By Roger Tagholm
A bold initiative to promote the love of reading and storytelling among preschool children in Gaza launched in early June at the Al-Shati refugee camp, also known as Beach Camp, which is one of the oldest refugee camps in the world and lies on the Mediterranean coast in the north of the Gaza Strip. The activity is run by the U.S. NGO American Near East Refugee Aid (ANERA) and will see the distribution of 10,000 Hayya Naqra (Let’s Read) packs across the Gaza Strip. The packs contain story books — among them Al-Yasroua’, the Arabic translation of Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar — as well as work books, posters, crayons and leaflets for parents and caregivers on the importance of reading.
Hayya Naqra is part of the Palestinian Community Assistance Program, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and managed by Mercy Corps. This two-year project implemented by ANERA will work with preschools and community centers to provide specialist training of preschool teachers and principals; rehabilitation and provision of equipment and learning materials, as well as educational development activities such as reading, painting, drama and summer camps.
“This is the first widespread book distribution program for preschool children in Gaza,” says Sulieman Mleahat, ANERA’s Education Program Director, who has been working on the initiative for more than a year (see an earlier Publishing Perspectives report here). “The need is great — the majority of Palestinian children have no access to preschool education. All the research shows how important early intervention is — the brain is 95% developed by the age of five, so children need early stimulation, through reading, rhyme, story-telling. The time is right to scale up the care of preschool children and we hope to turn this into a national, multi-year program. We need good quality books for preschool children who, through no fault of their own, are being denied a resource that so many other children take for granted.”
“The official start of the activity took place in a kindergarten where we have developed a lovely reading corner with bright colours and cushions and some shelves of books. We’ve trained caregivers in story-telling techniques and we’ll also be using Hakawatis — traditional, Palestinian storytellers. So far we have put reading corners like this into 29 preschools and 15 community centers, and we’ll be providing them with reading packs.
He says it has been a real challenge sourcing high quality children’s books locally due to the limited Palestinian publishing capacity. “Also, the option of buying books from outside was soon discounted as this was likely to be too costly — due to the price of the books, and shipping and duty. We chose the Early Childhood Resource Center in Jerusalem as a single supplier because it’s the only preschool resource institution in the West Bank and Gaza. But, in the future, we recognize that we need to diversify and offer children an even better choice of books and resources.”
To that end he visited the Sharjah International Book Fair earlier this year and met with the children’s publishing house Kalimat. Discussions have taken place about the possibility of producing special editions of Kalimat titles for Hayya Naqra. “In the long-term, it would be great to work with Palestinian publishers to produce better quality books locally. In the meantime, we need to look at all options to give children a better choice.”
High quality hand-made canvas Hayya Naqra bags have been produced locally in some of the largely redundant Palestinian factories in Nablus. “It has been good to provide work for them,” says Sulieman. “Palestinian manufacturing has declined in recent decades as the market has become flooded with cheap imports.”
Sulieman unashamedly takes inspiration from the UK’s Bookstart project, which provides free books to preschool children; occasionally he even describes ‘Let’s Read’ as ‘Bookstart Palestine.’
Paul Butler, ANERA’s country director, says: “We are proud to be launching the reading project, which is part of our long-term commitment to support Palestinian community development. Thanks to the generous help from USAID, Palestinian, Arab and American individuals, we are making a real difference to the lives of young children.”
Sulieman adds that his aim is simple. “I would like this to be a national campaign to provide preschool children with a pack of books every year. If we could reach 300,000 children every year, I’d be very happy. My ambition is to be able to give a pack to every preschool child. This is the best gift we can give to children.”