Intersections | Amira in America

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AmirainAmericaBy Samantha Yanity ( | On February 6, 2017 librarians and library advocates gathered from across the country for the Project Welcome: Libraries Serving Refugees and Asylum Summit in downtown Chicago. At the poster session, I was struck by a vivid image of a hijab-clad woman with the words Amira in America tucked neatly into the back of her wrapped head. Curious, I walked over to the poster to get a better view and picked up a copy of Amira in America – a comic coloring book and resource guide recounting the intimate experience of Syrian refugees. After the summit, I headed over to Loyola University Chicago ‘s Water Tower campus to my evening class where I am pursuing a dual master’s degree in divinity and social justice at the Institute of Pastoral Studies. Like many of my fellow students, I have a heart for those suffering through the plight of forced migration. After seeing Amira in America, I was eager to show the comic to my entire class. I pulled out the comic out of my bag and just as I expected my classmates were blown away. On my class break, I hopped on Twitter to tweet about my experience at the Project Welcome Summit and Amira in America. I got a response from the artist, Liz Laribee and those from the The Hornbakery. Not being about to get Amira in America out of my mind, I decided to contact Liz about an interview.

SY: I wanted to get a sense from you about your inspiration behind Amira in America. This is such a creative and effective tool! What prompted you to create a graphic/comic-based resource?

LL: Thank you! Amira in America is a collaboration of four women in the Masters of Library and Information Science program at University of Maryland (Andrea Castillo, Carmen Collins, Dolly Martino and I). Each of us brought certain expertise to it, including the creative aspects and the research backing the final product. The idea to create a resource in the form of a mini comic came about in conversations about our audience: young readers. We wanted to make something that would engage young readers and help make a complex concept accessible. Another feature of Amira in America is several coloring sheets that help tell the story; we included those as a nod to the practices of art therapy we have seen in approaching children suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. Personally, I am very interested in the practice of using comics as educational tools, and I have begun seeing firsthand how effective it can be. When considering differences in learning styles, a multilingual audience, and what narrative can do to prompt empathy, telling a story through this method seemed like the right choice.

What is the inspiration behind it and has it had any responses from the refugee community? Have there been any institutions or libraries that have used Amira in America? How do you see if being used?

As librarians and students, we talk a lot about pathfinders: tools to convey information to a certain group looking for that information. Amira in America was created as a pathfinder to help distribute helpful information on refugee resettlement. It includes a guide to national and local resources, information on organizations built to guide the resettlement process, and even a list of other children’s stories that center refugees as protagonists. The idea is to give a working overview of where to start looking for tools to ease the transition. Especially in the current political landscape, a pathfinder like this can be particularly helpful to professionals who stand the highest chance of interacting with refugees in need of information: librarians. And libraries are certainly among the most eager supporters of this project. Group member Andrea Castillo and I presented Amira in America to Project Welcome, a conference through the ALA and University of Illinois, on the intersection of libraries and refugee populations. The DC Public Library system began distributing the comic in its Children’s Library in January. Since then, several other library systems (The Free Library of Philadelphia, Central Minnesota, Denver, Chicago, etc ) have distributed paper and digital versions. It was also used in a staff development training for the State of Kentucky Department of Libraries and Archives. I have also personally used it in workshops through the Smithsonian Institute and University of Maryland on the use of comics as educational tools. I’ll be presenting a similar workshop at the American Alliance of Museums annual meeting in St Louis later this month.

So, how did the Hornbakery get started? What made you want to choose to use Tumblr? How did Hornbakery get started and what are your goals with this project? Lastly, how did the Hornbakery grow from a class project into something more meaningful?

This whole thing developed out of a class project. Our group members were tasked with developing a pathfinder for the user group of our choosing. It all sprang from there. Tumblr seemed like an obvious choice for one modality of distribution (the other being the mini comic zine being handed out in libraries). I’ve had a bit of experience with Tumblr through a feminist critical theory blog I run called “Saved By The bell hooks”, and I have come to appreciate that platform for its ability to distribute information in a powerful, organic way. I count myself among those that have benefitted from the sheer volume of information made available through online platforms; I found this especially helpful when trying to educate myself on issues of race in America, on intersectional feminism, and on the complexities built into refugee experiences. When used effectively, platforms like Tumblr can aspire to work in a similar way as a qualified librarian: to serve as an access point for information, particularly when a person doesn’t otherwise know where to begin. And that really is the goal of this project: to help people, especially young ones, to begin their process of learning about what some of our neighbors are facing. As library students, we are committed to learning how to make libraries further useful to refugee and immigrant populations, and we are grateful for the opportunity Amira in America has given us to begin that work.

Samantha Yanity is continuing education assistant in ODLOS.