Helen is a freelance writer from the UK currently based in Geneva, Switzerland. She ghostwrites novels, writes/illustrates children's books and coordinates Kitabna in Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan and Europe.
Helen taught English in Bangladesh and worked on community inclusion programs in Togo, West Africa, before studying literature at the University of Bristol. She spent two years working in publishing in Geneva, Switzerland, then one year in Lebanon studying Arabic and developing Kitabna. She has published 6 books and runs story-telling and story-writing workshops for organisations working in the global refugee response.
Federica is an Economics graduate from Genova. She got in touch Helen because she wanted to bring some books to the Island of Samos in Greece.
Believing in Kitabna's uniqueness and potential, she tries her best to contribute to the project. She is now working to the expand the project in Europe and on fundraising activities.
Ahmed is an English Literature graduate from Aleppo, Syria, who now works at the Saifi Institute for Arabic Language in Beirut, Lebanon.
Ahmed plans to be a teacher of literature and will be advising Kitabna on Arabic and Syrian storytelling traditions.
Based in Hamburg, Germany, Asia Haidar is a freelance editor, teacher and translator from Aleppo, Syria. She studies at University of Aleppo's Faculty of literature and Human Sciences and holds a Syrian Certificate of Excellence in Comprehension and Expression.
Asia has been working for the Kitabna project since February 2015 and as an Arabic teacher since 2010.
Maria is a teacher, artist and CATT (Children's Accelerated Trauma Therapy) trainer based in the UK. She specializes in using specific child-centered art based techniques to help young people process and re-script traumatic memories.
Maria works with children facing isolation and marginalization through conflict and displacement. She volunteers with Firefly International and Luna Children's Charity.
Vi is an international development worker focused on education and gender rights, currently working for Greenpeace in Amsterdam. In Lebanon she worked with a local NGO for Palestinian Youth and the Kitabna project.
Vi has experience with developing and leading training modules for educational personnel on community engagement, child rights conventions, gender mainstreaming, and gender based violence issues.
Robert is a law student based in Berlin, Germany, who came to Lebanon to learn Arabic but ended up learning far more. Meeting Helen and the inspiring fire of her eyes' enthusiasm was all he needed to understand the possibilities of the Kitabna project. He is now developing those possibilities in Germany.
So what does it mean to be a refugee without refugee status? UNHCR, the UN agency responsible for enforcing the law relating to refugee status, works with the Lebanese authorities to help the exiled Syrians. It registers Syrian refugees so that they can benefit from the assistance of international organizations. Through these organizations they can receive primary medical care and emergency services and the most vulnerable can benefit from food aid, psychological support, and housing assistance. UNHCR enables those they reach to receive assistance for basic needs, but does not give them any rights. They also only reach a reported three percent of the Syrian refugee population here in Lebanon. Many Syrians arrived in Lebanon without papers and cannot afford the $200 a year it would cost to renew their residency permits. They therefore find themselves in an illegal situation and have no right to work.
There is of course huge variation among the living situations of Syrians in Lebanon, with some refugees living comfortably, with relatives, or in houses and apartments they can afford to rent here. However, the vast majority live in poverty, settling in camps in the regions bordering Syria, or in overcrowded apartments in Beirut. With a wet and cold winter approaching, basic needs such as warmth and shelter are in acute focus. As is to be expected under such circumstances, education is neglected. Education it is essential for the development, future and self-esteem of these children, but school is not free n Lebanon. Thousands of Syrian families cannot even afford the bus fare, let alone the fees, to send their children to schools every day. For this reason, these children are described in their hundreds of thousands as Syria's "lost generation".
In Arabic, kitabna means "our book". The story of Kitabna started back in 2008, when Helen was teaching English in Bangladesh. The books children were given to learn English from were often second-hand offerings from Western aid agencies and did not reflect the cultural or environmental realities of the children reading them. Taking a few basic ideas, Helen rewrote and illustrated a traditional folk tale she knew about working together towards a common goal: a meal to be shared. She used the names of the children in the school and set the story in their villages. This way, the English tale of The Giant Turnip became the Bangladeshi tale of The Giant Carrot, and is still read in the LAMB School Library in Parbatipur, Bangladesh, to this day.
That same year, in August 2008, Helen traveled to Syria and made friends with a family there. Years later she watched as their lives, like so many, were torn apart at the start of the 2011 conflict. In 2014 she saw the family again in Italy, where they had sought asylum as refugees, and started to learn more about the Syrian refugee situation.
Helen took her writing work freelance and arrived in Lebanon in June 2014 to learn the Levantine dialect of Arabic. She soon discovered that tens of thousands of Syrian children living in refugee camps cannot afford access to Lebanese schools. Upon visiting refugee camps in the Beqaa Valley and discovering the number of children looking for stimulation and education, Helen started writing two books called The Giant Watermelon and Esraa's Stories. With the help of Lebanese and Syrian friends, Antoinne, Faten, Majd, Ali and Ahmed, the books have been carefully translated into literary Arabic fusha.
When Helen met Maria, Robert, Phillipe and Vi in their Arabic class at the Saifi Institute, Beirut, they decided to make The Giant Watermelon into something bigger than just one book.
we aim to set warm and fun stories in refugee camps, creating pride and dignity in an environment which is home for these children and will be until the sectarian violence ends in Syria.
we aim to encourage reading and writing skills in both English and Arabic through the creation of bilingual children's books.
we aim to stimulate imagination and encourage children to help each other create and learn.
we aim to develop the children's storytelling abilities by encouraging them to write their own stories.