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November 2021

Reading with migrants “in the middle of the world”: Reading without borders

Reading with migrants “in the middle of the world”: Reading without borders 501 709 Lavinia Hirsu

Reading with migrants “in the middle of the world”: Reading without borders

I began to imagine the journey of “Reading with migrants in the middle of the world” in 2020, the year in which the coronavirus pandemic forced us to be at home and to cancel any possible travel. However, in this context of social isolation and mobility restrictions, I was invited to create and deliver virtual reading workshops for Venezuelan and Ecuadorian girls and boys who were beneficiaries of a project among whose objectives were to generate spaces and dynamics of integration between the migrant population and the host population. I confess that at first, it was not easy to imagine how to get these boys and girls to integrate while each one was confined to their home, counting only on the remote images and sounds that could reach them through a mobile phone or a computer. At that moment of initial confusion, I could not conceive how to read or show them a book and develop reading mediation activities that encouraged dialogues, encounters, and discoveries at a distance. Lacking the securities provided by the provision of a physical space full of books and materials for manual work; the effects of the voice and the close presence of the mediator to motivate reading and conversation; and the spontaneous dynamics of integration that occur between people when they share a space or an experience, I felt lost.

Fortunately, the books gave me shelter. The first ones to welcome me were the writings of Michèle Petit, some of which I had read long ago from the comfort of an observer. However, in my new situation, her reflections on “What is the use of reading” (2008, p.41-74); “The habitable character of books” (p.51); and the possibilities that literature offers us to reanimate interiority, to put ourselves in the skin of the other or to expand our selves through the celebration of the imaginary (p.123), gave me the first impulse to carry out those virtual workshops where I tested my confidence in books and literature to “bring together what is separate” (p.112). Following Petit’s advice, I decided to practice the “art of welcoming and availability” (p.164) and to turn those virtual rooms into “reading shelters”. I only needed the knowledge of how to do it. It was then that I got to know the book Para leer en contextos adversos y otros espacios emergentes (Reading in adverse contexts and other emergent spaces) (Secretaría de cultura de México, 2018), where I not only found ideas that strengthened my confidence in working with migrants and the host population in “emergent spaces”  such as virtual space, but I also discovered that this book made available to mediators, promoters and artists the systematization of experiences with methodologies of “cultural care” (p.9) implemented both in scenarios of human mobility and natural or social tragedies, such as in educational settings, to strengthen the skills of teachers.

Among the various experiences and methodologies shared there, the research and projects carried out by Evelyn Arizpe revealed to me the potential of the picturebook to generate cultural exchanges and promote the creation of meaning. In particular, the “Reading with migrants” project gave me the methodology to turn books and reading into symbolic shelters where girls and boys would feel welcomed, safe and encouraged to build bridges between them in the shared reading of picturebooks and other children’s books, accompanied by reading mediation activities. The activities were illuminated by the mediation model applied by Arizpe based on the metaphor “mirrors, windows and doors”, as explained by Rudine Sims Bishop (1990).  Sims Bishop shows us that as a mirror, literature offers the possibility to readers to see themselves reflected in the characters; as a window, it means seeing the lives of others and getting to know other possible ways of inhabiting the world; and as a door, it means confronting reality to cross thresholds, to take a step forward or to close and leave old cycles behind.

The virtual reading workshop sessions with the Venezuelan and Ecuadorian girls and boys lasted for six months. When we finished, I had the desire to share the experience with other mediators. Above all, I sensed the need to replicate in Ecuador, in some way, the training program “Reading with migrants” led in Mexico by Evelyn Arizpe, since in its recent history, Ecuador has registered significant migratory waves and internal population movements. According to IOM reports, in 2019, it was listed as “the main recipient of refugees of Latin America” (IOM Ecuador, 2019). The opportunity came with a call to present cultural or training projects for the “Línea de Fomento de Cultura y Derechos Humanos 2020” (Pathway for the Promotion of Culture and Human Rights 2020) of the Instituto de Fomento a la Creatividad y la Innovación (Institute of Creativity and Innovation). Inspired by both the methodology and the philosophy of the “Reading with migrants” program, Natali Lalangui and I applied to carry out a training program “Reading with migrants in the middle of the world”, and we were successful. The project’s objective was to train librarians, teachers, reading mediators and promoters of rights from the Metropolitan District of Quito and other provinces of the country in methodologies and tools to create intercultural reading itineraries with communities in contexts of migration or human mobility. The training program was carried out virtually and brought together a group of mediators and professionals based on their knowledge, origins and type of population they had interacted with. Among the 18 participants, there were mediators of both Ecuadorian and Venezuelan, Peruvian and Colombian, residing in different parts of Ecuador. In addition, we had two reading mediators from Brazil, for whom geographic distance and linguistic differences did not constitute any barrier. In this way, from the very formation of the group, we began to live the experience of “reading with migrants.”

