Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Finding readers in Syria's lost generation

* OUR WEBSITE IS NOW ONLINE: www.kitabna.org

Finding readers in Syria's lost generation

Once we had a country and we thought it fair,
Look in the atlas and you'll find it there:
We cannot go there now, my dear, we cannot go there now.
Refugee Blues, W H Auden 

I rediscovered these lines of poetry for the first time in years at the launch of Carol Mansour's documentary, We Cannot Go There Now, My Dear, in Beirut last week. Auden wrote the poem in 1939 when those persecuted in Nazi Germany sought refuge and asylum in wider Europe. In 2014, Mansour's documentary follows the lives of first generation Palestinian's who fled their homes in Palestine in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. They were resettled in Syria, given jobs, rights, and education for generations to follow, only to be made refugees once more in 2011, when the current Syrian conflict touched their camps. They came to Lebanon as refugees once more. Mansour's documentary asked the question I have been asking since I arrived in Beirut earlier this year:

what does it mean to be a refugee? 

According to the Geneva Convention of 1951 on the Status of Refugees, a refugee is a person who has fled her or his country because she or he feared persecution due to their ethnicity, religion, political opinion or membership of a targeted social group. This person has crossed an international border to seek asylum in a country other than her or his own. When the asylum country is party to the Geneva Convention, that person is recognized as a refugee and is therefore under the protection of the host country and accorded refugee rights (cf. Article 12 to 34 of the Geneva Convention). Lebanon, however, is not a signatory of the Geneva Convention of 1951, and Syrian refugees do not enjoy the rights attached to this status.

So what does it mean to be a refugee without refugee status? UNHCR, the UN agency responsible for enforcing the law relating to refugee status, works with the Lebanese authorities to help the exiled Syrians. It registers Syrian refugees so that they can benefit from the assistance of international organizations. Through these organizations they can receive primary medical care and emergency services and the most vulnerable can benefit from food aid, psychological support, and housing assistance. UNHCR enables those they reach to receive assistance for basic needs, but does not give them any rights. They also only reach a reported three percent of the Syrian refugee population here in Lebanon. Many Syrians arrived in Lebanon without papers and cannot afford the $200 a year it would cost to renew their residency permits. They therefore find themselves in an illegal situation and have no right to work. 

There is of course huge variation among the living situations of Syrians in Lebanon, with some refugees living comfortably, with relatives, or in houses and apartments they can afford to rent here. However, the vast majority live in poverty, settling in camps in the regions bordering Syria, or in overcrowded apartments in Beirut. With a wet and cold winter approaching, basic needs such as warmth and shelter are in acute focus. 
As is to be expected under such circumstances, education is neglected. Education is essential for the development, future, and self-esteem of these children, but school is not free in Lebanon. Thousands of Syrian families cannot even afford the bus fare, let alone the fees, to send their children to schools every day. 

For this reason, these children are described in their hundreds of thousands as Syria's "lost generation", and for this reason, I have started a project here in Lebanon this autumn, writing, illustrating and distributing bilingual Arabic-English children's books for Syrian refugees. The stories are set in the camps and aim to encourage reading and writing skills. They also aim to create joy and pride in the camp environment, which is home for these children and has been for years now.

So far, I think it is going well...

Majd reading The Giant Watermelon with Syrian children from Shatila camp, Beirut

The first book, The Giant Watermelon, was inspired by my first visit to refugee camps on the outskirts of a town called Barelias in the Beqaa Valley, a small settlement close to the border with Syria. I was moved by the tiny details that went into recreating home and comfort in the impoverished camps we saw there. In one camp, some of children asked me 'bitakli basineh?' (do you eat cat?) to make sure it was safe to show me the camp cat, a happy little ginger thing being stroked in the sun by a dozen loving hands. They then showed me the watermelons, two budding green balls that would later inspire a book. You can read about that first visit in my post, Documenting displacement: visiting the refugee camps of the Beqaa Valley. 

So I started to write a simple story, setting something fantastical in the camp that could be read in both Arabic and English. 

Tarik (and something he did not expect to grow in the camp).

