Best Practices for Youth Services in a Refugee Camp Library

What's the issue?
Of the 7.6 million people displaced by “conflict or persecution” in 2012, almost half (46%) were children under 18 ( Aid workers and professionals interacting with these children have expressed concern that these circumstances have the potential to create a “generation of illiterates” who are “full of anger” because of the toxic combination of circumstances these unparalleled levels of violence have brought about. These children will be physically and emotionally scarred for the rest of their lives as a result of the brutal acts they have witnessed; many display characteristics of having shut off all emotional or rational response and gone completely into animalistic survival mode; finally, a lack of emphasis on education leaves these children uninformed and so even further unable to understand and deal with the overwhelming circumstances in which they find themselves ( Many, however, are incredibly resilient and hopeful despite their circumstances. They dream of returning home and entering professions through which they will help heal their country. As librarians, we should be jumping up and down, yelling, "I can help you do that!"

These facts leave us with several important things to think about and act upon. Not the least of which is that, as suppliers and disseminators of information, librarians are needed more than ever to educate these young people who find themselves up against nearly impossible odds. This is where the concept of library outreach in an international setting comes in. What is the first image that comes to mind when thinking about the concept of “outreach”? Is it a public library providing free services? Is it defined by the groups it serves, namely marginalized populations within a community? While imagining, perhaps you took it for granted that these services would take place in your home country, serving people who, though they may not be in good circumstances, are voluntarily living there.

However, this is not the only kind of outreach librarians must consider. Skills and services at the heart of what a library does—reading skills, technological literacies, language-speaking skills, social networking, community development—are increasingly important as our world gets smaller and smaller. We cannot afford to think of the library solely in terms of what it offers in our own countries, especially when conflict has forced millions of people all over the globe out of their own homes and across borders. As both technological advances and the consequences of war shrink the distances we perceive between one another, those without homes—refugee youth—become our neighbors.

What can librarians do?
For librarians engaging in outreach at an international level, serving refugee youth will mean quite literally meeting them where they are. That might mean being in a different country where a different language is spoken, or where the role of the library is seen totally differently than in America. This particular user group--refugee youth--and the setting in which they reside--refugee camps--present information needs, collection development challenges, and access difficulties not faced by many other user groups. In order to best serve refugee youth, it is imperative to understand the circumstances and culture in which services are provided, and what changes must be made as a result. This article will focus on aspects unique to refugee youth as a user group; however, it is also important to remember that no matter what has happened to them, refugee youth are just that: youth. At heart, they are kids just like any others who might connect deeply with particular story or character, but someone has to tell them the story first.

Information Needs of Refugee Youth
A librarian working with youth in a refugee camp must make an effort to understand what kinds of information and services these children are looking for, must identify the specific information needs, just like one would when working with any other particular group. What do they need as a result of their experiences? What are the main issues that need to be addressed to help them continue to develop properly? Simply considering what a child has experienced as a refugee brings to mind several areas in which libraries could help: materials and programs support over-worked schools in camps; they introduce children and parents to their peers and help them build relationships; they provide information on the ways of life and social expectations of their new home; they can offer information on counseling services for the effects of trauma and tensions within the family as a result of stress; and they guide young refugees through finding a job, creating a CV, managing money, and other practical skills.
  • Education: Children who have been uprooted from their homes and forced to relocate will most likely fall behind in formal education because of the interruption (Ranard). Severity will vary from situation to situation and family to family, but a refugee camp librarian should be prepared to provide assistance to schools attempting to catch students up on what they’ve missed: “Schools in Jordan and in parts of Lebanon have begun working double, and in some cases triple, shifts in a bid to make up for lost months and years of schooling” (The Guardian, “Syria: UN child specialists...”). This is significant for materials selection, program and services planning, and setting up the library space because education, studying, and homework help will be some of the major purposes of the library.

  • Language and culture: Refugees will experience both language barriers and social adjustments depending on where they've relocated. A library could help by providing both language learning materials and materials in native languages. Librarians can facilitate activities that either celebrate refugees’ home culture or blends it with the new culture in which they are living. Providing language materials--the ability to communicate--is a very basic necessity to begin adapting and continue development. For one Kurdish-speaking refugee family, the language barrier played a large part in the division of their teenage daughters from the rest of the family (Morland, et al. 793).

  • Psychological trauma: Refugee children (and their families) often witness acts of unthinkable violence and terror. Their transition into a new country is not smooth, but rather sudden, jarring, and unwanted. Especially for children, who are in critical stages of development, trauma of this degree causes psychological and emotional disturbances including anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and anger issues, among others (Crisp). Families, which are put under immense stress, if not ripped apart, will experience relational tension. As a young person attempts to adapt to new surroundings and begin to heal, family life is one of the most important factors to determine success or failure (McMichael). It will be very important to be willing to simply listen if a young person needs someone to talk to about what they’ve gone through. Building a connection with a fellow aid worker who has experience with counseling could be very helpful (Morland).

  • Employment: For older youth, finding jobs and helping to support their families will be top priorities. Finding work doing something productive and positive could go a long way in helping them to adjust to their life in a new place. Providing services and programs to assist youth in learning how to make a CV, how to create and stick to a budget, or how to use the banking system in their home country and the new one could all be helpful to young people feeling the growing weight of responsibility (Bateman).

Creating a Collection, Programs, and other Services for Refugee Youth
Only after identifying the needs of the refugee youth population you’re serving can you begin to build a collection that will serve them in the most effective and efficient way possible. What materials, services, and resources can librarians offer to help address these issues faced by refugee youth? What kinds of resources are realistically available in a refugee camp setting? When considering these questions, it is also in the best interests of the collection and its users to ask the refugee youth themselves (and their parents) what kinds of materials to which they’d most like to have access. In order to get this information, you might need to educate them on all the resources and formats available; on the other hand, your users might know exactly what they want, making the library a powerful tool for expressing the voice of those people.
  • Print materials: The materials with which the library is stocked could vary greatly depending upon the needs of the specific refugee youth population it serves. Most basically, finding books in users’ native language is a necessity, but it may not be all that easy to accomplish as translation is time consuming and costly. Asking refugee youth to integrate into a new curriculum, having already fallen behind, possibly in the process of learning a new language, is an overwhelming task (Ranard 7). If the library provided materials in native languages as well as beginning-level materials in the new language, it might give youth the opportunity to practice the new language and engage in leisure reading in their native tongue when they need a mental break .

  • Youth and family programs: Library programs could provide a desperately needed outlet for children to work through “psychosocial interventions” necessary after experiencing such trauma. Child psychologists working with Yugoslavian refugee youth and parents observed their difficulties engaging in normal play and parenting, respectively. In order to combat this, the psychologists “developed programmes of art, clay modelling, storytelling and expressive games and exercises to build children’s self-esteem and social interaction, and a sense of mastery over difficult circumstances” (Crisp 20). These types of activities are very adaptable and don’t require many (if any) expenses. When implementing such activities, it’s important to incorporate the cultures of both their country of origin and the new country to which they’ve relocated. Providing opportunities for families to interact while adjusting can help curb miscommunication that can occur between two generations; refugee parents may have difficulties understanding the views and desires of their children, who are developing in very different circumstances (MENTOR 11).

  • Other services: The library might be the only place refugees can access the internet, which could provide them the opportunity to communicate with family and friends from whom they would otherwise be cut off. In addition to its multi-lingual print collection, a library in Lancashire, England offers computer software which allows users to create documents in over 100 languages. Assistance with everyday skills like banking, creating a CV, or simply applying for library membership is also available (“Library provides IT...”). The technology and funds to provide such services might or might not be available within a refugee camp library, but the ideas behind their provision still apply. Librarians must put themselves in the children’s shoes and consider, very basically, what he or she might struggle with if put in the same situation.

Issues in Providing and Preserving Access to Library Services for Refugee Youth
Even the best laid plans rarely go how we wish they would. Building a library collection for youth in a refugee camp is a task that will not go entirely according to plan, and so a librarian in this environment must constantly be thinking ahead about obstacles that could crop up. How might librarians need to alter their approach in offering these services in order to best serve refugee youth? Many aspects of more “traditional” librarianship simply will not work in a refugee camp setting: the hierarchy of library staff might look completely different; the purpose of libraries might be thought of in a way that is totally foreign to you; there might be a greater need for materials and services to be mobile, making their way around the camp rather than waiting for users to come to the library; and creating library policies, choosing materials, and planning programs will almost always require flexibility and creative problem solving. Building a library collection in an unstable environment means not taking anything for granted because, as Dorothy said, we’re not in Kansas anymore.

The websites and blogs of currently operating refugee camp libraries give some ideas of challenges and special issues to consider as librarians think about the needs and best practices of such libraries:

- Deir Amar Refugee Camp Library, Al-Itihhad Municipality, northwest of Jerusalem.

- Malindza Refugee Camp Library, Swaziland.

- Human Rights Mobile Libraries, Djabal and Goz Amer Refugee Camps, Chad.

- Iridimi Refugee Camp Library, Eastern Chad.

