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Thinking Outside the Box Brings Cinema and Community Libraries to Refugees

People typically arrive in refugee camps fleeing from conflict with few or no possessions. Life can seem bleak with little hope and opportunity. In this installment of Digital Diversity, we look at how the Ideas Box project is starting to remedy this with some inspiring results, one box at a time. Digital Diversity is a...

Digital-DiversityPeople typically arrive in refugee camps fleeing from conflict with few or no possessions. Life can seem bleak with little hope and opportunity. In this installment of Digital Diversity, we look at how the Ideas Box project is starting to remedy this with some inspiring results, one box at a time.

Digital Diversity is a series of blog posts from featuring the many ways mobile phones and other appropriate technologies are being used throughout the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives. This article was curated by Michael Atkinson, part of our Media and Research Team. You can follow Michael on Twitter at @atkinsonmichael and at @kiwanja

By Michael Atkinson

If you close your eyes and imagine a refugee camp, you’ll probably come up with thoughts of the sweet aroma of cooking and baking, mingled with the smell of dust and smoke. Shuffling people, the cry of a homesick infant. Raw exposure to the elements may include a hot wind in an arid, dusty desert, or humid tropics, or bitter cold. And it may include the sight of giggling children and smiling adults, eyes wide with wonder, surrounding brightly coloured crates from which they carefully take a treasure of books, tablets, puppets, movies and more.

In an age where technological miracles come compressed into ever-smaller containers, it should come as no surprise that there are now colourful boxes packed with resources to help alleviate heartache, boredom and a lack of access to learning among displaced people. Described as a both a cultural centre and library within a box, The Ideas Box project was unveiled to the public on March 25, 2014. The first two boxes are now in Burundi, Africa with more heading soon to Syrian refugees in Jordan and Lebanon. It is a partnership between Libraries Without Borders, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and internationally renowned French designer Philippe Starck.

Mr. Starck speaks of the Ideas Box as fulfilling a dream. “The dream is all the more important when we have lost everything. That is why the approach of Libraries Without Borders moved me so much. This is the first and last thing we should give to people who have lost everything. All of a sudden there should be people coming out of nowhere, carrying colorful suitcases, raising up tents. And in each suitcase there is wonder”.

The Ideas Box. (Photo courtesy Librarians Without Borders)
The Ideas Box. (Photo courtesy Libraries Without Borders)

Colorful boxes of hope and wonder

The wonders Mr. Starck speaks of meet the needs of both children and adults, with each Ideas Box containing:

  • A satellite Internet connection
  • 15 tablets, 4 laptops, 5 high definition (HD) cameras, 50 readers with 5,000 books and 250 paper books
  • Offline learning resources including Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs), Wikipedia, Khan Academy and TED
  • Workshops for literacy, computer literacy, electronics, coding/programming, as well as non-formal education and activities for children
  • A cinema module with built-in TV and projection screen, 100 films including documentaries and cartoons/animated features
  • Board/video games and other recreational activities
  • Arts and crafts, puppets and a built-in stage for theatre.

All of these resources are supplied in the local language of the camp’s recipients. “For instance,” says Eve Saumier, Head of Communications at Libraries Without Borders, “the Ideas Box that will be deployed in Jordan and Lebanon will mostly include content in Arabic, with some French and English to follow the Lebanese curriculum. They will be selected and approved by a dedicated, local scientific committee (made up of researchers, teachers and publishers, among others) that will ensure all content fits local needs.”

Interestingly, because of a scarcity of materials like eBooks in languages such as Arabic, The Ideas Box project is becoming an opportunity to unite and encourage local publishers to work towards further digitisation of Arabic fiction and nonfiction. This then creates further opportunities to leverage technology to get literature and educational materials into the hands of impoverished populations who may not have otherwise had access to them.

Burundian refugees discovering the contents of an Ideas Box. (Photo courtesy Libraries Without Borders)

A focus on education and literacy

A common concern voiced by refugees, especially parents of children, is lack of access to education. This has also been an ongoing concern for governments and relief agencies. The Ideas Box not only addresses education by providing a large number of learning resources, but also by integrating with local school systems and resources.

