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Your Old Textbooks Can Educate Child Refugees Around the World

A textbook is one of the world’s most basic educational tools. It can come in different forms: small or large. Hardcover or paperback. Science or Math. English or French. 

Sometimes, it takes the form of a picture book — and in Lebanon, donated picture books are making a huge difference for newly arrived Syrian refugee children. 

At the Jusoor School for Syrian Refugees, which serves students at informal refugee camps in Lebanon's Western Beqaa region, picture books help refugee kids learn English and French, and ease their transition into the Lebanese school system. 

Take Action: Ask World Leaders to Fund Year 2 of Education Cannot Wait

“It’s these resources that allow for interactive activities,” Izdihar Omar, an administrator at Jusoor School, told humanitarian organization Anera. “Given the poverty these students live in, they need these types of fun learning activities.”

Jusoor received a shipment of textbooks through the International Book Bank (IBB), one of many nonprofit organizations working to put textbooks and other educational supplies into the hands of the students that need them the most. 

Doing so can be challenging, and involve several levels of coordination. But the need to keep refugee students in school can’t be understated. 

Worldwide, more than half of the world’s refugees are under the age of 18. For them, gaining access to an education can mean the difference between life in poverty and the opportunity to improve their futures. In the short term, textbooks can be crucial for keeping kids in school and away from some of the myriad challenges children refugee camps face, including child marriage, child labor, mental health risks, and radicalization. 

Read More: Half of All Child Refugees Aren't in School: Why This Is a Massive Problem

“Most students here live in unstable conditions,” Omar said. “Many are residents of nearby tented settlements, and are at risk of dropping out to work and support their families, mainly by doing agricultural work.”

For these students, gaining access to textbooks and other educational materials is not only life-changing, but also potentially life-saving. And your old textbooks can play a role in making this happen. 

This is what the long, perilous journey of a textbook from the back of your closet to a classroom halfway around the world can look like.   

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The Challenge 

Every hour, nearly 500,000 textbooks are produced across the United States. Many more are printed each year in European countries like the UK and France. Although an increasing number of textbook producers are turning toward digital e-books, it has been estimated that 33 US-based textbook publishers printed more than 4.3 billion textbooks in 2011. 

But in other parts of the world, gaining access to this seemingly ubiquitous product can be extremely challenging. In some schools around the world, as many as 20 students are forced to share one textbook

Access to educational materials is especially limited in refugee settings, where an estimated 6 million children live. In the Bidi Bidi refugee camp in Uganda, for example, class sizes can grow to as many as 200 students per teacher — and pencils, textbooks, and notebooks are in short supply.

Ensuring access to a quality education for all children around the world is the fourth UN Global Goal for Sustainable Development. But for refugee kids, even the simplest materials are all too often lacking — making achieving this goal incredibly challenging. 

Read More: Turkish Trash Collectors Built a Library of Discarded Books

But it can be done. Thanks in large part to a number of nonprofit organizations, hundreds of thousands of refugees around the world are able to gain access to textbooks, and in turn get both an education and a fresh start in life.

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The Journey  

The shortage of textbooks in refugee camps is due, in part, to the challenges of getting them there. 

In order for a textbook to make its way from your home in the US or the UK, or from the overstocked shelves of bookseller warehouses, to a refugee camp in Africa or the Middle East, that book will likely have to take some combination of a postal carrier, sea freighter, and a semi-truck to get there. 

“There’s an extremely complex procurement process that’s engaged in the transfer of materials from point A to point B,” Jamie Weiss Yagoda, an education policy adviser at the International Rescue Committee (IRC), told Global Citizen. “[Refugee camps] are the most challenging contexts on earth: roads that are collapsed due to flooding and rain, security concerns, environmental factors.” 

Books for Africa, based out of the US, and Book Aid International, based out of the UK, are two of the nonprofits facilitating this journey — bringing together book publishers and individual donors with distribution organizations on the ground. 

Since 1988, Books for Africa has sent 40 million books to 53 countries from shipping centers in St. Paul, Minnesota, and Atlanta, Georgia. 

The organization collects donations of textbooks, supplementary educational materials, and leisure books from publishing companies and individuals, and then stores them at its Atlanta warehouse to be shipped overseas. 

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Anyone can send books in the mail — as long as they’re gently used and no more than 15 years old (or 10 years old for textbooks). 

At the warehouse, volunteers process the books — sorting them into a range of 30 different categories. They’re then shipped, 22,000 at a time, in 40-foot shipping containers by sea freighters, which set sail from the Port of Savannah to ports in East Africa, according to Erin Yates, a project manager at Books for Africa. 

The organization also helps coordinate land distribution on the continent. 

To get the books to refugee camps, which are often landlocked, Yates said shipping containers must be completely unpacked and repacked into semi-trucks — or sometimes pickup trucks, depending on the terrain. Then they’re transported to distribution partners who decide how and where the books will be used. 

“Nobody works on the scale that we do,” Yates told Global Citizen. “We provide textbooks, but we also provide a lot of leisure and supplementary books, too. These are books that create a culture of reading and can be used in addition to the curriculum that’s provided by the government.” 

Books coming from the UK follow a similar path. Book Aid International collects books and other educational materials in its South East London warehouse, where they’re shipped not just to Africa, but to vulnerable populations around the world. 

The organization ships about 1 million books each year to local distribution partners at public and community libraries, schools, refugee camps, hospitals, and prisons worldwide, said Jenny Hayes, communications executive at Book Aid International, in an email to Global Citizen. 

The Windle Foundation, which runs educational programs in the Kakuma and Dadaab refugee camps in Kenya, is one of those partners, making sure these books end up in the right hands. 

“We are supplying about 15,000 schoolchildren in the two camps,” Robin Shawyer, director of Windle International, told Global Citizen, “but the availability of books is much below what we would wish.” 

The Impact 

For Yvonne, a refugee in Kenya, access to books changed her life. 

Yvonne, 22, was born in the Congo to Burundian refugees. At the age of 10, her family was displaced a second time — this time landing at one of the world’s largest refugee camps: Kakuma. 

Read More: Saving the Lives of Rohingya Children Might Start With Giving Them Paintbrushes

There, she was selected to join the Morneau Shepell Girls Boarding School, where she found a job as a librarian — handling books sent to the camp by Book Aid. This job eventually inspired her to apply to study at a university in Canada. 

“From my childhood I have seen people succeeding through education – and you get education through books,” Yvonne told BookAid. “So, for me, my dream is to go out of the camp and become someone who has an identity in a country — so I can no longer be called a refugee. I am going to achieve through books.”

It’s not just Yvonne who has benefited from access to textbooks. 

Studies have shown that when every student in a classroom has access to their own textbook, literacy outcomes improve anywhere from 5 percent to 20 percent, according to the Global Education Monitoring Report

But Yagoda, at the IRC, warns that when it comes to education in emergencies, textbooks are just the tip of the iceberg. 

“Children don’t have textbooks, but they also don’t have benches,” she said. “The challenge of getting enough supplies is astonishing. We deal with significant overcrowding in the classroom. Sometimes education takes place under a tree.” 

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Education funding, Yagoda said, makes up less than 2% of humanitarian relief funding. 

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“When a crisis occurs, education can’t be a second-tier priority,” she said. 

Global Citizen campaigns on the Global Goals for Sustainable Development, and access to quality education is goal number four. You can join us and call on world leaders to support the Education Cannot Wait fund, which helps refugees gain access to an education, here

If you have a closet of old books, or a kid who just graduated high school, you can help refugee students, too. Along with Book Aid International and Books for Africa, check out these 10 organizations providing books to children around the world.  

Your action might just change a life.