The training program had a practical approach, because for the mediators to generate hospital “reading shelters” in their environments, we had to forge an experiential process that not only sensitized them to the phenomenon of migration but also led them to experience shared tools and methodologies in their bodies, minds and hearts. We then proposed that the training program would be a reading shelter for the mediators in the first place where they would feel a warm accompaniment. At the same time, we discovered the books, a meeting space with moments of reflection on the relationship that each one had with reading, and an opportunity to unlearn and rework concepts such as what to read, how we read the world, and how to read with others or for others. In short, we wanted to provide a training journey where the mediators experience reading and the creation of reading itineraries as something “free, poetic, free, and of playful exchange” (Petit, in La Nación, July 9, 2012), so that they would be able to transmit all that later in their reading shelters.

Guided by this purpose, we designed, directed and travelled together with the participants, ten virtual sessions under the workshop’s methodology. We started by “Imagining the trip”, getting closer to the reality of migration and its effects; “We prepare suitcases” exploring the tools that reading mediation offers us; “We start the journey” by reading the world from contexts of crisis and migration and discovering the potential of children’s and young people’s literature and the picturebook for these spaces. Finally, “We explore routes” with the pleasant participation of Evelyn Arizpe, who generously explained to us the model of reading mediation: mirrors, windows, doors; and so we learned how to develop a reading itinerary that would encourage encounters between the host population and the migrant population, encounters that would alleviate a little the burden of grief that migrants must develop. With all this, we began to “draw maps” under the compass of the resources of reading mediation to create activities that would allow the exchange of experiences and emotions respectfully and sensitively. Once the paths were established, we encouraged the participants to “Open suitcases” to think about the “Creation of reading shelters”; for this, we asked them to design their own reading itineraries and put them to the test with the group. Thus, during the practical sessions of the training program, we were able to experiment and provide feedback on each of the itineraries designed by the participants. These itineraries are already being put into practice in their work areas.

This whole journey that Nataly and I dreamed of was inspired by the stages of a migrant’s journey. We set it graphically through a visual analogy between human migration and bird migration. For this reason, each session was named after one of these stages and was accompanied by one of the migratory birds that made up the project’s graphic line. At the end of the training stage, we bid farewell to our travelling participants so they could “Open the doors of their reading shelters” equipped not only with a virtual mediator’s briefcase (digital texts and collaborative whiteboards on the Padlet platform with written, sound, cartographic and visuals resources), but also with a physical collection of books for both mediators and readers, with a selection of texts in Spanish on migration, children’s and young people’s books and picutrebooks.

According to the participants’ testimonies, this training process was a journey in which they filled their suitcases with valuable tools that they are eager to share in different contexts, given that they lend themselves to it. We are especially happy to know that for one of our mediators, participating in the program meant being able to bring to aclose, in her own words, “that circle, that void of longing” for her country. Also, as they expressed it, it was the opportunity to encounter different views of the reading mediation profession and to feel that during the journey, all of them became teachers sharing their knowledge andto recognise how, for the mediators, the exercise of cultural transmission through reading is transformative and becomes a window to see the world with renewed eyes; a mirror to see themselves reflected in shared reading experiences; and a door to meet the other in more hospitable, more welcoming, more humane spaces.

We are delighted to know that intercultural reading itineraries are already being put into practice in different parts of Ecuador and that even colleagues from Brazil have been encouraged to replicate this virtual training experience inspired by shared methodologies. At this stage of the journey, when all the reading shelters are wide open, we dream of giving continuity to the process by accompanying and monitoring the trained mediators. We also dream of having reading sessions of “Reading with migrants in the middle of the world” led by them; of creating a travelling library; of the replication of the program with new participants and its extension, through workshops, to teachers from all over the country. We will continue to seek support so that these dreams are fulfilled, and together, we will continue to chart the routes for reading without borders.

Mildred Nájera Nájera