In honor of International Literacy Day, we spoke with #AerieREAL Changemaker and co-founder of Millie’s Bookshelf, Katie Howland, about why International Literacy Day is so important and how you can create REAL change, too! 

What inspired you to create Millie’s Bookshelf?

At the height of the Syrian Civil War, I left my job at the United Nations Foundation to volunteer in a refugee camp in Jordan. While working at a maternity clinic, I saw countless kids accompany their mothers to appointments with nothing to keep them occupied while they waited. After speaking with camp staff about the possibility of installing a small library, I learned that most families had nowhere to turn to borrow or purchase books of their own. Very few organizations focus on providing books and reading programs to refugees; even fewer organizations do so using new, language-appropriate materials. Millie’s Bookshelf exists to change that.

What’s the most challenging obstacle you’ve experienced while working with refugees and education?

Funding! The humanitarian community is facing the highest levels of displacement since records began – there are over 34 million (!) displaced kids right now. And that’s a tough number to wrap your head around, so let me put it into perspective. Imagine that the entire populations of Los Angeles, London, Bangkok, Nairobi, Paris and Sydney were all kids, and they were all uprooted from their homes. Awful, right? Unfortunately, there simply aren’t enough resources to care for all of these kids’ needs – and education is not highly prioritized. Each year, the humanitarian industry only allocates 3.6% of their budgets to formal or informal education programs. That’s why nonprofits like Millie’s Bookshelf that operate through donations are so critical.

What success have you seen as a result of Millie’s book distributions and library installations?  

We’ve had a lot of success so far working on small-scale book distributions in low-income and asylum seeker communities along both sides of the US-Mexico border. We also have a program called Mini Millie’s Bookshelves, which are a fun play on the little library movement that helps to fund our international programs. Once COVID-19 ramped up, we temporarily diverted some of our funding to provide emergency food relief to folks in small towns and refugee camps in northern Iraq. The Changemaker funding is going to be a game changer for our international work in this region, allowing us to build the first-ever school library in Sinjar Province – serving survivors of the 2014 Yazidi genocide perpetrated by ISIS.

How do you curate which books you want to put in the libraries?

Easy – ask the community! Everywhere we operate, we partner with a local nonprofit to ensure that our book collections are locally-driven and linguistically appropriate. We also have a small sub-collection of books that we consider our “Core Curriculum” covering topics like women’s health, human rights and regional history and culture. We do our best to highlight original works from the region in lieu of simply providing Western translations. Even more importantly, we work hard to identify local suppliers to avoid distortion of the local economy. You would be surprised how many organizations ship in used, English-language books in places where it’s possible to support a bookseller making a living by selling culturally-appropriate titles. The first rule of humanitarian work should always be: do no harm.

Why is International Literacy Day important and how do you promote awareness on the topic?

One of the common questions I hear is, “Why books?” It’s an understandable question when there are so many acute needs faced by people fleeing war and persecution. The simple answer is that early childhood reading has ripple effects that extend far into adulthood. Studies have shown that early access to reading materials is a critical predictor of language acquisition, socio-emotional development, and long-term educational attainment. In addition, new research suggests that reading can even provide psychological benefits for children who are coping with stress due to the trauma of displacement. International Literacy Day is a day for the world to come together to make tangible progress in support of literacy and reading initiatives everywhere.

What books do you recommend?

This is such a difficult question! I’m a compulsive reader. My favorite books give me glimpses into far-away cultures and two of my favorites have come out of Millie’s Book Club recommendations. If you want to understand how powerful books can be for people during wartime, Syria’s Secret Library by Mike Thomson is a jaw-dropping read. Another favorite of mine is The Monk of Mokha by Dave Eggers – it follows a Yemeni-American from San Francisco who works to revive the ancient practice of coffee cultivation in Yemen right as their civil war breaks out.

What advice would you give for people who want to get involved refugee literacy initiatives?

One of the easiest ways to get involved with the work we do at Millie’s is to join our Book Club! We read 6 books per year about various refugee crises, have fun Zoom discussions with like-minded people and contribute $5/month towards our work to mitigate book deserts in conflict settings. We’re also looking for passionate individuals to pilot Millie’s Campus Clubs this year – so reach out via our contact form if you’re interested in advocating and fundraising for Millie’s at your school! And of course, our work would not be possible without your generous donations. Even the smallest contribution goes a long way to ensuring every child fleeing war and persecution has access to a good book. 

Looking for more books to read? Check out our Role Models’ picks at #AerieREAL Reads!

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