Now you can – and from the comfort of your own home!
Join us at Hay Festival Digital on Monday 25th May at 2:30pm in a free LIVE and interactive event with BBC World Affairs Editor John Simpson, artist and author Edmund de Waal, historian and broadcaster Bettany Hughes and our very own Chair Lord Paul Boateng discussing what it means when libraries and books become targets during conflict and how it impacts individuals and communities:
As places where human knowledge, thought and experience are held, libraries are often vulnerable during times of conflict. Like places of education, they are frequently targeted in an attack on collective knowledge and freedom of thought, as was the case when IS destroyed the Iraqi University of Mosul’s library in 2015. Together the panel will look at the impact of these losses and what we can all do to protect books, literacy and learning where they are under threat.
It was a fascinating event. We’ve gathered together below some of the thoughts and insights shared.
Anyone can be a refugee, even Kim Kardashian
Onjali: “Do you remember the California fires a few months ago? Kim Kardashian’s house was under threat. If your house is on fire, you have nowhere to go, you are running for your life, then you are a refugee. It can be Kim Kardashian or it can be a boy from Syria. You cannot judge the two as different.
The people I meet in the camps are doctors, surgeons, teachers and business people who have had to forsake everything, they can’t go back. The first time I visited the camps in Calais and Dunkirk I was absolutely shocked at the number of babies, children, toddlers and women because we don’t see that in any of our coverage.”
Refugees don’t just want books to help them learn English – they want to read about dragons and magic too
Emma: “People in camps in Europe want books to learn English but equally they want books about dragons, stories about hope, stories about moving and transition and magic. Refugees are living lives as diverse as the people in this room and their needs reflect that diversity. [When I was visiting camps in Greece] I spoke to a mother from Afghanistan. She borrowed See Spot Run for her young son and was urging me to send more cookbooks. She cooked a lot in Afghanistan and she really missed cooking. So books can help her son to learn to read. But also enrich the life of the mum so she can take the ingredients she finds in Greece and figure out how to cook something that reminds her of home – or something completely new.”
Refugees are not a new phenomenon
Onjali: “Refugees are nothing new. Many people have grandparents who are refugees themselves or are the children of holocaust survivors. The difference is that conversations about people’s journeys weren’t being had twenty years ago. We have refugee authors and refugee characters littered throughout our children’s literature. Whether it is Judith Kerr and When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, or Paddington Bear.
There is some great work going in in communities across the UK in support of refugees
Sita: “Behind the blue door of a building in Islington, London, there are people from about 40 countries in the world who are eating in the family room and talking, communicating across languages, across cultures. This is the Islington Centre for Refugees and Migrants and it’s a place where they can find some sense of community. In that room where people are eating and drinking comes language teaching provision, comes advice on how to go to the doctor, how to look for housing. The centre tries to replicate what a family does when a family member gets into difficulties – you come together and you help. That’s the feeling at the Islington centre but it’s not just the staff and volunteers – it’s the other refugees too.
In the stories I write I look at how a person goes from arriving in a new place to feeling a sense of home there. Places like the Islington centre are just the start. There are centres like this all over the country.”
Books give displaced people hope and a window on the world
Emma: “Some books we send to refugee camps are about displaced people and actually those aren’t always the ones people pick out. They choose stories about people who overcome things. Most refugees will stay in the camp for a long time and books offer a window into the world, a bit of richness to what is otherwise a very grey world. They need respite from the tedium and challenges of camp life, they need a place to feel human again. And that’s what books offer.”
Books are a great way for young people in the UK to learn about issues facing the world today
Onjali: “The young people in the audience today shows that they want to understand what the issues [around the refugee crisis] are. Many of them will have solutions that the grown-ups would not have come up with. This is a curiosity that we should encourage.”
Emma: “The power of literature is that it humanises the experience. It reminds you that in a lot of ways, that the refugee story is a very human experience. We all know what it is to be lonely or to go into a room full of people you don’t know. The refugee experience is that times a thousand. I think that is the real power of the books that writers like Sita and Onjali write, they help to bring out that experience.”
Sita: “I think that’s why I chose to set my new book in a mythological European landscape, because I think the temptation is to think that this happens in far-away countries and is not happening here. I think that it’s really important to bring it to the reader’s doorstep. It doesn’t allow you to stand outside of it.”
Kids do amazing things when they read!
Onjali: “A school in Darlington [that had read The Boy at the Back of the Class] decided to set up a Just Giving page to raise £500 to buy every primary school in Malvern a copy of the book!”
Sita: “I was doing an empathy cafe in Sheffield and these two girls had this long long hair. The next time I went back to the empathy café, they had these really short little bobs and the mum was like “you got them to do that!” We’d been talking about empathy and afterwards I think they watched a programme about cancer and they realised children can’t have adult’s hair; they have to have children’s hair. So they decided what they could give is their hair.”
There are lots of great books for children and young people about refugees’ experiences
Top books to read are:
Onjali and Sita particularly recommend Illegal, Red Leaves, The Day the War Came, Don’t Call me Refugee, Welcome to Nowhere, The Arrival, Dreams of Freedom and A Story Like the Wind. Why not them all a try?
