My mother had an enchanted linen closet. Every now and then she would call me over, switch on the light, reach up to the highest shelf and -- lo and behold! -- there was a shiny new book for me to read. She obviously had important connections in the fairy realm, because the stream of books was neverending, as was my passion to read them.
In those days we lived in Borough Park, Brooklyn, the neighborhood where my mother’s parents settled in the 1930s after emigrating from Poland. Technically speaking, they weren’t refugees; they were immigrants in search of a new life. Yet if they had remained in Europe much longer, they would undoubtedly have been murdered, along with the rest of their relatives. My grandparents were Jewish, and such were the times.
Until my seventh birthday, we all lived in the same house: my grandparents on the ground floor and my parents, sister and I on the floor above. I spent hours each day in my grandmother’s kitchen, listening to her tell stories in an animated combination of Yiddish and English, watching her prepare kreplach and blintzes and something she called "chopped meat" (hamburgers), puzzling over the unfamiliar letters in her Yiddish newspaper. But in that kitchen was also a feeling of sorrow, of loss and isolation. Although I didn't yet understand it completely, it instilled in me a deep, lasting compassion for people who live in a place where they’d rather not be, speak a language not their own, struggle to maintain links to the culture they left behind. "Displaced," we call them, as if they were objects that have ended up in the wrong drawer.
The Books Away From Home Foundation seeks to bring together the elements described above: the magic of reading, the need for connection, the comfort of the familiar. We focus on refugee children, because they deserve the chance to heal, learn, and grow, even though their lives have been turned upside down. “Children have the right to read texts that mirror their experiences and languages,” says the International Literacy Association. Books in their “home language” provide a solid basis for the learning of a second language, and for their development as strong, creative, emotionally sound individuals. And when a parent reads to their child in the language they’ve always shared, there is light in the darkness.
Founder & Director