Healing Stories: Worldreader’s Arabic Children’s Collection for Syrian Refugees
By Wendy Smith
What happens when armed conflict robs families of access to books?
What happens when stories disappear, when access to narrators and teachers cease to exist or when libraries are destroyed? What happens when armed conflict robs families of access to books?
We could ask the 121 million children and adolescents worldwide who are currently out of primary and lower secondary school. We could ask the 50 million children out of schools living in conflict-affected countries. Stories—and in particular children’s stories—communicate values, inspire imagination and support critical thinking and learning. They also teach empathy, help process fears and can inspire. A lack of access to books in conflict-affected environments exacerbates the losses provoked by violence or displacement and robs families and children of a critical tool for re-imagining the future.
What if we could change that?
At Worldreader, we believe in a world where everyone can be a reader and this includes countries affected by today’s worst humanitarian crisis. We leverage technology to deliver quality books to parents so as to keep children learning no matter where they are. Read to Kids is a signature early childhood development program first developed and piloted in India with the support of Pearson and Project Literacy between 2015-2017 and is now being contextualized to humanitarian contexts.
In 2017, Worldreader received funding from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation to support the continued access to quality children’s books for Syrian and conflict impacted Jordanian children. Through mobile technology, partnerships with Arabic publishers and a network of organizations on the ground, the project, called Tuta Tuta, aims to deliver 250 high-quality Arabic children’s books to families affected by the Syrian crisis. The program hopes to reach 30,000 Syrian and Jordanian families whether it be in host communities, in refugee camps or on the move with a powerful children’s collection that keeps parents and children reading.
Publishers in the region have agreed to join us. Over the past six months, we have worked with Arabic publishers in the region such as Alhohud, Asala, Dar Al Yasmine, Kalimat and Jabal Amman to digitize Arabic children’s stories for mobile reading to children. These digital stories will help support or ignite a culture of reading at the household level and recognizes that refugee parents are often children’s first teachers.
How can we help parents recreate the tradition of storytelling in their homes?
In Syria, a country of incredible ethnic and religious plurality, the “Al-Hakawati” or storyteller was for generations an individual responsible for telling stories. These stories and the art of public storytelling was for generations a vehicle for transmitting knowledge as well as social and moral values in a highly pluralistic environment. Prior to the war, in addition to storytellers, Syria had one of the highest literacy rates in the Levant region. Today across Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, more than 536,000 Syrian children are out of school. While donor governments, host governments and communities work to prevent a lost generation of Syrian children, parents can be left out of the picture. Our Read to Kids program in Jordan wants to invest in parents by providing them with our collection on any data enabled phone. This is possible because mobile phones are increasingly a lifeline for many refugees. By providing access to a digital children’s library we will help parents recreate the tradition of storytelling in their homes as well support their children’s intellectual and emotional growth in the midst of an often interrupted or fragmented educational journey.
How can books support the emotional and educational needs of refugee children?
It is undeniable that the conflict in Syria is impacting the educational and emotional well-being of Syrian children. UNHCR reports that many Syrian children have undergone adverse experiences that affected their emotional well being. This trauma can manifest itself in the home or classroom and may include a range of behaviors such as difficulties sleeping, sadness, anger or depression. At the same time, it is important to remember children are resilient. Children can also develop an even greater sense of purpose, learn new skills and take pride in how they are navigating their challenges in a refugee environment.
This is why our psychosocial collection of stories will focus on promoting resilience and provide examples of individuals—fictional or real—who have overcome obstacles. While it sounds simple, stories can be a profound source of inspiration, catharsis and healing. Psychosocial work often focuses on family and community strengthening and shared reading is a great tool to help parents, children and caregivers spend more time together and explore their emotions. In Jordan, local and international organizations have developed community-driven, integrated approaches for the provision of “psychosocial” support to children and their families. Often this support takes places in community centers, informal learning spaces or in schools and seeks to address traumas caused by conflict, loss of loved ones, or diminished educational opportunities. Supporting the emotional and educational needs of refugee children is increasingly viewed as an essential part of the humanitarian response—on a level with water, shelter or medical care.
As a digital reading organization, we hope to enable those psychosocial programs to use our curated collection of children’s stories to support children’s emotional recovery and resilience of children. Stories with corresponding lesson plans and parental and teacher training can help children safely navigate their emotions through the adventures of characters in the books.
Partnering with Jordanian schools to get families reading
As part of the Tuta Tuta project, Worldreader is partnering with the Queen Rania Foundation to launch a digital reading campaign aimed at improving access to books and increasing parental engagement in learning in eight schools across Eastern Amman. Learn more about our work in Jordanian schools here.