On Reading Nights last month, Libraries Without Borders and the Alsatian School (l’École alsacienne) presented backpacks filled with books to 200 children living at emergency housing centers and in temporary housing in the Île-de-France (Paris and the surrounding) region. In each of the backpacks are books specifically chosen by the students as well as new books hand picked by our team to cater to the child’s interests. A cultural respite and temporary escapee, done in collaboration with Emmaüs Solidarité and Samusocial de Paris!
Here’s a recap of the second edition of this operation with Corentin Dufour, director of the emergency housing center for migrants, Emmaüs Solidarité d’Ivry-sur-Seine; Gauthier Lechevalier, director of the Alsatian School; and Manon Tanguy, project coordinator at Libraries Without Borders.
January 22nd, 2021. In the school at the emergency housing center Emmaüs Solidarité d’Ivry-sur-Seine, around fifty children split up into two groups (because of Covid), wait for us in the classrooms. They were told earlier that they would be receiving their backpacks full of books! With their teachers, some begin to recite the text, sketch, or song that they had practiced for the occasion.
Built on land owned by the city of Paris four years ago, the center today houses 450 exiles, including 150 children and adolescents. Unique in Europe, this “out of danger” space aims to shelter isolated refugee women, families, and couples – mostly Afghans, Eritreans, Sudanese, Somalians, or Syrians – who arrive in Paris.
“The majority of those at the center have experienced severe trauma: it is essential to give them a warm and dignified welcome. Since their arrival, we support them in their administrative journey – eligibility for individual and family rights, asylum demands, and housing access. Game spaces have been created for children and socio-cultural activities are regularly offered by volunteers in the tents that also serve as mess halls.
The refugee’s stay here is temporary: they remain on average for three months. This arrangement is a first step before they are brought to the Dispositif National d’Accueil (National Reception Center) of asylum-seekers and refugees managed by the OFII (French Office of Immigration and Integration).” – Corentin Dufour, director of the emergency housing center for migrants at Emmaüs Solidarité Ivry-sur-Seine.
The center makes use of a medical wing, coordinated by Samusocial, where doctors, gynecologists, therapists, and psychologists work in shifts every week. There is also a school managed by teachers sent by the French Ministry of National Education along with French foreign language teachers who teach classes adapted for every student age 6 through 18. This is the school where we join the children as they receive their backpacks.
Bringing back the pleasure of reading
In every backpack, the students find books chosen and donated by children their own age from the Alsatian School along with new specially selected books purchased by our teams, thanks to the funds gathered from the parents of the school. Journals, pencil bags, and color pencils are also included. It is time to reveal to the students the joy of reading and to support them in their language acquisition and discovery of their new country.
Every Thursday for over a month, around fifteen elementary school student volunteers show up around breakfast time at the library of the Alsatian School. With Karine Hugnet, the school librarian, they chose works — based on profiles provided by the teams at Samusocial de Paris and by Emmaüs Solidarité that take into account age, personal interests, and level of French — that fit best with the needs and interests of every child in housing. .
“Our students read a lot; we wanted to show them that they can make a strong impact by sharing their passion for books with other children who may not have access to books. They were very excited and involved in this project.
Unfortunately, the pandemic has not let us organize an event in which they could all meet together. We will not discard that possibility later in the year. I would want our students to believe that they not only gave something; I want them to know that they can also learn from others.” – Gauthier Lechevalier, director of the Alsatian School.
This project is part of a long line of LWB programs at the temporary housing facilities in Paris to assist in the welcome of refugees.
“For four years, we have created more than fifty library spaces in the temporary housing offered by Samusocial de Paris: the Bibli-Hôtels.
After the welcome centers at Ivry-Sur-Seine and Nanterre, we have launched, starting in January, an Ideas Box in the welcome center for refugees at Aurore in the 12th arrondissement in Paris. There are activities regularly organized for the refugees to help them learn the language, strengthen their knowledge of their rights, housing, or employment, encourage them to integrate themselves into society, and create relationships in this pandemic.” – Manon Tanguy, project advisor at Libraries Without Borders.
Translation: Austin Li