BookTrust packs for Afghan mums

Published on: 08 March 2024

Our BookTrust packs are helping our partners in Northumberland to support resettled Afghan families and bring them the joy and benefits of reading together.

Debbie reading to a group of Afghan mums

Debbie Bowman is a teacher of English as an Additional Language for Northumberland Inclusive Education Services. She works with families who arrive in Northumberland under resettlement schemes, including Syrian and Afghan refugees.

"When we know we've got a family coming, we always try to go to their home and say: 'Welcome to Northumberland, we're very happy to have you here,'" she says.

"The Afghan families we work with were got out of Afghanistan very quickly. They may have been living in hotels for a while before they could be permanently settled, which some of them found isolating and scary."

After making home visits Debbie helps children settle in at nurseries or school, and visits these settings to check in on them. "I try to be there on a child's first day at school," she says. "I'm there to say to parents: 'I promise they're going to be OK.'"

Making home visits with BookTrust packs as gifts

A basket of Bookstart Pre-schooler packs available to take

Senior Librarian Diane Wright manages BookTrust's programmes across Northumberland County Council. As Bookstart Coordinator, she explores new pathways for getting our books and reading support to families who need it most.

"The Bookstart Toddler and Preschooler packs created an opportunity for us to work with Debbie and her colleague Katie," says Diane. "We hadn't really worked together before. The BookTrust pilot made me think in different ways and make new contacts."

Debbie says: "I was able to go back to families' homes with the BookTrust packs as a gift and check in with parents. I always have a box of the packs in my car now.

"I chat with families about reading with their child. We give them guidance about shared reading, translated into their language. I will also deliver the Bookstart Baby packs to families with newborn babies and develop new relationships with those families, too."

Debbie adds: "The BookTrust packs have been a great way to keep in touch with families, who have always been grateful for the books. One of the mums told me Follow The Trail Minibeasts [in the Bookstart Preschooler pack] is her daughter's absolute favourite book. Some of the older children have told me that they read the books with their younger siblings. It's helped us engage with whole families."

How the reading group for Afghan women came to be

Debbie reading to a group of mums and their children

Debbie had an idea to create a mums' reading group – a group environment where Afghan women resettled in the coastal town of Blyth felt comfortable to bring along their toddlers and children and get support with reading together.

"At first, I didn't know whether the families would engage," Debbie says.

Then, during a home visit, Debbie met one "fabulous mum". "I congratulated her on how brilliant her English was," says Debbie. "She talked about how she was very interested in learning and educating her children.

"Having this mum as an advocate for the mums' reading group was crucial for its success. She set up a WhatsApp group to invite women to come. Having her tell the women about what we were doing and interpret really helped us build relationships with mums."

Since spring 2023, the mums' reading group for Afghan women has met at Blyth Central Family Hub every week.

Debbie says: "I model how to use the books in the BookTrust packs when reading to children, with one of the mums translating. I've shown them different things they can do, like pointing to the characters, talking about colours. If parents tell me they can't read English, I'll encourage them to talk through what's happening in a picture book in Dari.

"I have seen mums' confidence with shared reading develop. It's such a lovely bonding experience for families."

A supportive community of women reading together

Debbie pointing to a wall of vocabulary

Almost one year later, the mums' group is still going strong. Each week, Debbie offers the women support with their homework from their English language courses. The group share new English words they've learnt that week – writing them on a shared vocabulary wall.

"They are coming up with words each week that I'm astounded by," says Debbie.

Parwana left Afghanistan in 2021 with her husband and young sons. They arrived in Cardiff, where they lived in a hotel temporarily, before being relocated to Blyth, at the same time as other members of the weekly mums' group. She's been coming along for several months.

"I love Debbie," Parwana says. "She made this class to help us.

"Debbie always gives us books and says: 'Please read these to your children.' My son likes One Banana, Two Banana [in the Bookstart Pre-schooler pack]. Last week, I read him Cinderella, and he said: "Wow, Mummy, this is a fantastic story!

"Debbie always emphasises how to read them to our children. The women here also give their books to their elder children to read to the smaller children. And at the end, Debbie always reads a book for us."

Debbie reading a story

Debbie says: "We talk about little things that happen in the books, like which of their children the characters remind them of. With the BookTrust Storytime Book, Zeki Rise and Shine, we managed to add words beginning with 'Z' to our group's vocabulary wall. There's something different to get out of every book. A lot of the women may have never been read to before. It's a lovely experience, whatever age you are.

"These parents have got very high aspirations for their children. They know reading is important and they want the very best for their famlies. BookTrust has been great for us."

Diane adds: "This has been a really worthwhile collaboration. When the time is right, my library colleague will love to come along to meet the mums. She will then be a friendly face for them to meet when they come into the library in Blyth."

Shauni Sanderson, Partnership Manager for BookTrust in the North, adds: "This is a truly moving example of how our partners are finding new ways to use our book packs to engage parents with shared reading.

"I'm so happy BookTrust's packs have played a part in this story, and in Debbie and Diane's vital work to make resettled Afghan families feel welcome, included and supported by their new community."

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