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Bringing Books to the Desert

Deep in Jordan’s northern desert, in the refugee camp known as Zaatari, 76,000 Syrians live, work, pray, and—thanks to a campwide, refugee-run library system—read. In the low-resource, high-constraint environment of Zaatari, only about 82% of eligible children are enrolled in classes (which they attend when not prevented by weather, child-labor practices, early marriage customs, bullying, or learning disabilities). Wi-Fi is restricted to certain areas, and signal strength varies.

Among the camp’s adult population, literacy is low: 79% of its residents are from the agricultural region of Dara’a in southern Syria, where people are typically less educated than in a metropolis like Damascus.

Before the Syrian civil war, Syrian schools and universities were considered among the best in the Arab world. Resourcefulness and creativity are always on display at Zaatari—in its 32 schools, five playgrounds, 58 community centers, and 12 libraries.

There is not one bookstore in camp. As is the norm in Arab (and many other) countries, all books and periodicals that enter camp must have their political, religious, and cultural content approved by national authorities. (Books about sexuality or drug abuse, for example, would be deemed inconsistent with Islamic and cultural norms.)

Thanks to the library system, camp residents—as vendors hawk cucumbers and onions from donkey-pulled carts and calls to prayer echo from the masjid (mosque)—can heed the first word of the Koran: “Iqra.” (“Read.”)

A dozen libraries in the desert

Zaatari Camp was established in 2012, when a few refugees crossed the border into Jordan’s desert to seek refuge from the Syrian Civil War. The settlement quickly grew, requiring coordinated emergency response from Jordan’s government and partners such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The camp is now under the joint administration of the Syrian Refugee Affairs Directorate and UNHCR, with many UN, governmental, humanitarian, national, and international partners.

I first visited Zaatari in 2015, when UNHCR invited me to research how young people use the internet and mobile phones. Little did I know that six years later, I would be spending as much time at the camp as in my Seattle home. (Indeed, Syrians often ask me which district of the camp I live in, or what my tribal/family name is.)

On that initial visit, I encountered a library in the camp, and—as a professor of library and information science—thought, “Alhamdulillah” (“Praise be to God”). As I went on to discover, it was just one of 12 libraries in Zaatari, run by six nongovernmental organizations (NGOs): Blumont, Lutheran World Federation, Norwegian Refugee Council, Questscope, Nour Al Hussein Foundation, and Relief International.

Zaatari’s libraries are unique in several ways. First, they’re run by refugees themselves, rather than NGO staff or external visitors. Second, the libraries operate as a network, which of course requires the cooperation of the six NGOs that run them.

Third, the library network’s innovative operations and service delivery rivals the quality of many Arab cities’ public libraries. The Zaatari libraries offer book clubs, writing clubs, cultural preservation services, storytime programs, literacy initiatives, readers’ advisory services, internet and media safety training, and community outreach. They also provide information literacy education—a pressing need, as many refugees are targeted by online scammers who proffer fake employment, immigration, and other opportunities, as well as disinformation about amnesties, return of property, and military conscription in Syria.

Finally, the camp residents who work as librarians have no formal training in the profession and, before coming to Zaatari, had never even visited a public library. With Rivkah Sass, executive director and CEO of Sacramento (Calif.) Public Library, I organized field trips
in 2018 for Zaatari librarians to Abdul Hameed Shoman Public Library in Amman, Jordan. There the camp librarians saw professional library operations firsthand and received training in specific operations and services. Sass also taught workshops on library operations, customer service, and early learning, and demonstrated techniques for storytelling and puppetry.

Individual strengths and needs

The libraries in Zaatari—which communicate with one another via the WhatsApp messaging platform and with patrons via Facebook—are run by different NGOs, are located in different areas of the camp and have different hours of operation, facilities, resources, staffing, and strengths.

The five libraries operated by Blumont, for example, have the strongest presence in the camp because of their multiple locations as well as their extended hours, which include weekends and evenings to support university students and people who work during the day. Those five libraries are located in community centers also run by Blumont.

Blumont libraries in Zaatari offer strong early education and children’s reading programs, thanks to a 2019 donation of materials, including board books, from the Kalimat Foundation in the United Arab Emirates. Multimedia programming for young children focuses on interactive Arab storytelling.

As part of its mission, Questscope, an NGO dedicated to helping marginalized youth, supports Arab culture by collaborating with experts in different fields. Its library in Zaatari has three full-time librarians who run book clubs and writing clubs for boys and girls. Last winter, thanks to an anonymous donation, it piloted the camp’s first Kindle/ebook club.

The humanitarian nonprofit Relief International, which runs three libraries in Zaatari, is heading the library network’s current effort to create a shared, cloud-hosted catalog and circulation system while still protecting users’ personally identifiable information (PII). (While protecting PII is of universal concern, PII for war refugees is of particular importance and is governed by UN regulations.) Once complete, the shared catalog and circulation system will support collection development, build staff technical competency, and help users identify where a book is located system-wide.

Another Relief International effort: book clubs for older youth. To bypass chronic book shortages, stapled copies are made.

Part of a multiservice complex for children and adults in distant parts of the camp, Norwegian Refugee Council’s (NRC) library stands out for its services to support children’s early literacy and education. NRC librarians use stories written by Syrian children and illustrated and published by NRC in an approach based on the Syrian oral storytelling tradition known as Al-Hakawati. The librarians’ technique involves placing the storyteller’s traditional red hat (known as a tarboosh) on a child who wishes to read, in order to provide individualized attention for literacy support.

The newest members of the Zaatari library network are run by Lutheran World Federation and Nour Al Hussein. Each has a collection of about 40 to 50 books and is looking to the network’s other members for guidance in growing collections and designing services. Both have loyal communities of users already.

Creative outreach

One important offering of the Zaatari library network is something called Society Boxes. Much like a Little Free Library, a Society Box is a container from which community members are free to take needed items and to which they can also donate items. In Zaatari, Society Boxes contain books along with items such as games for early literacy, reading and calligraphy aids, reading glasses, small toys, playing cards, and household items such as prayer beads and mobile phone stands.

Society Boxes came about in 2017 through the generosity of the information studies program at Finland’s Åbo Akademi University. By underwriting my travel costs and supplying an annual €500 grant, the program allowed for the placement of Society Boxes in 10 locations across Zaatari, such as a masjid and a maternity hospital.

Explaining the concept of the Society Boxes to camp residents was a challenge. We had to explain repeatedly that everything in the boxes was free for anyone to take anonymously, and that anyone could also contribute anonymously. To make the premise more understandable, a camp artist painted a mural depicting books alongside a verse from the Koran (Surat 92): “Never will you attain the good [reward] until you spend [in the way of Allah] from that which you love. And whatever you spend—indeed, Allah is knowing of it.”

Sourcing books to place in the boxes is challenging and requires a lot of legwork. Many titles that camp residents would like to have are not available in Arabic. High-quality books are expensive, particularly translations and literacy workbooks for children, and our budget is limited.

In addition to increasing the number of Society Boxes across camp, Zaatari librarians engage in outreach by identifying the needs and interests of groups that cannot easily access libraries and communicating information on health, sanitation, and other topics to them.

For example, to reach camp residents who might not currently visit Zaatari’s libraries, librarians are partnering with its many beauty salons—where women and children spend hours preparing for weddings—to supply books and magazines about beauty, fashion, and food as well as health and parenting, along with materials for children. Also targeted for library partnerships are barbershops, coffee and shisha (tobacco) shops, and maternity hospitals, as well as communities of Syrians and Jordanians in semiurban and rural areas outside camp.

Because libraries—especially outreach-based library services—are novel to the Syrian community, external communications are a key element of the Zaatari libraries’ success. Signage at all locations explains the library system and gives locations, hours, and services, along with a camp map. Other important external communications include messaging through imams, teachers, and social media.

With the Zaatari librarians and other camp residents, I am creating a book that will showcase the culinary knowledge and practices of Syria. Currently titled Zaatari: Food and Stories from the Syrian People of Zaatari Camp (Goose Lane, 2021), the book will introduce readers to the women of Zaatari as they prepare regional foods for weddings, births, Ramadan, and other special occasions. All royalties will return to the people of Zaatari.

Looking ahead

Zaatari librarians aspire to integrate library services with the camp’s new Innovation Lab. Created by UNHCR and Blumont, the lab contains 3D printers, robotics, and other technologies. The Zaatari librarians would also like to begin including tools, sewing machines, and apparel as lending items in their collections.

Once COVID-19 pandemic restrictions lift, the librarians will carry out a culturally appropriate media and information literacy (MIL) program to protect vulnerable populations such women and girls. As women and girls are less likely to own mobile phones and have little experience with social media, they are especially vulnerable to scammers. Existing MIL programs are Western-based; ours draw on teachings from the Koran and Arab culture to guide practices such as information sharing, verifying information, and developing personal pages with focus on privacy preservation.

Zaatari librarians also dream of creating a central branch, designed Syrian-style. It could include fountains; floor cushions for playing backgammon (a Syrian game) and reading over Turkish coffee and mint lemonade; a children’s area; a student study area; a computer learning and homework center; and more.

Before these aspirations become reality, much has to happen. Zaatari librarians need formal training delivered in Arabic and certificates in librarianship. They also need the networking and camaraderie of professional library associations, as well as the opportunity to participate in conferences without the barriers of cost, travel, and visas.

And, of course, books are needed by the thousands. The camp’s youth have read every book in Zaatari’s libraries beyond repair. By providing financial, professional, and social support, together the global library community and Zaatari librarians can help mend the collateral damage of the Syrian war.

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