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Libraries Improving Lives of Displaced Populations

January 19, 2016

While libraries do not usually come to mind as a forefront of aid to displaced people, that is often exactly what they are.

The conflict in North-Eastern Nigeria has recently driven over 1.5 million people out of their homes. Most internally displaced persons (IDPs) reside in temporary camps. The IDP camp Chairman in the largest camp in the capital Abuja, Ibrahim Ahmadu, wraps the camp’s history in a few sentences: ”The first group of us arrived in September 2014. More IDPs have been arriving since then. As the conflict is dragging on, we are starting to understand that we will stay here for some time. At least few years. Maybe for good.”

As the perspective of early return fades, this community of over 1,500 members strives to ensure sustainable income, permanent sanitation facilities and a temporary school. Several better educated members of the community (23 overall have some sort of higher education diploma) serve as teachers. The most common sources of income for IDPs are car washing, small farming on the camp territory, tailoring and producing liquid soap.

In October 2015, Ibrahim was approached by leadership of the nearby National Library, together with a local partner NGO. They have jointly identified informational needs of the residents of the IDP camp. “Most camp residents, about two thirds, are under 20 years old,” says Ibrahim, “so we are looking into ways of integrating them in the economy of the city. They are eager to learn and work. They just have had very little opportunities so far.”

Since November 2015, the National Library has started a training program for the IDPs, consisting of basic ICT literacy courses and improving skills needed by current job market. Trainees also undergo training in job seeking strategies and practice for the interview process. Similar training packages have already been used by City library of Abuja and a branch of National Library in nearby Kaduna. Esther, a trainee in Kaduna, took the business skills and inspiration she found through the training to turn her cake making skills into a business. 

In Jigawa state close to the conflict areas, the network of public libraries in Dutse, Ringim, Hadejia and Kazaure, are promoting peaceful coexistence between communities through a series of activities targeting youth in cooperation with a local NGO. Libraries offer networking events, serve as hub for community activities and establish peace clubs in local communities. In six month over 700 youth were engaged through this program. Just like in Abuja, participants have reported tangible successes.

Similar library initiatives have recently emerged in other parts of the world. In Ukraine, struck by armed conflict, over 1,4 million people have left their homes. While public sentiment to IDPs is generally positive, communities face challenges related to IDP’s socio-economic inclusion. A network of public libraries in five regions with high IDP populations (Zaporizhzhia, Dnipropetrovsk, Kharkiv, Donetsk and Luhansk) are organizing initiatives aiming at informational needs of the IDPs. In 2015, over a thousand trainees benefited from training, job search support, information on starting new business and additional resources.  

Recent refugee crisis in Europe has also seen libraries stepping up to the challenge. In Greece, that accepts the most of the refugee stream, eight libraries have designed specific programs for refugees that provide a range of library services and organize charity collections of food, medicines and clothes. As a reflection of this trend among public libraries, an international workshop “Libraries Helping Refugees” has been organized in November 2015 in Greece. Participants from 6 countries attended.

Addressing needs of IDPs and refugees in places where no public library exists in the vicinity, a French-based charity Libraries Without Borders has designed “Ideas Box” – a highly mobile information toolkit reminding a modern library packed into several large boxes. The first Ideas Box were implemented in Burundi in 2014 and with 24,000 visits in only 3 months and more than 3,000 registered users, this pilot project met with success. Since then, Ideas Box have been setup for refugees and IPDs in places like Jordan or Ethiopia, as well as in poor communities in France, US and Australia. Evaluations have shown significant results on Improving the quality of education, Child protection, Community building, trauma alleviation and peace building.

In recent years, libraries all around the world demonstrate that they remain the truly universal institutions that provide free access to information to everyone, including the most informational needy.

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