point. However, the majority of football fans will distance themselves from occurrences due to their more harmless celebratory flavour. And so, with the aim of provoking the most thought, it might be interesting to discuss what pleasures international football brings, where nationalism finds its roots, and whether one’s own relationship with football should be consistently reflected upon irrespective of self-perceived nationalism.   

One could argue that friendly competition on the international stage, pride for one’s culture and respect and engagement with the rest of the world are part of the rich benefits globalization has offered, a celebration of collaboration and peace. One could also argue that feeling of collectivism felt through football is healthy form of social bonding, with the insults thrown at other teams and delight in their losses only harmless play. But where do we distinguish play from reality, and is this ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality actually contained within the game? Is it possible these feelings of national pride and the inferiority of others might spill into how one interacts with the world, and one’s social and political views? What’s more, how encouraging must it feel for those with xenophobic tendencies to listen to the world play to their tune.

Before the dawn of agriculture, the human species lived for tens of thousands of years as nomadic, mobile units. We are unique in our level of sociality, we are altruistic, dependent upon one another.  It’s hypothesized that in order for social groups to work cohesively, trust must be maintained within the group to ensure fairness. And so, those from not within your social unit were not trusted. This is where the ‘othering’ of others began. Others were dangerous. Hunter-gatherer groups roamed as they desired or required, encountering these others as they moved (the fossil records we have do not evidence these encounters as violent). We travelled from Africa to the Levant and to Asia, maybe back to Africa, then to Europe, and so on. We then started to become more sedentary around 10,000 years ago. We built towns and cities and imagined nations and built borders and this mentality of others expanded. But the world is not the same place we evolved within.

Our population is now 7.6 billion, that’s 57 people per square kilometer. Our encounters of ‘others’ are constant. It’s a psychological nightmare. Again, and again leaders have harnessed this natural fear of others to incite hatred, for political and economic ends. What I ask now is, is international football just another form of this othering, of the reinforcement that we are part of a national, and not of a global community. We are British, Greek, Iranian, Syrian, not human. I am not suggesting the World Cup or international competition are inherently xenophobic, only that they might encourage it, and we should be reflective of the emotions they summon, and ready to assess the importance we actually give to being a part of our country. We must not be ignorant of the connotations of the ‘nation’. Because whether we like it or not, these ‘others’ are coming to Europe, and while building walls is not the solution, we might be more inclined to think so through that imagined ‘nation’ that football celebrates.

A paradigm shift is needed in the way Europe manages migration. A shift in the way that we understand responsibility, and how important our everyday experience and emotion is to politics. We cannot continue to compartmentalize our daily lives and our political environment or draw clear distinctions between the blurry boundaries of behavior and emotion. As with every vice and virtue, we must find personal and societal balance between the celebration of culture and the darker elements of nationalism, and throughout the World Cup remember to check ourselves and stay conscious throughout the fun.

Ps. 49% of England’s football team are migrants. 65% of Switzerland’s, and 78% of France’s.

Post by Megan Alice Yates. Megan is the Field Coordinator for ECHO for Refugees.

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