A Path Forward: How Libraries Support Refugee Children

Huda Kutmah doesn’t personally know what it’s like to be a refugee. Her parents left Syria because her father wanted to continue medical school in the U.S., and she’s lived in Louisville, KY, most of her life. But when Kutmah, now a teenager, heard about Syrian refugees coming to this country, she wanted to help.

Huda Kutmah

Huda Kutmah

She’s involved in gathering donations for the families, helps them adjust to their new surroundings, and gives ongoing support to the newcomers after the services provided by the local resettlement organization end. A lifelong library patron, Kutmah helped out at a Syrian Showcase at the Louisville Free Public Library’s (LFPL) Iroquois branch, and served as a library ambassador when students visited from New York City. She and other teens also volunteer at cultural events and “conversation clubs” to help the refugees learn English.

“We are like their family,” says the college freshman, who is attending the University of Cincinnati. “We are the ones that stay with them longer than three to six months.”

Across the country, libraries are helping refugees stay in touch with their own culture while also supporting them as they find their way into U.S. society. Whether they provide books in their native language or offer free activities, libraries are making refugee children feel welcome and giving them opportunities for positive involvement.

“Most of them are living in really rough neighborhoods and searching for ‘what is my new identity?’” says Sophie Maier, the immigration services librarian at LFPL. Parents, Maier says, often expect their children to be a bridge to their new community, but at the same time don’t want them to “take on the attributes” of American culture. She brought together a cadre of teen volunteers who are refugees and immigrants, giving them a chance to learn leadership skills. Maier is also thoughtful about informally pairing certain teens with others who are going to talk about preparing for college—what she calls “secret mentoring.”

While Maier has had success building up a variety of programs for these teens, such as guitar and chess classes, she says that it’s a challenge to find books for children in less common languages such as Karen, spoken in areas of Burma. When she does, sometimes other library staff members question why she’s buying them.

“It’s such a learning curve for everyone,” she says.

AN IMPORTANT RESOURCE

Not all library services for refugee children are taking place in the library. Some library systems, for example, have increased their services to refugee children in local schools.

When the Salt Lake City Public Library (SLCPL) began an outreach storytime program in pre-K classes about six years ago, Liesl Jacobson, the library’s early literacy and children’s services manager, immediately noticed that some children were not able to communicate with her and didn’t seem comfortable sharing space and materials with their classmates. She now tries to always use puppets or pass out some type of manipulative to help the children relate to the story.

Jacobson works with a team of at least 12 staff members who visit roughly 85 classrooms a month in 18 Title I schools. They also visit Head Start classrooms held in YWCA sites as well as therapeutic preschool programs. Twice a year, they hold early literacy workshops for families, some of whom don’t know the written form of their native language.

“That helped me re-think the way I’ve put some of my programs together,” Jacobson says, adding that she learned to drop “the assumption that everybody has the same skill set.” She also worked with Utah Kids Ready To Read, an early literacy initiative of the Utah State Library, to translate bookmarks with early literacy tips into Spanish, Somali, French, and Mandarin.

When refugee families visit the library, Jacobson says, it’s often because the children have developed relationships with the librarians who are visiting their classrooms. The library “can really be an important resource as they adjust to life,” she adds. “It makes you feel like your whole job is so meaningful.”

Sisters of Somali Bantu descent at the Louisville Free Public Library.  Photo by Jonathan Robert Willis

Sisters of Somali Bantu descent at the
Louisville Free Public Library.

Photo by Jonathan Robert Willis

REACHING CHILDREN

Many refugee children arrive in the U.S. without their parents. That’s why library systems in California and Texas are working with REFORMA, the national organization that promotes library services to Latinos and Spanish-speaking people, to collect donations of Spanish or bilingual books for children and teens. These are distributed in detention centers, shelters, and other dorm-like facilities for refugee children who have crossed the U.S.–Mexico border, mostly from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.

The Children in Crisis initiative was proposed by REFORMA members at the 2015 meeting of the American Library Association and also received support from the International Board on Books for Young People with a $10,000 grant. Working with U.S. Customs and Border Protection and social service agencies, Children in Crisis volunteers have delivered books and blankets, donated book carts, and signed up children for library cards. While the members originally intended to gather donations of backpacks as well, those plans were turned down by officials because of concerns that certain colors of backpacks would be associated with specific gangs.

So far, five of the 20 REFORMA chapters in the country have been involved in the effort, according to Patrick Sullivan, an emeritus librarian with San Diego State University and one of the co-chairs of the project. He adds that they are also hoping to expand the work to Arizona and Florida.

