The following guest post was written by Andrea Castillo, MLIS Student.
“Amira in America” was created as a project for the Serving Information Needs course at the University of Maryland, where all of us are pursuing master’s degrees in library and information science. Story by Andrea Castillo, drawings by Liz Laribee, and research by Carmen Collins and Dolly Martino, although all of us provided input and feedback throughout each step of the project.
All of us had a personal interest in creating something for people who speak English as a foreign language for a variety of reasons, from experiencing migration to the U.S. firsthand, to having relatives who are refugees, volunteering with refugees in the U.S. and abroad, and having an interest in working with these groups, especially children, in a professional capacity.
Each of us brings a variety of experiences to the table: Dolly is a disabled female Air Force veteran; Carmen is a Guatemalan immigrant who currently works as a records and archiving analyst; Liz is a writer, illustrator and creator of the critical theory humor blog Saved by the bell hooks, and I am a former newspaper reporter whose father, grandparents and other family members are Cuban refugees.
The story centers on Amira, a Syrian girl who is adjusting to life in her new American school, and her teacher, an immigrant from Ethiopia who came to the U.S. as a boy. By including the interaction between the two characters, our objective was to capture a variety of experiences not limited to one gender, one country or one age or generation. We wanted to acknowledge the influx of Syrian refugees into the U.S., as well as the Ethiopian population that has settled in the D.C. metro area, but we hope refugee children and families from all backgrounds can gain something from the story. We were moved from stories of refugees both real-life and fictional, from the story of a Syrian girl named Saja featured in a UNICEF video series called “Children of Syria Speak,” to the 2007 novel “The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears,” the debut work of Ethiopian immigrant Dinaw Mengestu, to other children’s books on the topic.
Pairing the story with the pictures helps get the message across more easily, especially for those who may lack literacy skills, either in English or even in their own language. (And we are open to translating our work into other languages.) Through our research, we found that children who complete art-based programs have better outcomes, and many benefit from structured creative activities, so we included coloring pages that could provide an outlet for that expression. We hope that refugee children can relate to the story, and in turn, show it to their parents or caregivers and start conversations about the issues it brings up. Perhaps those adults can then connect with the resources, people and information that might be helpful to them.
The journey with our project hasn’t ended with our class presentation, which we were happy to receive such positive feedback from. At the suggestion of our classmates, we got a Creative Commons License for the comic, which has been shared on Tumblr, Facebook and other social media hundreds of times. We’ve submitted a poster proposal to the Project Welcome: Libraries Serving Refugees and Asylum Seekers Summit, hosted by The Mortenson Center for International Library Programs and the American Library Association, in February 2017. The comic was also featured in a story on the website Upworthy, and Liz was asked to present and distribute the comic at the Alliance of American Museums in St. Louis in April 2017 and present with Evan Keeling, an exhibit designer at the Smithsonian.