Food, clothing, shelter and…books

When you think about the basic needs of Ukrainian refugee children, books seem to rank much lower on the list than food, clothing and shelter. But for Maria Deskur, CEO of the Polish Foundation for Universal Reading, the idea of ​​giving books to children is almost as urgent.

“Helping children here is crucial,” Ms Deskur says in a video chat from Warsaw, Poland. “Reading to a child creates a sense of security, the feeling that, ‘If we have time to read a book, that means we’re fine,'” she says.

The foundation aims to put as many books in Ukrainian into the hands of refugees as possible. By mid-April, the group had distributed 50,000 books: 30,000 printed by Polish publishers and 20,000 transported outside Ukraine. Ms Deskur would like to see the total number of books distributed to Ukrainians increase to 200,000 or even 500,000, including those for teenagers and adults. The Universal Reading Foundation has so far raised $170,000 towards its goal.

It’s important that children’s books, in particular, are in Ukrainian because “sharing a book with their parents, in their mother tongue, helps create moments of emotional stability,” Deskur says. She explains that the refugees, mostly from eastern Ukraine, do not know Polish. The languages ​​are quite different, with Ukrainian using the Cyrillic script and Polish using the Latin alphabet.

Ms Deskur also wanted to help the Ukrainian book industry survive. When Russia invaded, she contacted dozens of publishers and was eventually able to get books shipped from warehouses all over Ukraine to the western city of Lviv, not far from the Polish border. “They were writing to me, and it’s not just that their books will be read, but that someone cares about them…and they’re not left alone,” Ms Deskur says. The first shipment finally arrived in Poland on April 7. She adds: “I don’t know how long it will be possible” to get the shipments across the border.

The Universal Reading Foundation, whose goal is to increase literacy in Poland, has another motive behind its efforts: encouraging reading as a civic good. By the end of World War II, Polish libraries and the publishing industry were in shambles. In the decades since, literacy rates have remained stubbornly low, “lower than all our neighbors except Russia,” she says.

“After 70 years, we’re still behind other companies where this hasn’t happened,” Deskur says. “We have to help Ukraine so that this doesn’t happen there.”

The challenge is vast. One million Ukrainian children have arrived in Poland, and more are arriving every day. The consequences of low literacy rates “are terrible. A society that reads is more open,” says Deskur. “It’s a society that can dialogue and understand each other better.

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