Volunteers connected with the Orange County, CA, REFORMA chapter, for example, visit one of the facilities serving as temporary home for youth who are waiting to be processed—when their case is heard, and they are either placed with a family member or someone in the U.S. or sent back to their home country. Children receive requests for books on sports, joke books, chapter books, and sometimes Bibles.

“Our meetings have been over two hours each, [and we see] more than 80 youth who are extremely happy to receive free books and learn about what libraries can offer,” David Lopez, a librarian at the Santa Ana Public Library, says, adding that it’s a challenge to gather enough volunteers to make the trips. “One person could definitely do the book drop off, but what these kids need more than anything is human connection.”

He advises librarians interested in doing this work to partner with other organizations in order to make it a “collective effort,” and to remember that many of the children have been through traumatic experiences.

“Do not be thrown off by their reactions or their inability to communicate with you,” he says. “They are healing and still trying to find their place in this new world full of strangers. If nothing else, a smile goes a long way.”

While most of the donated books—roughly 300 to each facility—remain in the centers, sometimes children grow attached to a book and want to take it with them, Sullivan says. The library branches also sometimes receive donations so children can find the same selections there as they find in their temporary homes.

Sullivan says that after turning donations over to Border Protection officials, it has been a “pleasant surprise” for the volunteers to make contact with the educators who are working in the facilities for the refugee children. “You could feel a real sense of concern for the kids,” he says, adding that the teachers are more specific about the types of books the students request, such as biographies.

DEVELOPING ‘REGULAR USERS’

In addition to Syrian refugees, the Louisville area is a place where children and families who have left Somalia, Sudan, north Africa, Burma, and many other regions resettle. “They hear there is not as much snow [here] as in Minnesota,” jokes Maier. She makes regular visits to two large resettlement agencies in the area, and frequents churches, mosques, grocery stores, flea markets, and other spots in the community to inform newcomers of the services available at the library.

Maier also works with schools to attend parent events. “You meet them and keep following them through the life cycle,” she says. That’s why some of the children who arrived as refugees are now volunteering to support other newcomers.

Narjis Alsaadi, who left Iraq with her parents and two brothers a few years ago, was searching for a book at the LFPL Iroquois branch when Maier recruited her to volunteer to help newer refugees learn English and support other programs at the library.

“I really like this experience,” says Alsaadi, adding that she works in the library at least once a week and more frequently during the summer. “I’m kind of shy in the beginning. But I really enjoy when you try to teach someone or make someone understand.”

Alsaadi says she has also gained opportunities that she wouldn’t have had in her own country, such as when college students visited the library during the summer and helped her learn how to apply to college and for college scholarships.

“My dad brought us here to have a good education and to have a safe place,” says Alsaadi, now a junior at Iroquois High School. “I don’t think we’re going to go back.”

Children’s librarian Lindsay Jensen (left) at the Nashville Public Library,  which has a strong children’s world language collection. Photo courtesy of Nashville Public Library Foundation

Children’s librarian Lindsay Jensen (left) at the Nashville Public Library,
which has a strong children’s world language collection.
Photo courtesy of Nashville Public Library Foundation

BRINGING IN FAMILIES

Some library systems serve refugee children by targeting their programs toward parents or entire families. As part of its Bringing Books to Life program, the Nashville Public Library (NPL), for example, has worked with the English language learner department in the local school district to organize family literacy celebrations for elementary school families who live close to a library and serve students with low literacy levels. Using the library’s mobile puppet truck, the staff held a Saturday morning event, working with interpreters from the school district. Then the families were invited to gatherings in the library where they could participate in craft activities and learn more about registering for preschool. The Nashville area has the largest Kurdish community in the U.S., as well as a large Sudanese population.

“Some of those families become regular users,” says Megan Godbey, the adult literacy coordinator for NPL.

Some of them also become citizens. NPL is one of only three library systems in the country—along with those in Chicago and Los Angeles—to have a formal agreement with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to create “citizenship corners” in its branches, where parents can pick up information and forms to apply for citizenship. Five of the Nashville system’s 21 branches work with community partners to offer more extensive services, including English as a second language, citizenship and technology classes and a Spanish-English bilingual storytime. Staff members at one branch also hope to add an Arabic storytime.

Godbey’s department has collaborated with ESL to Go, a project of the Tennessee Foreign Language Institute, to provide services to parents who attend classes in the back of a truck that has been converted into a classroom. Her team, for example, has taught digital literacy skills to refugee parents so they can access their children’s grades online.

While the family literacy events held in 2014 were supported by a grant, Godbey says the work is continuing when funding is available. “My dream is to train volunteers or people who get tiny stipends to go out and do these events and outreach on a larger scale,” she says. “There are never going to be enough bodies or money, so we need to build capacity in some other way.”

This article was published in School Library Journal‘s November 2016 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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