Just a couple months ago, Kristín Rós Kristjánsdóttir was an actor working at a theatre in London. Today, she’s getting ready to return to a refugee camp in northern Greece, where she will be building a library for people who have fled the civil war in Syria.
A change of direction
Kristín first went to Greece earlier this year, where she joined Þórunn Ólafsdóttir and other volunteers from Akkeri, an Icelandic NGO, at the Idomeni camp near the Macedonian border. Soon after her arrival, Kristín says the Idomeni camp was evacuated by Greek authorities, and the refugees were moved to smaller military-run camps.
“The circumstances in that camp were, to say the least, absolutely disgusting,” Kristín says. “The army had come in the day before and put up army tents in this derelict factory building. There was no water, no electricity, no toilets. Nothing had been cleaned, and there was dust, scrap metal and broken glass everywhere.”
Within a week of returning to London, Kristín says she quit her job at the theatre and decided to dedicate herself to volunteering in the refugee camp. When she returned to Greece last month, she says the team from Akkeri was the only NGO operating in the camp. “We did a little bit of everything. We distributed food, distributed clothes, pampers, baby food, water boilers, whatever was most needed at that time,” she says. “So we got to know a lot of these refugees really, really well.”
The power of books
Kristín says she quickly realized there was a need for good quality reading materials. “A lot of their days just go around sitting, waiting, hoping and thinking about what might or might not happen next,” she says about the realities of life in the camp. “By getting books they’d both be getting an education, but also something that they can pick up and immerse themselves in and hopefully take them away from the situation.”
This initiative, which Kristín calls “Books 4 Refugees,” is partly inspired by her childhood love of reading. Most days after school, Kristín says she would finish her homework as quickly as possible so she could crack open the next book. “I really enjoyed the feeling of being somewhere else, of experiencing different places, and being someone else,” she says. Now she hopes to share that feeling with the refugees in the camps in Greece, who are mainly Kurdish Syrians.
A path to education
Providing refugees with books is also important so they can learn English, says Kristín. “There are various levels of English in the camp, but it’s the people who speak English who get things done and who are more active in the community,” she says. “The ones who don’t speak English tend to have less things to do, which encourages depression.”
Although many volunteer organizations are focused solely on providing refugees with books in English, Kristín says she is also trying to provide books in Arabic. “As vital as it is to study about the culture and the language where they are going, they also have their own culture,” she says. “There are children who who will now grow up in another culture, but I think they should still have access to what makes them them.”
Kristín has set up a crowdfunding website to raise money for her project. As of the time of writing, she had raised over half of her £1,000 goal. She has also been receiving donations from book publishers, and will be returning to the refugee camp in Greece with about 200 books for the library, with over 100 more books on their way.