April 2020: Thoughts on fear


Since our last post just over a year ago, a lot has changed.

Some of it has been great:

Our team has become bigger and better. We now have around 10 volunteers involved with the project at any one time. We’ve also set up a better team structure with big monthly team meetings and smaller working groups (such as the children’s team). More of our planning and guidance is now consensus-based. More brains + more deliberation = better decisions. 

 We reach more people, by visiting more camps. At the start of 2019 we were running sessions at 2 camps and 3 community centres. We now reach 7 camps and 4 community centres. New spots include Korinthos and Elefsina camps, and a women’s shelter. 

Our work has been recognised by awards and media publications. We presented our paper on “Multicultural Libraries in a Bordered World” at the world conference of The International Federation of Library Associations in September; we also received the federation’s award “In Recognition of Good Multicultural Practice”. We were also nominated for the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, an honour usually reserved for authors. The Guardian, El Pais, The National Herald, and the Verso Books blog have recently featured pieces featuring the library.  


On the other hand, some of it has been less than rosy:

Most of the abandoned buildings transformed into housing by self-organised communities were evicted after the right-wing government resumed power in Greece last summer, including 5th School, where we used to run library sessions. 

Conditions for asylum seekers in Greece have continued to deteriorate. The government also acted to restrict access to healthcare. Conditions on the Aegean islands have worsened as the hot-spot system reaches its logical, disastrous conclusion. And the bad living conditions and isolation of the mainland camps provide little respite to those deemed ‘vulnerable’ enough to transfer. 

Our library van has continued to break down. Repeated breakdowns have lost us mounting numbers of days, whilst changing restrictions on vehicles allowed on Athenian roads have led us to be concerned for the van’s future viability. 

We’ve written up a 2020 strategy document that tracks some of these changes in greater detail if you’re into that sort of thing; although of course, since we wrote it there have been some changes due to the outbreak of Covid-19.


We won’t lie – things have been scary. We wrote at the beginning of the crisis and we write again here: we fear for our friends in the camps right now.

 Anne Boyer has said, “fear is a vital and necessary part of love [and] is right now particularly justified, because we have a pernicious virus that travels inside the healthy to sicken and kill the already fragile, and therefore requires that the healthy and strong deepen their moral commitments for the benefit of the sick and weak”.

 The camps have always been dangerous places to live. Today, while a lot of us are learning for the first time what it is like to live isolated from the world we also look to our friends in camps which have always been isolated from the world and simultaneously internally overcrowded. They have always been bad for residents’ mental and physical health; they are breeding grounds for chronic loneliness, but also for diseases to quickly spread. They teem with life, but are paralyzingly dull places to live; there are too few activities, it’s difficult to obtain or sustain any job and therefore sense of purpose; it is almost impossible to build communities in them, or to politically organise.

 Now, this pernicious virus is set to light the fuse. While we self-isolate in our homes, the people in the camps who are so deeply cut off from the world already are unable to protect themselves from the virus and follow the government’s rules on self-isolation. Alarm Phone warns us that conditions in camps, along with lack of access to medical care, make a deadly outbreak almost impossible to contain. People must be evacuated immediately and given safe housing and asylum – in Greece or elsewhere. However, the government is doing the opposite; it is pouring more people in. On Saturday, for example, 50 people were evicted from an informal housing project in Athens and moved to camps and prisons.

 We must shout as loudly as we can and demonstrate with all that we do that the deaths of the elderly, the sick, the imprisoned, the migrants and the refugees do matter. The lives of the vulnerable matter. Everyone should have the right and ability to protect themselves, their families and others from danger.

 These things have always been true, but this virus has made the less visible starkly clear  Governments all around the world are ordering people to self-isolate to protect ‘all’ people. And yet, refugees already living in dire situations are locked in at close conditions with little healthcare. The ways in which refugees are being treated during this pandemic demonstrates what the powerful in our societies try to hide. When the smoke clears, we must use this to fight for a better world.

By Keira Dignan

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