From a story to an illustrated proof, the idea grew and was read by children to see how they responded.  

Finally, an Arabic-English bilingual children's book, carefully translated into formal literary Arabic with both Lebanese and Syrian friends, was finished. The first print run of 1500 copies of The Giant Watermelon will be printed with Arab Printing Press this week. I have funded this first print run myself, and with friends here in Lebanon and the UK, have named this project Kitabna, which means "our book" in Arabic. 

Our aim is to distribute these books to any refugee, Syrian, Palestinian, or otherwise, who would like to read them here in Lebanon. Alongside the book, an e-book version is being created, one that can be bought for £4, $6 or LL 10, 000 from our website, www.kitabna.org, also due to be launched this week. This is our way of making the project both financially sustainable and something that people in the wider global community who are concerned about the education of refugees in Lebanon can read and connect with. It is also our way of asking others to share their love of reading with children who love reading too, but cannot afford access to books. All proceeds will go straight into our Kitabna Paypal account towards the printing and distribution of the books. This means that when you buy your e-book or donate to our project, more and more children can open their hard copy of The Giant Watermelon and titles to follow. 

There is also a donation page if you would just like to donate something however big or small towards the project!

Reading The Giant Watermelon in El Marj, Beqaa Valley

My personal vision is to create sustainable learning environments within the home - between parents and their children, brothers and sisters, older children and younger children. So far this has approach been really well-recieved, with mothers getting involved at readings, and teenagers and older children helping the younger ones to read in both Arabic and English.

I would also like to encourage and develop the children's writing skills so that in the near future Kitabna books can be written by the children themselves, and distributed back into their communities. With what I hope will be a successful distribution platform, Kitabna, "our book", can create a breakaway from the stigma of the "lost generation", and truly become a reflection of these children and their stories.

Reading with Syrian children in Shatila camp Community Centre, Beirut

A huge part of the project is about time. Spending time with the children, listening to them read and asking them to think creatively about problems and resolutions. 

It has been interesting so far to gauge the reading ages and responses. We have been developing activities for a variety of age ranges, from playing games to enabling older children to teach the book in Arabic and English. For younger readers, who can enjoy the story being read to them, there is a watermelon game we play afterwards, where we become a human watermelon and talk about growing and helping each other to grow.

And the children are not the only ones practicing their Arabic. The Arabic apprentices in our team are also being put to the test (and corrected!) by our friends in the camps.

Vi and Maria making their way through Page 1 of The Giant Watermelon. 

One of the first readers of The Giant Watermelon here in Lebanon was eighteen year-old, Christelle, who wrote this in response to the story:

"My favorite part is :
‘But who will teach us?’ they asked Tarik.
‘We will teach ourselves,’ he said. 'You will teach and I will teach and everyone will teach.’
In this way, children will know that solidarity is important between individuals in a society. And the fact that he decided to benefit from the giant watermelon (a gift from nature, that can be unique, who knows if his watermelons will grow as big as that watermelon in the future?) for a long period of time. People decided to eat it, or to sell it, all for their own benefit. But Tarik wanted to make of the watermelon something that lasts and not only satisfies his family's, his friends and his needs but other's too."

Independently and through partnerships and collaborations with NGOs and educational organisations at work in the region, I hope to reach children in the major concentrations of refugee settlements in Lebanon. These include the Beqaa Valley, the Tripoli/northern area, informal settlements between Beirut and Tripoli, the southern settlements in the Sidon district, and settlements here in the Beirut area.

But in these increasingly volatile times, perhaps we cannot plan too far ahead. For now, I want to build on our relationships in camps we have visited so far, returning with the printed books we have promised, and reading stories we have asked the children to write for us. 

When the website is up and running you can check out our interactive map, with points and descriptions of where The Giant Watermelon has been read so far, and if you're interested in supporting the project, huge (watermelon!) thanks in advance.

Thanks for reading, and please watch this space for the launch of kitabna.org!

* OUR WEBSITE IS NOW ONLINE: www.kitabna.org 

1 comment:

  1. Kitabna - what a great name.

    This project continues to amaze me every day!