April 10, 2017

Refugees must also leave their libraries behind


I’m writing this today in the shadow of fifty-nine cruise missiles launched by my country against Syria in the aftermath of a chemical weapons attack. All of this horror takes place in the shadow of authoritarianism, religious suppression, religious oppression, breathtaking poverty, geopolitical oil-grabbing, and countless other manifestations of the violence that humanity can’t seem to get past.

Since intervention politics will likely be dominating headlines for the foreseeable, I thought it’d be nice to take a step back and think about the life of an orphan library. So often we hear refugees discussed in terms of what they take from their newly adopted country, perhaps forgetting what’s been left behind. It may seem trivial to think of books when children are literally choking to death on sarin gas, but mere survival can’t be minimum bar we set.

In July of last year, the BBC’s Mike Thomson reported on Syrians collecting books from the bombed out homes of those who had fled. A community in the town of Darayya had come together to start a secret, hidden library safe from shrapnel. The books were brought in from destroyed homes, in some cases picked out of ash. Books for adults and books for children, many of them now confined to their homes because the streets were unsafe. They did this during a war that has claimed almost half a million lives.

For refugees, the ones fleeing their homesel, books are even less of a priority. Both Mercy Corps and the International Refugee Council have written about what refugees take with them. One such list, for example, from a twenty-year-old mother with a ten-month-old child:

Hat for the baby
An assortment of medication, a bottle of sterile water, and a jar of baby food
A small supply of napkins for diaper changes
A hat and a pair of socks for the baby
Assortment of pain relievers, sunscreen and sunburn ointment, toothpaste
Personal documents (including the baby’s vaccination history)
Wallet (with photo ID and money)
Cell phone charger
Yellow headband

If really want a good cry, you can read the full Mercy Corps posting and find out about a fourteen-year-old girl who fled with her deceased father’s work ledger because it was all she had to remember him by. Needless to say, people in these situations usually can’t bring their books with them.

Then they move to countries with libraries full of books in languages they don’t necessarily read. Struggling to find work. Wondering if they’ll be able to stay or if their hosts will soon toss them even further abroad.

But that hasn’t stopped Muhannad Qaiconie, who has been collecting books in Berlin for himself and fellow refugees. You can watch his story below.

Stay aware. Give when you can. Contact your representatives frequently.

Peter Clark is a former Melville House sales manager.