By Rana Dajani, Founder and Director of We Love Reading
When the Syrian crisis broke out, it was a continuation of the Arab spring. We were happy excited and proud. Slowly the situation developed into a war and the positive protests slowly turned into devastation. Syrians started to trickle into Jordan. They were friends and family. The border between Jordan and Syria was an artificial line drawn by the colonizers a few decades ago. Families were living on both sides. People shared their homes, food and resources.
As the crisis grew and the numbers, international aid agencies and donors started sending in money, people and resources. These efforts came with something else. They gave a name to the Syrian people family and friends in Jordan. They called them refugees.
Suddenly these individuals went from being familiar and part of your family to, aliens, the other, a threat - just by using a different word to describe them. This struck me so hard and it made me reflect how human perception and therefore behavior can be changed by one word.
The other repercussions to using the word refugee in addition to considering them a burden by society, is that they themselves stop seeing themselves as independent, owners of their future but as victims and burdens. Therefore, any interventions in the lives of the so-called refugees must focus on reclaiming the agency and dignity of the refugees – as recommendation four of the Promising Practices in Refugee Education report states adopt user-centred design and empowering approaches. Such a focus is important and essential in the journey of recovery for a refugee. The journey starts from an inner feeling of strength, resilience and wellbeing that sets the mindset of the individual to get out of their predicament.
How can we design such programmes?
We Love Reading is such a programme. If we delve deeper, we can understand the lessons from this programme to draw guidance for setting up other programmes for refugees around the world. The We Love Reading programme uses a grassroots community based model to foster the love of reading among children. It is a simple, accessible, flexible, cost efficient, sustainable programme that has spread to 33 countries and become a social movement. In Jordan alone, the project has trained 2,000 women and opened 1,500 libraries, benefitting more than 50,000 children.
Currently the model is based upon training volunteer adults from the community, who do not have to be highly educated, who read aloud to children in a public space on a routine basis. The volunteer reads books that are age-appropriate, attractive, neutral in regard to content and in local languages.
The programme has created a virtual community through a mobile application allowing learners and trainers to share experiences and exchange knowledge to provide, maintain and improve the sustainability, quality, monitoring and evaluation of the programme.
Sustainability of the model
The model is very simple and flexible. Every volunteer tailors it to fit their community, schedule, culture and needs. This aids in building the ownership of the project and therefore its sustainability- the volunteer reader becomes a partner in the development of the model. The volunteer is incentivized because the parents appreciate how the volunteer has helped their children’s literacy and wellbeing. The volunteer becomes an informal leader in the community. Members of the community also support the volunteer by donating books or donating money to buy books. In this way the model is sustainable and builds ownership in the volunteer reader and members of the community. Buy-in from the community is a very important aspect of successful entrepreneurship.
Sustainability is further built into our model through capacity building at the level of the local individual. The volunteers who receive training are required to “pay it forward”, by sharing their newly acquired knowledge and training another volunteer to become a volunteer reader and community leader. This creates a domino effect which means that the impact of the program increases logarithmically.
Rather than importing solutions from outside the culture or country, local people should be enabled to develop their own solutions. Such solutions are more effective, and create changemakers and leaders, rather than victims with no identity.
International development actors should change how they support and help refugee-hosting countries. It should allow refugees and host communities to take charge and ask them what they need and how aid can help. A solution in one culture may not necessarily work in another. But more importantly it is essential that the people being helped have agency and ownership, otherwise we propagate the victim attitude and dependency on others.
We Love Reading in Azraq Refugee Camp, Jordan in 2016
Camp officials told us that we would not succeed in the Azraq camp, because they thought refugees would only be concerned with satisfying basic needs such as food, water, and shelter and would not value their children reading. With these concerns in mind, We Love Reading set off to prove that reading is important to everyone, even refugees.
During the training, the volunteers were very excited to start We Love Reading libraries in their caravans and centers. When we asked the volunteers about their experience reading for children, many of them, especially men, said that they started to feel young again and were able to communicate better with the children. One of our volunteers answered that “usually I raise my voice when I feel angry or am singing, so my children are surprised when I raise my voice for a different reason, to read a story for them. The children were very happy.”
Another volunteer told us “We Love Reading will decrease the percentage of children that don’t know how to read or write. Through reading aloud and giving them the stories to take home I will encourage them to love reading”. We visited volunteers, Abu Layth and his wife, one month after receiving their training where their reading session had more than 30 children of different ages attending. They informed us that the number of children attending was growing every day.
Majd, one of the We Love Reading volunteers told us she had told her father, who is at the Syrian border with Turkey, about the programme. He sent a poem in response:
I like that you are a bookworm
So that the bad things will go away
And your thinking will be clear.
The book is the road for people who love life,
Who will be a good friend
And will not leave you or disappear.
Books are the way to achieving glory
That show you the best path.
We Love Readings’ mission
Reading is essential to development of children’s personality, imagination, and cognitive skills. Children must learn to love and enjoy reading to reap its benefits. We Love Reading is achieving impact at scale because it depends on networks of men and women who create a movement to bring about social change through reading. We Love Reading does not require a large support system - it creates capabilities in hundreds of local refugee women and men enabling them to be creative for themselves. Organizations need hierarchies, but movements need causes, shared values and common goals to pull them together and give them a purpose. Reading is the means, but the purpose is to get young children to realize they can and should think for themselves.
Every time we tell the story of We Love Reading we hear different reflections and insights from the audience. Each person is unique in their perspective and thus brings new knowledge and experience to the discussion. We encourage you to share your reflections about this blog to help together create and develop initiatives that truly serve humanity and most importantly to be aware on how we use words and terms as we shape the world around us.