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We Love Reading in Crisis and Conflict Zones

Sally Beiruti and Rana Dajani

We Love Reading is a Jordanian non-profit organisation focused on fostering the love of reading among children in Jordan and the rest of the world through establishing “a library in every neighbourhood.” On Word Book Day 2019, Founder Rana Dajani alongside Sally Beiruti delve into the many benefits of reading for children experiencing severe adversity due to emergencies and war.

We Love Reading was designed so that it can be implemented in a variety of diverse settings – always taking the culture of the setting into consideration – to encourage children to view reading as a fun and leisurely activity, rather than an academic one. However, the impact of We Love Reading’s mission is especially imperative to the healthy development of children in conflict areas. As discussed in the report released by Save the Children titled Invisible Wounds, studies on the mental wellbeing of Syrian refugee children show unbelievably high levels of distress and trauma as a result of the long-term exposure to toxic stress over the past several years. These levels are even higher for the children within the country’s borders: One in four of these children are now at risk of developing mental health conditions. The children in such crisis zones require the support of their communities to help them cope with the adversity and losses that they are suffering. In addition to efforts by international organisations like USAID to build more resilient educational institutions that will help combat the detrimental effects these living conditions are having on the children’s wellbeing, programmes like We Love Reading are providing children in these zones with support and positivity in a time of distress, as well as an opportunity to engage in much-needed social and emotional learning.

In the education notes released by the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and the World Bank titled Learning and Resilience: The Crucial Role of Social and Emotional Well-being in Context of Adversity, social and emotional learning (SEL) teaches children how to manage their emotions, have empathy for others and show it, make decisions responsibly, set and later achieve positive goals, and build and maintain positive relationships. Research presented in the education notes has shown that social and emotional learning leads to improvements in a myriad of aspects of a child’s life: academic life, relationships with both adults and other children, emotional stability, and mental health. Children living under harsh conditions tend to view learning as one aspect of their life that they can control when almost everything else feels out of their control. The incorporation of SEL into the lives of these children can help strengthen their resilience and build healthy coping mechanisms that allow them to heal more effectively. We Love Reading provides one such method of incorporating SEL into the lives of children in these settings.

Reading aloud to children has been shown to help foster their resilience and improve their wellbeing, while also providing them with a constructive, beneficial activity to fill their free time. Reading can provide them with positive role models who have dealt with adversity in a healthy manner and help them build improved coping mechanisms, as well as make them more empathetic by giving them the opportunity to see the world through another’s eyes, among a plethora of other benefits. Therefore, We Love Reading provides communities with a cost-effective and sustainable opportunity to help their children cope with disaster and develop resilience. In fact, We Love Reading has won multiple awards for contributing to the improvement of the education and wellbeing of refugees – particularly as a result of its implementation in Syrian and South Sudanese refugee camps in Jordan and Ethiopia, respectively.

In the camps, We Love Reading is run by the refugees themselves, giving them an opportunity to become agents of positive change in their own communities and ensuring the sustainability and cultural suitability of the program. Furthermore, because We Love Reading allows the children to take the books home to read with their parents, it creates channels of open communication between the children and their caregivers that are essential to their healthy emotional healing and development. This open communication will also allow the parents to keep an eye on their child’s situation so that they can step in with the right measures if they sense the development of a mental health condition. The books We Love Reading provides focus on themes of empathy, nonviolence, environmental conservation, refugees, gender, and disabilities. These stories present the children with role models who have undergone trauma and healed. By making reading a part of these children’s lives, We Love Reading is working toward fostering the proven benefits of reading in their lives, making them more empathetic, less aggressive, and giving them hope in the midst of bleak times.

Of course, We Love Reading not only improves the mental health and wellbeing of the children of the camps, but it also has a large impact on the lives of the volunteers. This is exemplified by Asmaa’s story: Asmaa, a Syrian refugee living in Zaatari, attended We Love Reading’straining after enduring a painful journey from Syria and suffering the loss of a child. She was attracted to the We Love Reading mission because of her lifelong love of reading and writing, despite being unable to continue her studies. She collected a group of children and started reading to them. Asmaa derived inspiration from seeing the children’s response to her reading sessions. “I was able to inspire more happiness in more children,” Asmaa stated, as her reading group grew as a result of the children bringing their friends with them. Her work with We Love Reading eventually led to her publishing her own stories in a magazine and later getting a job with Save the Children at a library to further inspire children to read. “From this point onwards, my life has been filled with love – from children and families – and respect from community,” Asmaa reflected as she discussed her published stories in magazines. Asmaa also recounts the change she noticed in the children. When they first started attending the sessions, they would only draw images of war: guns, military planes, and tanks. After just a few story readings, however, their imaginations “rebooted”, and they started drawing images of houses and gardens. Asmaa’s is just one story of countless others who have reaped the benefits of We Love Reading training.

In Syrian refugee camps in Jordan, the programme has trained more than 250 ambassadors – 178 of whom went on to establish We Love Reading libraries in the camps. These numbers do not reflect the impact on the lives of the large number of urban refugees – those who are not living in camps. In Ethiopia, We Love Reading was implemented in Kule Refugee Camp, where story-telling sessions reached more than 1,000 children. These sessions help grow the children’s love for reading, while mitigating some of the stress they are living in and providing psychosocial support.

Based on results presented in the Learning and Resilience report, children and youth in crisis situations seem to urgently want to make meaning of the adversity they have lived through and often end up finding purpose in education. Through the de-stressing they get from We Love Reading sessions, the new coping mechanisms they learn, and the broader view of the world they develop, the children living in these adverse conditions can eventually find purpose and understand their situations in a more wholistic way. It lies on the community as a whole to support its children as they learn to make sense of the tragedies they have seen, and reading to them is one of the ways through which members of the community can help make a difference. After all, it takes a village to raise a child.

More information on We Love Reading Model can be read here.

Dr Rana Dajani's new book in time for International Women's Day explores the intersections between gender, race, religion, and science told through the eyes of one of the world’s leading Muslim women scientists. Seeking a paradigm shift in the fight against women’s oppression, Dajani makes the case for radically transforming the social institutions, cultures, and customs of our world to fully validate and support all women. Five Scarves: Doing the Impossible – If We Can Reverse Cell Fate, Why Can’t We Redefine Success? has been highly commended by Nature and Nature Middle East.

Photo credit: Ericsson