Presentation and Panel Discussion On Library Services For Immigrants & Refugees

By dlachenm

On Wednesday, October 19th at 6:30pm I attended a presentation and panel discussion about utilizing libraries to provide services for refugees and immigrants at the Goethe-Institut, a non-profit German cultural center, with its own small library, located on the outskirts of Union Square. Inka Jessen started off the event with a presentation about Syrian refugees and the services that are provided for them at the Stuttgart public library in Germany. Stuttgart is Germany’s third largest public library, currently housed in a brand new and quite gorgeous building that has 8 floors, with a huge center area carved out for the main library. Architecturally, the building is a giant cube, where all the windows are illuminated in blue at night. It is the most modern looking library I have ever seen. Jessen is in charge of all immigrant services at the library, a task that has become more important and more difficult with Germany’s open door policy towards Syrian refugees. She is also apart of the Goethe-Institut’s librarian in residence program, that has been running since 2008. Visiting and speaking with several New York City libraries and librarians she is conducting research and learning best practices to bring back to Stuttgart in order to make their refugee and immigrant services all the more better. She is incredibly grateful to be here in New York City, a city with a very rich immigrant history, as well as a bountiful history of immigrant library services and library partnerships with local community organizations.  Jessen details much of her experiences on the Goethe-Institut’s Librarian in Residence blog. However, it is written in German, so while it is very useful for her German colleagues and German-American partners, it has not been very useful for me. According to Jessen, Germany has recorded approximately 900,000 Syrian refugees that are now living among them, 8,500 of which are now living in Stuttgart. The refugees are living in small containers right outside of the library itself or in swiftly built long houses in other areas of town. Currently at Stuttgart, there are a variety of services available for refugees to utilize, aiding them with assimilation into German culture and working towards becoming productive citizens of Germany, at least until they have an opportunity to safely return home. Stuttgart offers internet access in 60 languages, with books and dvds in 26 languages, specifically including Arabic and Urdu language books and dictionaries they were able to obtain with some extra funding. They also provide easy access to German dictionaries, easy to read literature, virtual e-learning classes and on site adult German classes and mentor groups for learning the German language. Stuttgart has a reading aloud project for refugee children, where volunteers, many of them teachers or former teachers, read to Syrian children (many of which are parentless, living in groups) and play language based games to help them get a feel for the German language. Another program they have for teenagers is their Revolution Children project, where teens create and carry out theatrical performances in the library, helping to build community and educate others about the perils of current life in Syria. Volunteers also travel around Stuttgart, visiting the refugee housing areas to read to children and hand out bookpasses. Bookpasses are essentially library cards, in which the owner doesn’t have to have an address, making them a perfect way for refugees to access the library and all its resources.

I would like to part from the event for a moment to speak about several other information services that Germany is providing both Germans and Syrian refugees, as to paint a nice backdrop for the work Jessen is doing in Stuttgart. The German government, aid organizations and volunteers have created apps, websites and online resources to efficiently track and support refugees in their quest to navigate German bureaucracy, learn the German language, find both jobs and housing, and be granted asylum expeditiously. According to CNET reporters, Germany is utilizing technology better than any other country providing asylum for Syrians. The Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, otherwise known as BAMF, has created Germany’s first centralized database of refugees, migrants and asylum seekers. They have achieved this in 3 months, with 60 software developers working 18-20 hour days in order to pull this off. By leveraging the use of passport scanners, high resolution cameras and digital fingerprinting, which are all cross referenced in the database, they can register someone in 2-3 minutes, as opposed to days and they can approve or reject asylum for an individual in 48 hours, as opposed to 7-8 months. BAMF has also created the Ankommen (Arrival) app for those who have newly arrived, providing them with information about the complexities of the asylum process, the rights they have as refugees, the rights women have living in the western world, and basic German phrases. Bureaucrazy is another app that is on its way, yet still in the development process. It will help refugees navigate German bureaucracy and documentation, as well as provide a map of important places associated with these tasks. Babbel’s language learning app is another great resource for refugees. The monthly subscription for the app is $6.95, but Babbel has waived this fee for refugees, in order to help them learn German. There are also two websites that Syrian refugees have found helpful, Let’s Integrate, which helps foster the connection between locals and refugees by facilitating meetups, and HelpTo, where people can post items and services they are donating, as well as ask for help. It seems that Germany has done a masterful job utilizing technology, with the hopes of fostering integration. (

Now, back to the event. The second part of the event was a panel discussion with Inka Jessen, Fred Gitner, and Sonia Lin. Sonia Lin is the Policy Director of Immigrant Affairs at the Mayor’s Office. Her job is to support and institute policies and programs that will help aid the well being of the 3 million people who are foreign born in New York City. Fred Gitner is the Assistant Director of the New Americans Program and International Relations at the Queen’s Library. The Queen’s Library is not associated with the NYPL system, it is a non-for-profit corporation with over 65 libraries in its care, serving one of the most ethnically and culturally dense areas in the United States. Lin and Gitner represent two sides of the same coin, the partnership of libraries and local government to help immigrants become better American citizens, while still preserving their ancestral cultures and identities. From the library side of the coin, Gitner spoke of the various language programs geared toward those trying to learn English or for those interested in simply learning another language. One woman he spoke of told him that she wanted to “be part of the global community,” which is why she was thankful for their Korean and Urdu language classes. Some of the other programs they have available at the Queen’s Library include having a medical librarian available to help immigrants with health and health insurance related questions, attorney assistance for helping immigrants apply for citizenship, programs to obtain a high school diploma, and information sessions for people applying for the Diversity Visa green card lottery, done in partnership with the Mayor’s office. The list goes on and on. On the local government side of the coin, Lin was proudest of the IDNYC program. People can go to various libraries to apply for the card, which is accepted as a valid form of identification by the NYPD. They do not have to share their immigration status while applying for the card, can use it as a library card, and are provided with discounts to shows, gyms, prescription drugs, as well as free membership to certain museums and cultural institutions through the card. Benefits provided by this card are particularly important when you consider that of the 3 million immigrants in NYC, ½ million of them are undocumented. Jessen, on the other hand expressed great concern about the image problem libraries in Germany have had in the recent past. This is starting to change as German citizens witness how integral libraries have been with the assimilation of Syrian refugees, bringing renewed attention in the greatest of light. She expressed that she does not know of one library in Germany that provides the types of services that the NYPL, Queen’s Library and Brooklyn Public Library systems do for their populations, especially their immigrant populations. Jessen’s goal here is to absorb as much as she can, from people like Sonia Lin and Fred Gitner, during her librarian residency with the Goethe-Institut, and use that knowledge to transform refugee and immigrant library based services back in Stuttgart. I came to this event thinking that I was going to be schooled on the efficiencies and proficiencies of German libraries, I left a little prouder of the types of services libraries provide for their citizens in the city I call home.

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