“Reaching Refugee Children Through Stories” — Deborah Ellis’s Speech at the 2019 OLA Super Conference Panel

The theme of the panel is refugees and stories, and I’ll get to that in a moment, but first I wanted to touch on something I’ve been thinking about lately that I think is related. This is the connection between compassion, resilience and sustainability.

We grow compassion by learning to put ourselves in the shoes of others, to see the world through their eyes, by using our skills and imaginations to feel what they feel. In order to grow this compassion, we need information. We need to have tools to help us learn what life is like for others. We get these tools from examples — my parents were great ones for assisting the old and forgotten in our neighbourhood — and from stories we hear and witness.

When we begin to gain an understanding of the struggles of others, we can then attach to their stories our own experience of struggle. We look for connections to help us understand our own experience. I believe that these connections help us build resilience. For example, a child may learn from the stories of concentration camp survivors how to deal with brutality while still keeping their sense of self and dignity. This may help the child if they are unfortunate enough to have a parent who yells at them or, worse, hits them. It may help them think about their personal situation in a non-personal way, so that the blows only go as far as their flesh, and not right into their spirit.

That’s a bit of an extreme example, but we all look for examples of courage in order to grow courage in our own lives. Compassion for others can help us have compassion for ourselves, and even for those who are tormenting us. It can help us see the tormentor as a damaged human being, which can help lift their brutality out of being personal toward us and into more of merely an outward expression of their own pain. The trick to compassion in this area is to not allow it to overwhelm our understanding that the brutality must stop, that we are worthy of living without violence and indignity. The stories we read, hear, see and absorb about the courage of others who stand against unkindness help us reach for that in our own lives.

Compassion means the ability to understand others and treat them with kindness. Resiliency means to bounce back from the times when others do not have compassion for us. Sustainability, in this context, means combining compassion and resilience into a way of life that reflects both our desire to be kind people with our strength to shake off our disappointment when others are unkind to us. Sustaining this way of being means we are able to move through life without grudges, without passing our pain onto others and without feeling the need to shore ourselves up with artificial symbols of courage, such as falling for angry politicians and blaming those who are different for all the ills in the world.

Sustainability also means our capacity to take our personal experiences and pains into collective ones, with collective solutions. One of the strongest women I’ve ever met was in an Afghan refugee camp in Pakistan. She was a widow. Her daughter had been raped and murdered by the Taliban, her body dumped on the woman’s doorstep. When she was telling me about this terrible loss and crime, she stressed to me that the importance of what she was saying was not to focus on her daughter, but for people to come together to create a world where what happened to her daughter never happened again to anyone else.

All of this relates to refugees because we seem to be in a time when more and more people are being forced to be on the move. Whether they are refugees from war, the effects of global warming, brutal governments, or poverty; or, closer to home, from wildfires and floods, or from the perennial problem of men who can’t keep their damn hands to themselves, any of us could, at any time, join those who are wandering, looking for a safe place to land.

And now I’m going to contradict myself, because on the one hand I’m saying there is no us and them anymore, there is just us, we are all potential wanderers. And while that is true, it is also very true that those of us born into certain geographic and economic zones, with light skin colour, are more likely to be the lucky ones who get to stay put, and who get to travel if they wish for holidays or career moves, and not because they have to flee for their lives. For people in this situation, a cruise on the Mediterranean means something very different than it does for someone climbing onto an overcrowded dinghy and pushing out to sea, hoping to still be alive when they get to the opposite shore.

We are raising children, therefore, into a world that can be much more polarized between the wanderers and the stay-putters. So now the question is, what do we do with that? That’s really the question we all ask ourselves as adults — what will our legacy be? What will we do with this moment in time that we inhabit? What do we want the next moment to look like? And the moment after that? And the moment after that?

The next moment is, after all, shaped by our choices, and our choices are shaped by our vision, whether we take the time to admit that we have a vision or not. We can allow a vision of fear to overwhelm us, or we can choose to build our compassion, which will strengthen our resilience and build a sustainable, kinder future.

It has been my great fortune to see librarians around the world act with great vision and courage to welcome people to share their stories and be open to new stories. I remember being in a children’s library tucked under a freeway in Jakarta, into a tiny space the librarian negotiated with the local mafia to set aside for her as a safe place for the community children to go to. I’ve been in youth prisons where the library has been a saving grace for kids who have been thrown away from every possible caretaker. I can still remember the big smile on the small boy’s face in the little community centre in Kabul that had a small library. “Ten shelves of books!” he said, pointing them out to me with a sweeping arm. “Ten shelves! All our problems can be solved by reading the books on these shelves!” The children in that community centre read the books, discussed them, discussed how the things they learned applied to their neighbourhood, then took what they learned from the books and from themselves through reading the books and formed action plans to improve their lives and the lives of those around them.

It is no different in Ontario. Libraries have become focal points for the community. In Norfolk County, where I live, our libraries have become places where people come together in many ways for many purposes, all of which have at their core the goal of building a better, kinder, more inclusive society, and therefore, a better, kinder, more inclusive world. There is at least one librarian from Norfolk County here at the conference today. Her name is Heather King, and if you meet her, please tell her I said thank you for all that she and her colleagues do. Also, tell her that she’s clearly much braver than me for driving up the 24 highway this morning!

Women for Women in Afghanistan has partnered with Able Box Libraries — I think that is their name — to put libraries in places that have never seen such things before. The community members who get trained as librarians learn that a library is much more than the shelves of books. A library — and especially a librarian — creates reverence for the books. For $750 dollars, Women for Women can place one of these libraries in a village, often inside the local mosque, and that library then becomes a focal point for people to come together in the pursuit of knowledge and community. Adult literacy classes, religion classes, poetry readings, discussion groups, all happen around these books.

Librarians are often the unsung heroes of people’s lives. I don’t know how I would have made it through high school if I hadn’t had the library to escape to each lunch hour, and a librarian who smiled at me as if I were a normal kid, not a social pariah.

By creating safe places for all sorts of people to share all sorts of stories, and by making efforts to give wanderers a safe, solid place to be, librarians recognize the dignity and courage of these stories and experiences.

We live at a time when the planet is full of people forced to be on the move. We have some decisions to make. Do we build walls or bridges? Fear builds walls. Stories build bridges.

I vote for stories.

— Deborah Ellis, 2019

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