“Of course, all contents embedded in the Ideas Box are highly customised to the linguistic, cultural and pedagogical characteristics of the area of deployment,” Ms. Saumier says. “For example, all learning resources are identified consistently with the National Education Curriculum of the country in mind. So in the case of Burundi they follow the Congolese and Burundian curricula.”

In addition, in the case of Burundi, Libraries Without Borders works closely with the International Rescue Committee (IRC). The IRC is in charge of all the schools within the UNHCR camps for Congolese refugees, to develop (together with teachers and trainers) workshops and activities that use the contents and materials of the Ideas Box.

Connecting with these types of learning resources can make a life-changing difference. Refugees tend to have little, and even less opportunity and hope. “I am separated from everything. We have no access to information or training. There is no Internet, there are not even computers,” says Consolata, a Congolese refugee in Burundi.

It is unsurprising then, and heartening, to hear that all of the Ideas Box materials are seeing heavy usage in the short time they’ve been in the camps, and by all kinds of users. Many different workshops have started, including educational activities, information and communications technology mastery, play activities and more.

Joy in a box

The Ideas Box field co-ordinator in Burundi, who is in charge of the management of the Ideas Box within the Kavumu and Musasa camps, described a joyous scene after an Ideas Box arrived. While about 30 school-age children were happily bouncing and laughing in front of the “Kirikou” cartoon movie showing on the box, many others, outside of the shelter where the Ideas Box is located, were watching the movie as well, standing on the shoulders of the adults. Even the security guard in charge of the protection of the box kept his eyes on the screen, watching the movie.

Next to the kids, about a dozen teenagers were focused on using the tablets and the Internet with great attention. At the end of high school, other pupils were running as fast as they could to the Ideas Box to look for geography handbooks and study grammar. While they were doing their homework, a few older people sat next to the group to read books about the  history of Congo. And while all this went on, about a hundred refugees came, looked and asked questions.

It’s easy to imagine the difference in a camp before and after an Ideas Box arrives. The arrival of all of this is something of a return to normality, a moral boost, a great opportunity and an emotional and psychological shot in the arm. How does this project gain momentum then, to put more education and joy into the lives of men, women and children who have far too little of both?

“First through economies of scale,” Ms. Saumier states pragmatically. “As more Idea Boxes are ordered, their individual price drops lower.” But she also emphasises the value of partner relationships with suppliers of equipment and resources, such as electronics, publishing and so on, which Libraries Without Borders is steadily developing. She says the work is worth it. “One device alone can provide the service and content equivalent of a small town library, or up to 5,000 users. That’s only several dollars per user.”

Several dollars per user to connect a soul with life-changing education, literature, ideas, communication, theatre and more via technology is more than simple creative genius. It’s thinking outside the box, and for many that looks and feels like a dream come true.

Michael AtkinsonMichael Atkinson has been an instructor and distance education designer in the private sector for 10 years. He increasingly focuses on the intersection of educational technology and populations in the developing world. You can find Michael on Twitter @atkinsonmichael and Google+

Digital Diversity is produced by Ken Banks, innovator, mentor, anthropologist, National Geographic Emerging Explorer and Founder of, FrontlineSMS and Means of Exchange. He shares exciting stories in Digital Diversity about how mobile phones and appropriate technologies are being used throughout the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives. You can follow him on Twitter @kiwanja

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Meet the Author

Author Photo Ken Banks
Ken Banks is an innovator, mentor, anthropologist and National Geographic Emerging Explorer. Founder of and now Head of Social Impact at Yoti, he spends his time applying Yoti's digital identity solutions to humanitarian problems around the world. His earlier research resulted in the development of FrontlineSMS, an award-winning text messaging-based field communication system designed to empower grassroots non-profit organisations. He shares exciting stories in "Digital Diversity" about how mobile phones and other appropriate technologies are being used around the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives.