Sara Saunders realized the need of contextualized story books for Syrian refugee children when she worked on several community service projects with Middle East University students.
After spending time with refugees, Saunders saw how the lack of food, inadequate housing and healthcare, and interrupted schooling affected these children and wanted to find a way to help them deal with life under these conditions. She noticed that children's books on the market were about children and environments which were different from the refugee children.
“When children do not see themselves in the books they read, they do not relate to the stories in the same way,” said Saunders, service learning coordinator at Middle East University (MEU), an Adventist-operated school in Beirut, Lebanon.
Saunders wanted Syrian children to feel that their culture and life experience were worthy of putting into story books.
“When children do not see themselves in the books they read, they do not relate to the stories in the same way.”
The idea was born out of a conversation with Eliane Ibrahim, education coordinator at World Vision Lebanon (WVL). WVL kindergartens faced the lack of literacy materials to offer whole class instruction or independent reading, yet children learn to read by practicing.
Saunders and Ibrahim realized the two institutions could combine skills and resources to create original, relevant material that was affordable to produce and distribute. They shared their vision with Lina Issa, an education instructor at MEU, and Issa gladly joined the project.
Together, they organized a workshop on the MEU campus with MEU students, WVL workers, and artists and graphic designers.
The workshop covered theoretical topics such as understanding storytelling for trauma relief, characteristics of quality children's books for early readers, integrating thematic planning into their curriculum, and children's developmental milestones.
Finally, the participants created five original titles specifically for Syrian refugee children of kindergarten age, and the members tested the storybooks with Syrian children at the ADRA Learning Center for refugee children in Lebanon.
“The children who access these storybooks will benefit from them as a tool to build literacy skills. They will validate and educate the children about their culture and heritage, and how to process and overcome their grief and fear in safe, age-appropriate ways,” Saunders said.
Beneficiaries of this project, however, are not just Syrian refugee children.
Issa said that her MEU students also had the opportunity to collaborate with a new group of people. “Students learned about those people’s experiences in a different corner of the country, with a uniquely vulnerable population,” she said. “This experience has helped our students practice their social interaction skills and love for helping others.”
The students’ enthusiasm for this project impressed World Vision Lebanon staff. “Working with MEU was an amazing experience for us,” said Ibrahim. “It was a learning experience for World Vision staff to meet such dedicated professors and students.”