Monday, 1 December 2014

Six months in, setbacks and steps forward in Lebanon

Six months in, setbacks and steps forward in Lebanon

We were really proud to launch the e-book of The Giant Watermelon on this weekend. The Kitabna Project was donated software by 3D Issue to put together this e-publication so people outside of Lebanon can support our project and read our book from afar. The e-book costs just £4 and has had rave reviews so far! Please follow this link to check it out: The Giant Watermelon e-book.

So there is now a bilingual Arabic-English book called The Giant Watermelon in the hands and homes of Syrian and Palestinian refugees who do not have access to formal education in Lebanon. It is also available to buy online and on the shelves of Librairie Antoine across the country. All proceeds support the printing and distribution costs of our books. It’s my first book in print, a simple, fun story set in a refugee camp about a magical watermelon. I never would have expected my first book to be translated into Arabic (and soon German and French!), but I am really proud of what this book represents and the people who have helped it come together. We know one book cannot solve the education crisis facing displaced Syrians and Palestinians, or end the ongoing civil violence in Syria and Israel-Palestine, but we have seen how it can give hope and something to smile about this winter. We are also developing educational activities around the book to make it a tool to facilitate language learning. Kitabna, in Arabic, means “our book”; it’s our book for those who have lost so much, a book that is theirs to call their own, a book that says even if you do not have the “right” to an education somewhere, you have the right to books, especially books that tell your story.

This whole project has been an amazing learning curve. I have had an unexpected introduction into the world of refugee response, the world of web design, social networking and developing online content. I have learnt how helpful people can be - and want to be - when someone says: 'I have an idea...'. I have learnt how to build and maintain a website and how to manage domains. This week I received basic security training from NGO War Child at their HQ in Beirut before we set off to their centers for refugees in the Tripoli-northern Lebanon areas.

I have learnt how to make the most of one story by organising the translations into French and German of The Giant Watermelon, and a recording session in a studio in Beirut to make English, Arabic, French and German audio accompaniments for our e-books. This way people can use the book to learn the correct intonations when they are practicing languages orally. We hope to promote this e-book in centers for resettled refugees in Europe.

Our second book, Esraa's Stories, is in the process of being submitted to the printers...

Our ground distribution continues with NGO Al Jana's mobile library for refugees throughout Lebanon,  and NGO's War Child, Najdeh Association, Concern and International Rescue Committee. The book has also been read by independent teachers and centers working with refugees in eastern Turkey. Here is Iman and her students in Narlja, Turkey, and a map of where the book has been read so far in the Middle East.

We have arranged our first European meeting event in major Syrian refugee resettlement country, Germany, on Friday 12th December in “Club der polnischen Versager”, a cosy bar in central Berlin. Robert and I have the place from 4pm – 8pm, and will be there with The Giant Watermelon, Esraa’s Stories, slides, cards, a presentation, the German e-book, and coffee for all. If you know anyone in Berlin who might be interested to join us, please forward these details onto them, or invite them to “Like” our Facebook page for updates. Ahlain wa sahalan & wilkommen!

But amidst these steps forward there have been many setbacks. For example, coming up against unhelpful prejudice in both refugee camps and local towns. The Lebanese landlord of one of the camps we read with in the Beqaa Valley threatened the children with violence and struck one of our students with his belt. A nearby owner of a creche, a perfect space for an hour's reading session, within walking distance of six camps, refused to allow us to hire her space because she perceived the children to be "dirty". The camp I first visited in the Beqaa, that inspired the earlier post, Documenting displacement: visiting the refugee camps of the Beqaa Valley and The Giant Watermelon, has now been disbanded by the army and moved to nearby Barelias. The empty shell of the camp looked as sad as I know the children will have felt to leave their vegetable patch and their homes behind. Displacement gets uglier and sadder the longer we spend time with those who experience it, which only makes us more determined to pursue the goal of Kitabna: to provide something positive, hopeful, and helpful in this time of constant change and upheaval.

Thanks for reading, here we were doing some reading in Shatila, Beirut, last week...


  1. So so so so so so proud of you, Helen! And another book! AHHHHHH!!

    Shell xxxxxx

  2. Thank you for sharing this exciting journey with us Helen

    Love always, Helen Y