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Librarian's Journey Raises Money for Refugee Library
Posted On September 19, 2017

To donate to Cloudesley’s campaign, click here.

Touched by the plight of refugees stranded in Greece, Simon Cloudesley, Bodleian Libraries’ assistant for reader services, decided to do something to help meet their educational needs. He put on his walking shoes and strode 114 miles from the Bodleian in Oxford, England, to the British Library in central London to raise thousands of pounds for a mobile library in Athens that caters to refugees.

Leaving BodA Spark of Interest

Cloudesley, 35, says the idea for the walk took hold during a week he spent in Greece at the end of April volunteering with a refugee charity, where he discovered the ECHO Refugee Library. It is run by Laura Samira Naude and Esther ten Zijthoff, who both studied at King’s College London.

Cloudesley’s experience in Greece made him want to raise awareness “of the intellectual needs of refugees, many of whom were forced to leave their school/university studies and professions behind,” he says. He briefly visited ECHO while in Greece. “They provide a book lending service, language classes, and help with skills and online training while refugees wait for many months for relocation,” he says. “I came away wanting to help raise money and to raise the profile of what they are doing.” ECHO was established in August 2016 at a migrant camp in northern Greece and then in November 2016 was relaunched as a mobile library to serve multiple camps near Thessaloniki. The library moved to Athens in May 2017.

“The idea of doing a walk was to show solidarity with the tough journeys that refugees make (often on foot) to find a better life,” Cloudesley says. “As this is about providing books and education opportunities for refugees, the idea of walking from the Bodleian to the British Library, two world-class institutions, seemed appropriate and symbolic. And I also found the contrast between these two libraries and the ECHO Refugee Library striking and thought-provoking.” (Learn more from The Guardian’s coverage of ECHO on Aug. 6 and Cloudesley’s essay for CILIP on Aug. 18.)

Walking the Walk

Cloudesley’s adventure started at 10 a.m. on Aug. 26 from the steps of the Bodleian’s main building (see photo). He was accompanied to the edge of Oxford by library colleagues. The 114 miles he walked followed the River Thames as closely as possible (see the map of the first day’s journey—Oxford is 60 miles or so from London if you take a more direct route.) He arrived at the British Library at around 6 p.m. on Aug. 31, where he was met by his family. Given that this is England, the weather gods were surprisingly kind—it rained only on the fifth and final day.

“The high point was doing a couple of interviews along the way for local radio,” he says. “I have never been on the radio before so it was a great experience. They also interviewed the ECHO team in Greece as well, so I was pleased that they got the opportunity to talk about the project.”

Day 1 Map

The low point was halfway through the fourth day, at about the 80-mile mark. “I really did hit the wall and the fatigue set in. Up until that point I was doing surprisingly well, with my body recovering nicely each night. However, I dragged myself to the end [of the route for the day] … and after a good night’s rest I was okay for the final trek into London.”

Refugee Life

Cloudesley says that ECHO mainly needs money. The library’s maintenance costs about £1,000 (about $1,300) a month “and is funded solely by donations at the moment. The volunteers who operate the project live off personal funds.” If they get “a specific request, they will do their best to meet [it], even if it takes time. But time is something refugees have a lot of.” Book donations are welcome, “but it would have to be exactly what is needed at a particular time. They don’t have the capacity to store lots of stock which they may never use.”

He continues, “The project is vital because it provides mental, emotional, and intellectual stimulation to people living in crisis. The whole project grew out of a recognition that once people have shelter and food and clothing, they still need to live some sort of life beyond mere day-to-day survival. Books and education have a powerful ability to help provide some kind of escape from difficult circumstances, and to provide mental wellbeing and hope for the future. It is often overlooked that many refugees have left behind careers and education, hobbies and interests, and they desperately want some kind of continuity.”

More Than Money

Cloudesley had raised nearly £2,000 (about $2,600) when he completed the walk. Since then, that amount has risen to more than £2,400 (nearly $3,200). He hopes to reach at least £2,500 (about $3,300). As for the future, Cloudesley, who has a B.A. and an M.A. in ancient history from the University of Reading, plans to further his library career by beginning an M.A. in library and information studies program at UCL (University College London) this month.

He will continue his support for the refugee library and wants to come up with other fundraising projects. “I do have some other ideas to raise money, promote, and to get volunteers to help run and possibly expand the project in Greece. But they are just ideas at the moment,” he says.

ECHO co-founder Naude says that if Cloudesley meets his goal, the money he raises will keep ECHO running for a little more than 2 months. It will go toward fulfilling book requests, acquiring language-learning resources, providing Wi-Fi, and keeping the library on the road.

She adds that the team is honored that Cloudesley “undertook this massive challenge on behalf of ECHO. This act of solidarity has raised so much more than money—it has thrown a spotlight on the inhumanity of the situation for the 62,000 asylum-seekers stranded in Greece.”

Images courtesy of Simon Cloudesley

To donate to Cloudesley’s campaign, click here.

John Charlton writes about technology, law, and education for several publications.

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