In November of last year, a small village in the rural Dowa district in Malawi opened its first library and many people saw new books for the very first time. Our Head of Communications, Emma Taylor, was there and in this blog she reflects on the experience and our excitement to be part of the next step in a journey toward reading and learning which began in 2002 with one simple article in the Guardian.
In 2002, Malawi was gripped by famine. Like many villages across the country, the rural community of Gumbi in the Dowa district found itself with little food. That year, journalist John Vidal travelled to the country to report on the famine. He was inspired by the community’s determination to build a future free of hunger through education and wrote about his experiences in the Guardian.
Here in the UK, Guardian readers responded to the article in response to John Vidal’s article and the Gumbi Education Fund was born.
Today, much of Malawi remains desperately poor and food insecurity continues to be a challenge. Across the country adult literacy stands at just shy of 66% and the country ranks 170 out of 183 countries in the Human Development index. Yet, in Gumbi and the surrounding villages there is huge hope for the future. Thanks to the Gumbi Education Fund, the area has schools, teachers, university students and thanks to a partnership between our charity and the Gumbi Education Fund, school and community libraries stocked with brand new books.
Last year, I travelled with John Vidal to witness the opening of one of the libraries the Gumbi Education Fund built in the neighbouring village of Mphako and see how the brand new books we provide are helping people change their own lives for the better.
Mphako and Gumbi are located several hours from the country’s capital, Lilongwe. For most of our journey there, we bumped along unpaved roads. The vast majority of buildings in Mphako and Gumbi were built from mud bricks with thatched roofs and the electricity poles had ended miles ago at Lilongwe’s city limits.
Schools around Gumbi and Mphako are very poorly resourced and the vast majority of families can barely afford to feed their families, so purchasing books is simply not possible. As a result, most of the people in the area would only ever have held a textbook or newspaper before. On arrival in Mphako, it was clear that the prospect of the library opening was causing huge excitement.
The village elders had been gathered, traditional drummers and dancers had been summoned and dozens of children were gathered waiting curiously to see what might be in the new library for them. Before the library’s ribbon was cut, we were treated to traditional dances and singing with a real carnival atmosphere!
While I have visited several locations where we provide books, this was my first time seeing a community experience books for the first time – and their response was truly inspiring. Despite a burst of rain, children poured into the library as soon as it was opened, much to the alarm of the volunteer librarians who struggled to keep order and stop them walking mud into the freshly cleaned space!
But it simply wasn’t possible to contain the children’s excitement and in the end we all simply let them pull all the books out. They explored them together, scrambling over one another for the chance read about the adventures of Peppa Pig, look at pictures of helicopters and read aloud about astronauts and tractors. The wonder on their faces as they saw children’s books for the first time was incredible and was an experience that I will not soon forget.
Mphako with its dances, packed library and singing is a powerful reminder that books are a cause for celebration. Many of us live in a book rich world, accustomed to instant access to the vital information, beautiful illustration and interesting photography which ignited such excitement in Mphako. Their enthusiasm reminds us not to take that access for granted – and that the power of books to open doors, enrich lives and help ambitious communities build a more prosperous truly is something to celebrate.
We would like to congratulate the Gumbi Fund on their fantastic success building libraries, supporting education and changing lives in Malawi. We hope to support the fund’s work creating more libraries in the future – and even join in a few more celebrations!
To find out more about how books are changing lives in Malawi, join us at Hay Festival on 26th May where we’ll be appearing alongside John Vidal, Gumbi Fund Administrator in Malawi, Patrick Kamzitu and author Bettany Hughes.
Head of Communications, Emma Taylor will be joined by the former Guardian Environment Editor John Vidal, historian and broadcaster Bettany Hughes and Patrick Kamzitu from Malawi. Together they will chart the inspiring true story of how a small rural village in Malawi has, over the past 16 years, set itself on a path out of vulnerability to drought and famine using books and education.
The village of Gumbi first came to the attention of the British public when John Vidal wrote a piece about the Malawian famine of 2002. He was so moved by the plight of this village that literally had nothing that he ended up visiting four times in the space of a year. As the months went by, help arrived, the rains came, the village rallied – and villagers decided to pursue a new way of taking on the future: education.
“The Gumbi Education Fund was set up as a result of readers’ response to the article,” says John Vidal. “And today, thanks to Gumbi Education Fund and Book Aid International supporters and others, Gumbi has a small library, three villagers are qualified teachers and three more are going to university. Three other villages have also had books from Book Aid International and the future is now immensely brighter. I have seen the difference that books and education make to a community. They can make the difference between a life of toil and penury, and the chance of a better life. I can’t wait to share with the audience at Hay the incredible difference people like them are making by supporting communities like Gumbi.”
“Book Aid International is so proud to partner with The Gumbi Fund in filling their libraries and local schools with brand new books. I have visited Gumbi and was there when the books for their libraries arrived. The celebration was incredible! I hope you’ll join us at Hay to find out more” says Emma Taylor, Head of Communications at Book Aid International.