Multilingual Little Free Library promotes family bonding, relaxation and children’s literacy within refugee community

About 130 books in 20 languages are available for patients to read


Children can choose from a wide variety of books written in their native language and read with their parents as they wait during their appointment.

Riley Walsh | Cavalier Daily

Around the beginning of the school year, the U.Va. Health International Family Clinic opened up a Little Free Library in the waiting room of the Family Medicine Clinic to allow parents to read to their children in their own languages. The Little Free Library contains 130 books in over 20 languages and seeks to promote family bonding, children’s literacy and relaxation, especially between refugee parents and their children.

According to Claudia Allen, director of Behavioral Science for Family Medicine, the U.Va. International Family Medicine Clinic works to serve refugees who have recently arrived in Charlottesville to help get their general check-ups and immunizations. This clinic serves to provide refugees an initial medical home — the place where they first receive checkups and medical services — when they arrive. Allen explained that through interacting with families, she advises parents to read to their children, but this may not be possible if they cannot find books in their language. 

“We always advise parents to read to their children, and we realized as we were sort of saying this that was kind of silly because they didn't know where to get books in their language,” Allen said. “You can take a book in English and still talk about the story and the pictures … but it is not the same as having a book to actually read in your language.”

The Little Free Library was inspired by an experience with a refugee who is not fluent in English, and expressed to a medical resident that she wishes to read more since it helps her decompress. However, it was hard for her to find books in her language, according to Fern Hauck, director of the International Family Medicine Clinic and associate professor of family medicine. 

“[That interaction] kind of sparked our interest or the thought that maybe we can provide a really good service to our patients by providing them books in various languages,” Hauck said. 

The free library is in the clinic in the form of a small bookshelf with signs on the shelves indicating the languages of the books. The concept of the Free Little Library revolves around this idea that people are encouraged to take a book and then return it or put another book on the shelf.

Some of the challenges behind this library were financial expenses, Allen explained, and some of these books were expensive to purchase. With the help of grants such as the Congregational Beth Israel and the Bama Works Fund of the Dave Matthews Band Foundation, the library was able to purchase books in five of the most common languages spoken by the refugees such as Arabic, Dari, Pasthou, Nepali and Swahili. Since its opening,the library has expanded to include 130 books in 20 languages. 

According to Allen, this Free Little Library is a great way to unwind and a good opportunity for both parents and children to interact through this form of bonding activity. 

“I think [the Free Little Library] helps families have books to read to their children or to read to themselves which is really good for family bonding, it’s good for children’s literacy and it’s good for relaxation and learning for adults,” Allen said. 

The library also hopes to emphasize this message that clinic is there to serve the refugees beyond just their medical issues — to provide them a place they feel welcomed, cared for and comfortable. 

“I think it's a sign of our commitment to the well-being of the refugees and their community,” Hauck said. “We are not here just to take care of their medical problems, we are here to welcome them … especially in today’s very hostile and negative climate nationally.” 

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