In this commentary I will be drawing conclusions based on all the interviews I have conducted thinking of ways to increase library usage and accessibility to Syrian refugees whose numbers continue to grow in our small state of Rhode Island.
The first issue that comes about from Syrian refugees and barriers that they face is they did not have any previous experience with public libraries. Both Families interviewed cited a lack of public libraries in their home countries with libraries only existing at the colleges and universities. This is not unusual or unexpected as similar findings were recorded in a study done in Norway with nine Female immigrants from Middle Eastern countries, they reported that “The libraries they knew from their home countries were relatively inaccessible” (Audunson, R., Essmat, S., & Aabo, S., 2011, p. 223). Similarly the families did find the library to be an inviting and welcoming place, just as the women in the study had found the library to be they found it “an attractive place. Their perception of library services, however, was colored by their lack of library experiences in their home countries” (p. 223). It seems that this was also the case with these families, the staff at the Knight Memorial Library had a difficult time explaining the Hot spot borrowing procedures, Manager Rod Burkett cited the problem to be a result of the “language barrier” however it would appear that the concept of public libraries was an entirely new one to them as well so this further complicates the problem of access to these patrons.
The language barrier is another issue, the library can’t afford to pay someone to be a translator and no one on staff currently speaks Arabic. This is something that other libraries in the country have as Kitty Pope, Windsor Public Library CEO states in the Library Journal article “Public Libraries Support Refugees”, “that WPL staff include several native Arabic speakers; many staffers are bilingual in other languages” this seems to have greatly impacted the success rate of their outreach efforts (Witteveen, 2016, p.13). Though the Providence Community Library system is able to serve Spanish speakers, French, and at the Rochambeau branch there is a clerk who speaks Russian. Aside from this there is no one able to speak any dialect of Chinese, or Arabic, both communities of which there has been an increase of in Providence. This is an effect of a lack of diverse staff in libraries all across the country not only in Providence, or even Rhode Island on the Whole. As Keith Curry Lance explains in his article “Racial and Ethnic Diversity of U.S. Library Workers” not only are minorities less likely to procure advanced degrees but very few of those who do are choosing librarianship as a career, the result is a huge lack of diversity among librarian staff. Though Libraries may be looking for a more diverse staff to fill positions in their diverse neighborhoods it is difficult to do so with a pool of applicants who though qualified are a majority white.
The issue of the Hotspots is one that both the staff and the refugee families had noted in their talks to me. The families are in need of internet access to not only access a multitude of government services such as state assistance and so on, they also use it to access Mango Languages which is a program offered by the RI Library system, it is an essential addition to their library usage at home. The issue of affording internet is one that falls on many in this country, not only the refugee families, 75 million Americans don’t have internet. These refugee families are automatically victims of the digital divide from the moment they arrive. They are even more so than most Americans who also have trouble finding stable internet source as most Americans have a cell phone at least, as these families come to this country without a penny to their name or any digital devices, making the digital divide further for these families when they first arrive, though these families in particular currently have a computer for the family to use. When talking to the families the secondary necessity aside from learning English was access to the internet and computers on the whole, and when it comes to the Mango Languages meets one need but requires another it is hard for those among the digital divide to access this library service when other services such as the hotspot borrowing are not always available. It becomes a problem for libraries in general, how to offer more accessibility to the world’s newest necessity? The hotspots certainly help but in this case there are not enough to go around, especially in poorer neighborhoods where more people will be less likely to afford internet access on their own.
After collecting all of these interviews it seems a huge issue is a lack of outreach on the part of the library to connect with organizations like DORCAS and AHOPE. The DORCAS institute though sometimes telling incoming refugees about the library does not always do so and it seems to be at the discretion of the individual ESL teachers to take a field trip to the library. Both families had cited learning about the library through the AHOPE organization, which is a rather new non-profit that was formed, whereas DORCAS has a much longer history of assisting and placing refugees in this country but they do not turn to the library as a major resource, Sarah Antaya of DORCAS says that if the library were to provide pamphlets in more than Spanish and English that they would be very happy to give them to incoming refugees and it would make it much easier to explain. The library itself is lacking the necessary people to perform such a translation and thus it becomes a problem. This is where a non-profit organization such as AHOPE could assist. In my research for this project I came across many resources for libraries in Canada and Europe but not many here. In one guide put out by the Society of Chief Librarians in the UK they list a few suggestions for helping refugees use the library. These are a few examples as to how their libraries reshaped themselves:
“Re-create our spaces as welcoming, inclusive places. Develop consultation and outreach. Review procedures to ensure that they are welcoming and do not place barriers in the way of refugees engaging with our services (eg joining procedures, bookings, access)” (The Network, 2016).
By being culturally competent and taking the above mentioned steps the UK
Library leaders have confirmed that the support for newly arrived people includes:
Free access to computers and Wi-Fi.
Free access to materials to learn English, and access to physical and online
resources in other languages (Including Welsh in Wales).
Free activities and reading resources for children and families.
Trained workforce who can help with access to information and resources.
Community space to use for learning and networking.
Signposting to local education, health and wellbeing services.
Signposting to other Council services.
Signposting to community organisations and resources.
Tours of the library and all services offered (Elford, 2016).
Though there seems to be many more examples abroad of libraries reaching out there are also many Libraries in the United States who are also working hard to help immigrants and refugees. “Indeed, the Los Angeles Public Library has already partnered with the International Refugee Committee to provide ESL (English as a second language) and finance classes. In addition to its live programs, the Los Angeles Public Library offers a directory of internet resources to help immigrants in the areas of citizenship, getting a job, literacy, health, and money matters” (McDermott 2016). It would seem that the most effective and efficient ways to assist these refugee families is for the Library to perform outreach and partner with other organizations in the area committed to similar goals, such as the Los Angeles Public Library and the libraries in Europe.
But the library is a source of abundant knowledge and the refugee families I interviewed are not alone in their desire to learn, it seems to be a theme among Syrian refugees to hold education as their highest priority. In Melissa Fleming’s TED talk “Let’s help refugees thrive, not just survive” she recounts that “Syrian refugee children, all refugee children tell us education is the most important thing in their lives. Why? Because it allows them to think of their future rather than the nightmare of their past. It allows them to think of hope rather than hatred” (Flemming 2014). This learning seems that it is vital to the healing process of these refugees who have suffered much in their time before coming to this country. For this reason the library should look into establishing connections with other organizations as I previously mentioned DORCAS and AHOPE to name a few, with them they can get translations of library informational brochures and volunteer translators. They can also reach out to the community of refugees and the Syrian community themselves. Though the Knight Memorial Library emailed the local mosques and they did not email back I would assume that the reason being no one has checked that email and phone calls might work out better, but they should also look into local churches such as St. Mary’s in Pawtucket which has been helping Syrian refugees of both the Christian and Muslim faiths. The church’s congregation is comprised of Lebanese, Syrian, and other middle eastern people who possibly along with those at the mosques would be willing to donate gently used materials in Arabic. Even if the library purchases one book or movie in Arabic it would surely go long ways in helping the Syrian refugees feel welcome and happier with their library services. They also wished for more English classes and programs for children. The library does offer ESL classes, but again it seems that the lack of information in their native language led them to believe they did not. The refugee families Children attended the Bryte Summer camp and they greatly enjoyed that program. The Brown Refugee Youth Tutoring and Enrichment (BRYTE) is an organization led by students that pairs Brown university undergraduate tutors with students in refugee families that have recently relocated to Providence from Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East. Bryte is run in collaboration with DORCAS, The swearer Center and the Providence Public School department. The camp was held at the Leviton Dual Language School in Providence. The families mistook this camp to be a library program, perhaps because the Providence Community library’s Mobile Library visited the Leviton Dual Language school this past summer as a part of their Summer in the Schoolyard program. I think that perhaps the library can reach out to BRYTE to also offer some programs for these children at the library as well. Though it is a lot of work to do since “introducing public library services to people who may not have had a public library and who do not understand the concept of a public library is both exhilarating and overwhelming. Thankfully there are libraries that have been providing these services all along and we can look to them for guidance” (Wilson, 2015). Another resource is the library webpage on the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration website which hosts a variety of resources and tool kits to use in the library. The Hartford Public library is the closest of which taking advantage of such a resource.
I have recently learned of more libraries in providence seeing refugee families such as at the Washington Park and South Providence branches, for this reason Providence Community Library should be looking into this on the whole not just the Knight memorial library itself. Effort into outreach, materials, and even professional development for staff should be made a priority so that the libraries can do their best to be a welcoming experience for Syrian refugees because though the Knight Memorial staff has tried with limited resources, it is crucial to get support from upper management as well in assisting all the branches affected by the increase in refugee Syrian patrons.
75 million Americans don’t have internet. Here’s what it’s like. (2015, January 28). Retrieved December 09, 2016, from https://youtu.be/m7I2YiobGKU
Audunson, R., Essmat, S., & Aabo, S. (2011). Public libraries: A meeting place for immigrant women? Library & Information Science Research, 33, 220-227.
Brown Refugee Youth Tutoring and Enrichment | BRYTE–Brown Refugee Youth Tutoring and Enrichment. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://students.brown.edu/refugee-youth-tutoring-enrichment/home
Elford, E. (2015, September). Library leaders across England and Wales confirm the welcome offered to refugees and asylum seekers from public libraries. Retrieved December 09, 2016, from http://goscl.com/scls-commitment-to-library-services/
Fleming, M. Melissa Fleming: Let’s Help Refugees Thrive, Not Just Survive | TED Talk Subtitles and Transcript | TED.com. N.p., Oct. 2014. Web. 09 Dec. 2016.
Gonzalez, S. (2016, November 23). The Students, Families Who Can’t Afford Internet in the Bronx. WNYC News. Retrieved from http://www.wnyc.org/story/bronx-has-least-internet-connectivity-city/
Lance, K. C. (2005). Racial and ethnic diversity of U.S. library workers. American Libraries, 36(5), 41-43.Jaeger, P. T., Subramaniam, M., Jones, C. B., & Bertot, J. C. (2011).
Mcdermott, I. (2016, March/April). How Public Libraries Can Help Syrian Refugees. Online Searcher, 40(2), 35-38. Retrieved from http://www.infotoday.com/OnlineSearcher/Articles/Internet-Express/How-Public-Libraries-Can-Help-Syrian-Refugees-109501.shtml
The Network. How can the Cultural sector support refugees? [Web log post]. (2016, November 17). Retrieved from http://www.seapn.org.uk/post/how-can-the-cultural-sector-support-refugees
Shorey, E. (2016, November 1). Local church adopts refugees as their own. Valley Breeze. Retrieved from http://www.valleybreeze.com/2016-11-01/pawtucket/local-church-adopts-refugees-their-own#.WEtcW_krKCh
Wilson, P. (n.d.). Refugees and The Public Library. Public Libraries Online-Public Library Association. Retrieved from http://publiclibrariesonline.org/2015/12/refugees-and-the-public-library/
Witteveen, A. (2015, December 29). Public Libraries Support Refugees. Library Journal. Retrieved from http://lj.libraryjournal.com/2015/12/public-services/public-libraries-support-refugees/#_