Turn the Tide We Must: Information Literacy and the Refugee Crisis

By Joshua Salmans

“[It]…will not be easy…Wishing it, predicting it, even asking for it, will not make it so. There will be further setbacks before the tide is turned. But turn it we must….” [i]

–President John F. Kennedy

This post is dedicated to my dearest friend and travel companion—her heart, humor, and love are the sincerest of any I’ve ever met, allowing her empathy coupled with active engagement to swell without inhibition for those who are seeking safe haven from the horrors of this world.

The Crisis

Feelings of trepidation and helplessness are increasingly inescapable as constant reports of people seeking refuge perishing as their overcrowded boats capsize in the Mediterranean Sea. Last year alone, more than a million people seeking refuge crossed this sea in order to make it to countries in the European Union (EU). This year has seen more than 190,000 people risked their lives to reach its shores.[ii] In addition to Syrians, Afghanis, and Iranians, those seeking asylum are from Southeast Asia, Africa and the Middle East, including Iran, Morocco, Eritrea, Somalia and Congo.[iii]

Even more disheartening are the conditions that await those who survive and can make long treks by foot, bus, or through smugglers to find refugee centers and then asylum. Reception by EU countries has been unfortunately mixed—some countries have closed their borders out of fear. Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, and Slovenia have all taken drastic measures to prevent people seeking refuge from crossing their borders even to get to other EU countries.[iv]

Centers for people seeking refuge are often overcrowded and barely meet standard humanitarian needs—lack of food, dirty water, and insufficient blankets as well as overflowing garbage and sewage that seeps into sleeping areas.[v]

My friend mentioned above relayed to me some of the horrific accounts of several families she met while volunteering at a camp on the Greek island of Lesbos. Their stories of hunger, nights spent hiding in forests, and brutality at the hands of authorities while traversing through neighboring EU countries are sobering. One family of ten unbelievably made this arduous journey with a grandmother who has cancer and other medical needs. I don’t have space here to relay their stories, but unreportedpeople.eu features some similar accounts that will grapple with your hearts.

What role should Information Literacy take?

I would be remiss if I merely left my readers with such dismal observations without offering a framework for information literacy professionals to cultivate an educational space both at home and abroad for engaging this immigration crisis and reducing the fears associated with it.

If we look back to Kennedy’s administration, its idealistic forming of the Peace Corps has much to offer in developing such a dialogue. Arthur Schlesinger Jr., in his book A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House, summarizes the Corps objectives:

  • It can contribute to the development of critical [dialogue with other] countries and regions.
  • It can promote international cooperation and good will [towards each other].
  • It can also contribute to the education of [our own people] and to more intelligent participation in the world.[vi]

I propose we in the information literary profession mirror these objectives in our approach to developing programs and services specifically related to people seeking refuge. Fear of the unknown is often a significant contributing factor to resistance to immigration in the target countries—making integration a difficult process. Integration, in my view, is a dynamic responsibility for all citizens of the world—not just those seeking to immigrate learning to adapt to the other(s).

What does this mean for the library? Melissa Rogers, director of the New Americans Campaign, emphasizes the importance of libraries as “gathering points for the community [as a whole] and…access to citizenship resources and technology….”[vii] Creating educational spaces that celebrate cultures of both the inhabitants of the target country and those immigrating is essential to promoting cooperation and good will towards each other.

Given these objectives, what framework can we use to promote integration from all sides? Jennifer Koerber, in this month’s edition of Library Journal, highlights a report from World Education’s Networks for Integrating New Americans (NINA) Initiative.[viii] While this report focused on people immigrating adapting to American culture, I would like to expand its framework to include a holistic understanding of integration and responsibility:

  • Linguistic integration—where language appreciation and proficiency programs aid in promoting “language skills and cultural knowledge [and exchange] that contribute meaningfully to [all represented in] their community.”
  • Economic integration— “when both [workers who are immigrants] and community employers understand their rights…and [people who are immigrating] have the resources to excel economic and financial self-sufficiency.”
  • Civic integration— “when all community members feel a sense of belonging, are secure in their rights, exercise their liberties, participate in civic life, and share ownership in the community and the nation’s future.”

Since people seeking refuge are constantly in a states of transition and uncertainty, I want to add to this discussion an online presentation I created last semester about Reynolds & Johnson’s (2014) four pillars of support for adult basic education (ABE) students transitioning to college. These supports, I believe, are even more so relevant and applicable in our approach to providing essential programs and services to those who are seeking refuge. It is presented below.


[i] Quote taken from Page 168 of: Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. (2002). A thousand days: John F. Kennedy in the White House. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company. (Original work published 1965).

[ii] http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/05/greece-eviction-refugees-idomeni-160525131739287.html

[iii] http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2015/12/anger-greek-refugee-camp-idomeni-eviction-151211143308010.html

[iv] ibid.

[v] http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/05/greece-eviction-refugees-idomeni-160525131739287.html

[vi] Arthur M. Schlesinger (2002/1965), p. 607.

[vii] Jennifer Koerber (2016). Celebration & integration: Service to immigrants and new Americans, an integral part of the public library mission, is being taken to the next level. Library Journal, 141(10), p. 48-51.

[viii] ibid.

Creative Commons License
camelotsecho by Joshua Salmans is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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