The Jordanian NGO We Love Reading (WLR) fosters the love of reading among children in Jordan and the rest of the world through establishing a library in every neighborhood. The program demonstrates the links between education and psycho-social health, and between supportive, loving relationships and resilience in children. The program, by focusing on local cultures and languages, is also a way of preserving identity, heritage, and culture, especially among displaced communities.
Ms. Dajani, a molecular biologist, started We Love Reading in 2006 in her neighborhood in Amman, Jordan, with the goal of fostering a love of reading in children. With the backing of UNICEF, the organization embarked on a pilot program for Syrian refugees in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan in 2014. Two years later, it was working in all of Jordan’s refugee camps for Syrians and later on rolled out in the Gambella camp for South Sudanese refugees in Ethiopia.
WLR trains local volunteers to hold regular sessions in public spaces within neighborhoods where books are read aloud and exchanged with children. The books read to the children are written in their mother tongue and reflect the cultural background of the children. This means that the stories are easy to understand and show the children how to build positive attitudes and apply best practices in their everyday life. Ms. Dajani emphasized that reading the books in the children's mother tongue is crucial for building confidence and a sense of identity.
Research has shown that 80% of children who attend We Love Reading reading aloud sessions have had increasingly positive attitudes towards reading, and are more willing to go back to school because they associate reading with enjoyment. They are more empathetic because they learn about other cultures and people, and as a consequence perform better at school and become more confident.
Ms. Dajani says We Love Reading and programs like it offer examples of an intervention that helps to fill the gap in psychological and social health services — without reinforcing the power dynamic that all too often prevails between nonprofit organizations and communities they aim to serve. “If you’re designing for refugees, you should have refugees with you at the table,” Ms. Dajani said. “And make sure that the power dynamics at that table are equal.”
Dima Amso, a neuroscientist at Brown University who studied the impact of We Love Reading on children’s cognitive function and ability to regulate their emotions, said that one of the most important benefits identified wasn’t literacy but mental health, particularly relating to anxiety and anger management. And it had the greatest impact on the most traumatized or vulnerable children.
Alexandra Chen, a child trauma specialist affiliated with Harvard who works with refugee families around the world, said that humanitarian intervention has not done nearly enough to build resilience in children who face circumstances unimaginable to those who have never been forced to leave their homes for safety; and programs that have been designed to provide psycho-social support have been insufficient in their reach and inadequate in their quality.
There is still a long way to go, both in the quality and the reach of programs, Ms. Chen said. “Even the best psycho-social support intervention programs in existence require more precise impact evaluation and more dedicated coaching supervision for front-line facilitators and service providers.”
The program has gained the respect of renowned child specialists like Ms. Chan because it not only makes space for education in environments where that is so often missing but also restores a semblance of normalcy and fosters healthy relationships.
WLR also impacts the parent child relationship by building bridges of understanding and communication between parent and child through reading that helps alleviate mental stress from trauma.
Reading has also been shown to be an effective medium of communication between parents and children, when such communication may be broken because of stress of war and trauma. Through reading, children are able to build resilience as they draw courage and inspiration from the stories they read about.
Rasha Al-Masry, who fled Syria in 2014, is an “ambassador” for We Love Reading.
One boy in Ms. Al-Masry’s group had been wetting his bed at night because he was afraid to go to the bathroom alone. His parents had no idea what was happening, so they couldn’t help. After a few reading sessions with Ms. Al-Masry, that changed. He no longer wets his bed, but the root issue — the discomfort or fear of talking openly about the problem — is what the story sessions really helped him overcome.
As Ms. Al-Masry put it: “The children, they can’t speak about their fears, they can’t share these fears with others. After the stories, they start to share their fears.”
The program and approach of We Love Reading are now implemented worldwide by several international organizations such as Plan International, which is running the initiative in partnership with UNHCR in Kule refugee camp in Gambella, Ethiopia.
“It helps to create connection in a lost space,” said Ms. Zahra Kassam, an independent consultant who helped the roll-out of We Love Reading in Ethiopia. “Imagine these kids, they’ve left everything they’ve ever known. These camps are not places where people are thriving. They’re simply surviving. A program like this gives kids a little bit of focus, even without the formal setting of schools.” That provides a value that can be hard to see and even harder to measure.
We Love Reading has received grants from both UNICEF and USAID, an indication that the humanitarian community is waking up to the growing body of evidence about toxic stress.
Ms. Dajani has partnered with researchers at institutions that include Yale and New York University Abu Dhabi to demonstrate the importance of such mental health intervention.
To connect and engage with We Love Reading for potential partnership, click here.