- Libraries for Ifo, Dagahaley, and Hagadera communities within Dadaab Refugee Camp, Kenya.

- Al Assria Children’s Library, Jabalia Refugee Camp, Gaza.

- Kakuma Camp Library, Kenya.

  • Don’t assume you know best: Rely on the input and help of the residents of the camp, rather than attempting to make all decisions yourself. When dealing with a group of people who have had all sense of control and choice taken from them, creating a collection of information suited specifically to their needs could give them back some of their autonomy. Building a library for refugees is a chance to be educated as well as to educate (Diabal and Goz Amer Camps; Kakuma Camp).
  • Account for cultural differences that you might not be aware of: For example, what is seen as proper for a woman to do in your users’ eyes? Who receives education in that society? Which families prize higher education and which families value learning a trade? In considering multiple views, you will be far more likely to serve a greater range of users, and perhaps even protect the collection and yourself from physical harm (Daadab Camp).
  • Be mobile: Some refugee camps are miles across, making it very difficult for all children to make it to one library location (Diabal and Goz Amer Camps; Iridimi Camp).
  • Think outside the box: Story time might look very different...if you’re just learning to speak the language, maybe you'll need an interpreter; maybe "story time" is allowing the children to make up stories and tell them; perhaps you'll need to tell the story with pictures or movements instead of just words. Maybe you’ll find that story time isn’t the best use of materials and space, so you decide to have different programs instead (Morland).
  • Do your research and exercise sensitivity when choosing materials: Consider how elements, such as violence, in stories might affect these youth differently than others (Iridimi Camp). Remember the pride that refugees tend to have in their homelands and encourage them to “view knowledge of the new cultural practices as an addition to their existing life” (Prior 4). Affirming a refugee youth’s identity could help them begin adding to it as they adapt to living in a new country.
  • Learn to be flexible and creative with very limited resources: Be very intentional about the materials you choose, because you'll have limited finances and suppliers. Go back to cataloging without electricity--it may not always (or ever) be available (Malindza Camp). Relax or alter requirements for library membership--the standard definitions of “family” and “guardian” often do not apply to refugee families, which have usually been torn apart and patched back together based on necessity or convenience. Requiring a parent or legal guardian to be present for a young person to have a library membership or simply hang out for the afternoon might not be an option (McMichael 180).

For further exploration of related issues and best practices, see:
Community Outreach
Non-Native Speakers of English
Intellectual Freedom

Works Cited

Bateman, Mary Jo, Inc., VA. Catholic Charities of Richmond, and Others And. Facing The World. An Independent Living/Pre-Employment Curriculum For Refugee Youths. n.p.: 1991. ERIC. Web.

Chulov, Martin. “Syria: UN child specialists warn of new ‘lost generation’ amid crisis.The Guardian. 24 July 2013.

Crisp, Jeff, et al. Learning For A Future: Refugee Education In Developing Countries. n.p.: 2001. ERIC. Web.

"Library Provides IT resources for refugee readers." Electronic Library; 2003, Vol. 21 Issue 6, p618.

McMichael, C., S. M. Gifford, and I. Correa-Velez. "Negotiating Family, Navigating Resettlement: Family Connectedness Amongst Resettled Youth With Refugee Backgrounds Living In Melbourne, Australia." Journal Of Youth Studies 14.2 (2011): 179-195. ERIC. Web.

MENTOR/National Mentoring, Partnership. "Mentoring Immigrant & Refugee Youth: A Toolkit For Program Coordinators." Mentor(2011): ERIC.

Morland, Lyn. "Promising Practices In Positive Youth Development With Immigrants And Refugees." Prevention Researcher 14.4 (2007): 18-20. ERIC. Web.

Morland, Lyn, et al. "Bridging Refugee Youth And Children's Services: A Case Study Of Cross-
Service Training." Child Welfare84.5 (2005): 791. ERIC. Web.

Prior, Megan A., and Tricia Niesz. "Refugee Children's Adaptation To American Early Childhood Classrooms: A Narrative Inquiry."Qualitative Report 18.(2013): ERIC. Web.

Ranard, Donald A., and Washington, DC. Refugee Service Center. Center for Applied Linguistics. Between Two Worlds: Refugee Youth. n.p.: In America: Perspectives on Refugee Settlement, 1989. ERIC. Web.

UNHCR. "Displacement: The New 21st Century Challenge."

Further Reading:

Description of the process of planning, funding, building Burmese refugee camp libraries

UNHCR: teaching conflict resolution and peace-building in refugee camps

New Kenyan university opening right next to Daadab refugee camp, open to refugees:

New eco-friendly, easily transportable design for refugee camp library: