A Closer Look at IBBY's Call-to-Action for Refugee Children

A conversation with Wally De Doncker, Liz Page and Hasmig Chahinian of the International Board on Books for Young People

Interview and introduction by Scott Shoger

We’re checking in this issue with the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY) to learn more about its “Call-to-action for Refugee Children,” issued during the 35th IBBY World Congress, held in Auckland, New Zealand, in August 2016. Founded in Zurich, Switzerland, in 1953, IBBY is a non-profit devoted to “bringing books and children together” by “promot[ing] international understanding through children’s books” and “protect[ing] and uphold[ing] the Rights of the Child according to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child,” to quote the two facets of its mission most closely aligned with the call-to-action.

The complete text of the call-to-action is copied below:

For sixty years the International Board on Books for Young People has followed the ideal that books build bridges between people. Books give us wings and can demolish the walls that are built on fear and intolerance.

This work is as important and relevant today as it was sixty years ago, particularly now when so many children around the world are facing enormous upheavals in their young lives. We are currently experiencing a global crisis and IBBY is unwavering in its support for those working for peace and understanding. We believe that every child has the right to read and we fully support the principles of the International Convention on the Rights of the Child.

IBBY is committed to helping children in crisis, whether they are refugees in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Oceania, North America or Latin America. IBBY looks for solutions. There are many IBBY projects, including the wordless Silent Books, book packs and introducing the library networks, which all work to alleviate the trauma that these young people are faced with. We also need to show children from different communities around the world how to welcome their new neighbours and how to live together in harmony. We firmly believe that stories and libraries can inspire this necessary accord.

Today, we urge all professionals working in the field of children’s literature to join us take action and find solutions to help the children and young people who are caught up in this current turmoil.


World Libraries: What led to publishing this call to action? And given that IBBY is already involved with helping children in crisis, including refugees, why was there need for a separate call to action?

Hasmig Chahinian
Hasmig Chahinian
Hasmig Chahinian: During the international IBBY Congress in Auckland, in August 2016, the national sections of IBBY in Europe gathered for a regional meeting. They addressed the question of refugee children and their access to books in the context of the current refugee crisis, which is having global impact. Many IBBY sections in various parts of the world have already initiated projects and activities to address this crisis. Nevertheless, it was felt to be important to release a call for action to emphasize the fact that refugee children everywhere and their access to books is a major concern for IBBY members. We also wanted to reinforce the fact that reaching out to these children and providing them with books is an essential part of IBBY's mission. The first European IBBY Regional Conference will focus on this very important issue. This Regional Conference will take place on April 6, 2017, at the Bologna International Children's Book Fair, in Italy.

World Libraries: What are some of the most successful programs with which IBBY is already involved that address the needs of refugee children?

Wally De Doncker: Success is a relative term. Our members plan carefully and start with the best intentions, although sometimes political will is lacking as not everyone welcomes refugees as they should.

One of our more successful projects was initiated by IBBY Italy – the IBBY Silent Books collection. IBBY sections from around the world donated books to IBBY Italy for this collection of best books that have no text or words – Silent Books. The collection forms a traveling exhibition, and copies of each book are also donated to Lampedusa, the remote island in the Mediterranean that is the first port of call for refugees arriving from across the sea on their way to starting a new life.

Liz Page: In August 2015 IBBY and the National Association to Promote Library & Information Services to Latinos and the Spanish Speaking (REFORMA) worked together on a fact-finding visit to explore the situation of the unaccompanied refugee children and the many single-parent families while they are detained in facilities on the U.S./Mexican border after traveling from their violent homelands in Central America to find shelter in the U.S. As a result of this visit, the United States Board on Books for Young People (USBBY), IBBY Mexico and their partners called on the U.S. government and U.S. authorities responsible for the care of these unaccompanied refugees to allow them access to appropriate books, to have contact with Spanish-speaking librarians who are trained in using books as therapeutic agents, and to ensure that their well-being is monitored as they are processed through the system.
IBBY designed and created an enlarged “library card” to give to every child and family as they leave the centers. The card has information in Spanish and English about contacting the public libraries and what they can find there. A toolkit with tips for activities and a list of sources was drawn up as part of the project to help librarians when serving the refugee community, in particular the unaccompanied children who arrive in their neighborhood.

Wally De Doncker
Wally De Doncker
Wally De Doncker: In early 2016 Canada welcomed 25,000 Syrian refugees. The Department of Canadian Heritage put out a request to publishers last autumn asking for book donations to be included in the welcome packages being assembled for these newcomers. IBBY Canada, with support from the IBBY Foundation, translated and printed new versions of the library cards that had been designed for the refugees coming over the Mexican/US border. The Canadian versions are in English/French and English/Arabic and will encourage refugee children and their families to go to their public library, where they will find so many of the resources they need for their new lives. The cards were distributed in libraries across Toronto, Vancouver, Edmonton and Quebec City. This library card is available for all IBBY sections to translate and use.

IBBY Flanders (Belgium) established the project O Mundo: a little world library, which presents picture books from all over the world to the children in Flanders’ multicultural classrooms. IBBY Netherlands has plans to introduce O Mundo in their schools.

IBBY Lebanon has brought relief to Syrian children caught up in the war and now living as refugees in Lebanon. The therapeutic program used is an anger management program that was developed for Lebanese children after the Lebanese civil war and the war with Israel. The program uses books, theatre and other methods to help children understand their own feelings, express them, as well as recognize the feelings of others. The success of this project is marked by the improved behavior of the children.

World Libraries: The call to action makes an interesting point: Not only do we need to help refugee children directly, but we also need to “show children from different communities around the world how to welcome their new neighbors and how to live together in harmony.” How can we go about doing that?

Wally De Doncker: We know that currently there is a lot of resistance towards refugees. If you want to welcome the refugee children in a friendly way you have to start with the children of the communities. People can only live in harmony when both sides understand that refugees arrive because they are victims of a terrible situation in their home country and have little choice. Refugee children and the children in the community can learn empathy through books and activities related to books. Sometimes a new library that is established for the refugee children will also benefit the whole community and can be an excellent opportunity to get to know one another in a neutral environment.

IBBY has long advocated that all children have the right to have access to great literature and it works to protect the rights of all children whenever it is needed. IBBY believes that every child everywhere in the world must have access to books and the opportunity to become a reader in the fullest sense. IBBY sees this as a fundamental right and the doorway to empowerment for every child. It is our duty to always treat children and young people with the respect they deserve.

World Libraries: How much can an organization like IBBY do –and how much can storytelling or literature do – in an active war zone, where physiological or safety needs aren’t consistently being met?

Wally De Doncker: The IBBY experiences at the grassroots level have taught us a lot. The IBBY Children in Crisis Fund provides support for children whose lives have been disrupted through war, civil disorder or natural disaster. The two main activities that are supported by the fund are the therapeutic use of books and storytelling in the form of bibliotherapy, and the creation or replacement of collections of selected books that are appropriate to the situation.

Liz Page
Liz Page

Liz Page: Bibliotherapy was first used in 1948 by psychologists to treat certain kinds of patients. A less clinical use of bibliotherapy was pioneered by IBBY Venezuela following the catastrophic mudslides outside Caracas in 1999. They found that by using books and stories the possibility to “heal” the effects of a tragedy through reading was demonstrated. In addition they found that stories could trigger a mechanism for finding coping strategies to face the realities of the situation.

The project was called Read to Live and members of Banco del Libro, the seat of IBBY Venezuela, began taking books to the children made homeless, many suffering from deep trauma. Every day, volunteers read stories to the children and sometimes their families. This had the effect of transporting the children away from the devastation around them. It would begin for five minutes a day and build up to longer periods. Gradually the children came out of their shock. Listening was also important as many who have these traumatic experiences need to talk about them. Reading specially selected books can open the way to talking about feelings and emotions.

Wally De Doncker: Using the same principles, the Children in Crisis program will not only provide immediate support and help, but will also make a long term impact in the communities, thus supporting IBBY’s belief that every child has the right to become a reader.

A few examples of the projects that have been supported by the IBBY Children in Crisis Fund are:

In 2010 Pakistan was hit by the worst floods in its 63-year history. Twenty million people were affected and, of those, nine million were children. Eleven thousand schools were swept away or rendered unusable. IBBY Pakistan – the Alif Laila Book Bus Society - with several NGOs/Government agencies worked in all five provinces of the country to distribute library kits for children affected.

Since 2008 IBBY has been supporting two children’s libraries in Gaza that are run and operated by IBBY Palestine. Following their destruction in 2014, IBBY launched an appeal for funds to rebuild these two libraries that had become such important parts of the children’s lives.

After a devastating earthquake shook and destroyed the lives of thousands in Haiti in 2010, IBBY International immediately launched an appeal to collect funds for a bibliotherapy project. IBBY Haiti identified the camps in which they could work and began working with the children. There were no books, but a printing press that had not been damaged was found and was used to reprint some books, which were then used by the volunteers.

World Libraries: How have professionals working in children’s literature responded thus far to this call for action? Did you have any expectations for the attention the call to action would generate – and if so how has the response compared to those expectations?

Wally De Doncker: There are many plans, but it will take time to develop. Two months is not enough. Nevertheless this week IBBY Netherlands and the Dutch children’s books writers and illustrators have started a solidarity action for the refugee children. They’ll work with books in Arabic. Members of IBBY Australia and IBBY New Zealand will start new projects in their countries in reply to the call. The European Conference about refugee children is a very important initiative.

New projects of the initiators have already started in the same spirit of the Call to Action.

In collaboration with the Municipality of Kallithea and the Network for Children’s Rights, the Greek Section of IBBY participated in the events celebrating the 2016 European Cultural Heritage Days for the second consecutive year. As part of the celebration, IBBY Greece organized an event with a theme, “YES to Tolerance – NO to Violence: Literary Narratives for Refugees,” based on literary excerpts narrated by authors who are members of IBBY Greece.

IBBY Sweden inaugurated its own Silent Books collection and has published a manual to be used by librarians, teachers and all who work with refugee children. The manual has been translated into English and IBBY Sweden has generously offered to share it with other IBBY Sections interested in using it in their own context. The manual can be downloaded from the IBBY website.

Officials from the UAE Board on Books for Young People (UAEBBY) recently visited the Red Crescent’s Emirati-Jordanian refugee camp in Mrajeeb Al Fhood in Jordan. As part of the “Kan Yama Kan” (Once upon a Time) initiative, the IBBY members conducted reading sessions and literature-themed educational and entertainment activities for the children living there. The delegation also donated the “Big Heart Library” with a diverse collection of 500 new children’s books.

The Silent Books Exhibition has been traveling around Europe all year and is now being exhibited in Montolieu Village du Livre, Aude, France. The exhibition has been organized in association with IBBY UK and IBBY France where it will be on view as part of the annual European Children’s Literature Festival in the village. The festival includes many events with talks from various artists, and representatives from IBBY France and UK will talk about the collection and the project. There was also a presentation of wordless books created by the children of Montolieu for the children living on Lampedusa.

World Libraries: How might someone unfamiliar with IBBY – or service to children in crisis – get involved? And for someone who’s already involved and wants to try out a new solution or program, how can IBBY and its membership help?

Wally De Doncker: The first step is to become a member of IBBY; many IBBY sections need volunteers to run their programs. Ideally all professional groups should be involved: researchers, reading promoters, authors, illustrators, teachers, booksellers and publishers, etc. Working together can achieve a lot and working with refugees will become an increasingly important task for community libraries in the future.

Liz Page: IBBY members have the same mission and, as such, the IBBY Sections are ideally placed to organize projects and events designed to ease the solution of children arriving in new environments. The international IBBY network allows for exchanges of experiences and expertise that can be harnessed to work with all children and under all circumstances.


About the Interviewees

Wally De Doncker, a native of Belgium, is serving his second term as IBBY president. He trained as a teacher and served as a special teacher of children’s literature. He began writing full-time in 2001 and since then, his books have reached readers in more than thirteen countries in Europe and beyond. He is a frequent contributor to publications that deal with the international dimension of children’s literature, and is a regular guest in libraries, schools and other settings where children and adults come to enjoy his readings.

Liz Page, executive director of IBBY, grew up and lived in England until 1985 when she and her family moved to Basel. She soon became involved with JuKiBu, the Intercultural Children’s Library in Basel, of which she was a founding member. Later she was elected President of the Intercultural Children’s Libraries Association of Switzerland.

Hasmig Chahinian, from France, was born and grew up in Lebanon. She is currently in charge of children’s literature from the Arab world at the international division of the French National Centre for Children’s Literature – Centre national de la literature pour la jeunesse: La Joie par les livres – a service of the French National Library. She served as a member of the IBBY Executive Committee for two terms from 2010 to 2014 – from 2012 as vice president.