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Shanti Volunteer Association
Sending picture books with dreams and smiles to children in Asia

This month's Close UP features the Shanti Volunteer Association (SVA), whose antecedents became active in 1980 in refugee camps in Cambodia and marks its 30th anniversary as an organization this year. To realize an ideal society of "shanti" (peacefulness) where people live and learn together, SVA has been providing educational and cultural assistance to communities in several countries in Asia according to the lifestyle and culture of local people. For this interview, we asked Sachiko Kamakura from the public relation department and Aiko Kanzaki from the domestic project department to introduce one of SVA's core projects, which is to provide picture books to children in Asia.

Sachiko Kamakura (left) and
Aiko Kanzaki (right)

Please tell us about the history of SVA's activities overseas.

A. In 1980, when Indochina refugees were becoming a major issue in Asia, a few volunteer members decided to visit a Cambodian refugee camp in Thailand to see actual local conditions. The first thing that the members wanted to do was to simply make refugee children smile and began providing picture books for them. Back then, the printing technology in Thailand was not well developed, so the members started making copies on a mimeograph in Khmer and reading it to the children. Later, we started sending Japanese picture books with translation stickers attached on each page.

Children enjoying picture books at a traveling library Phnom Penh, Cambodia ©Shanti Volunteer Association (SVA)

Why did SVA choose picture books as a focus of its support activities?

Girls are preoccupied to read picture books At a refugee camp, Myanmar (Burma) ©Shanti Volunteer Association (SVA)

A. In emergencies, the necessities are food, water, tents, and such. However, for refugee children who someday would return to their home country, we think it is also important besides providing basic supplies for daily survival to help them inherit their own language and traditional culture, or in other words, to offer educational and cultural support. Reading picture books is a good way for them to learn letters and culture. We also hope that having picture books nearby will nurture their strength to live through difficult situations such as conflicts, natural disasters, and poverty. Currently, we have five offices in Bangkok in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, a refugee camp in Thailand near the boarder with Myanmar (Burma), and Afghanistan to operate our library project to deliver picture books to local children. In communities where the environment for education is not established and many children do not go to school, the library serves as a valuable place where they are given an opportunity of learning.

Can you give us more details about the library activities?

A. In addition to managing local libraries, we visit the communities where libraries are not available, such as slums, farming villages, and mountain areas, by a "traveling library on the wheels." Our traveling library is a remodeled van and is equipped with sliding shelves to keep about 650 picture books along with tools for puppet shows and games and such. We also provide a "picture book box" to local elementary schools as well as kindergartens and preschools with which children can carry the books. We also offer librarians and teachers trainings for skills such as how to use library resources or to read to children so that local people can make the best use of our picture book library.

Children gathering around a traveling library Thailand Photo by Seto Masao
©Shanti Volunteer Association

Are picture books considered so valuable in developing countries?

The book is quite worn out after being read by local children again and again
©Shanti Volunteer Association

A. Yes. Even in Bangkok, Thailand where the advanced printing techniques are available today, one picture book can cost as much as 200 baht (about 600 yen). You can get a dinner from a street food stall for about 20 baht, so you can see how expensive the book is for them. Therefore, for many families, it is difficult to afford picture books for children. Many children have never seen or heard of picture books since they were born. So some children don't know where to open or which side is up or down when they are introduced to the picture book for the first time.

What kind of responses do you find among children who are introduced to picture books?

A. We often see childlike smiles return to their faces. They also directly express surprise and excitement with their bodies as the story unfolds. We can feel that they are sincerely happy and are enjoying the books, which makes us happy too. When our traveling library arrives to their community, children run to the library to get the books. Librarians as well as older children read to children who cannot read yet. I still remember that the children at the refugee camp said to me that they like picture books because they can enjoy them again and again, unlike snacks and candies which will be gone once they are eaten.

Japanese picture books with translation
stickers attached (from left)
Suho and the White Horse (Fukuinkan Shoten)
Gurunpa-no Yochien (Gurunpa's Kindergarten) (Fukuinkan Shoten)
The Very Hungry Caterpillar (Kaiseisha)
©Shanti Volunteer Association

How can we support SVA's activities from Japan?

A. There are various ways for Japanese supporters to help our activities. The Child Book Supporter program, for example, is to help SVA's library activities in general with a monthly donation of 2,000 yen. The Picture Book Delivery program is to prepare Japanese picture books to be sent to children in recipient communities by adding the translation stickers of the story to the books so that they can read the books in their own languages. We ship the prepared books once a year by surface mail. Japanese picture books are so popular among our children because they are high in quality and can be enjoyed just by looking at the illustrations. We also have programs through which people can easily take part in our international cooperation effort, including the Craft Aid, which is to support the recipient communities by purchasing fair trade products, and also the Recycle Book Aid, through which participants sell used books, CDs, and DVDs to Book Off via its takuhonbin delivery system and donate 110% of the purchase price.

Colorful and detailed craft products are handmade by local women

Are you planning any special events for the SVA's 30th anniversary this year?

A. Yes. We are starting a commemorative project, titled "A bridge connecting people, picture books, and future," which we will continue until this December. We just had a kick-off event last month. We would like to make our 30th year to be the time for showing our appreciation to all of our supporters and also for adding new members to work together in the next stage.

What is the main anniversary project like?

Picture books written and published by local people
©Shanti Volunteer Association

A. We are running the "From Book to Book" project to publish picture books created by local writers and artists in the SVA's active areas. We use the funds collected through the Recycle Book Aid program for the publishing cost--in other words, we are transferring used Japanese books into new local books. While SVA currently sends Japanese picture books to recipient countries in Asia, our hope is that more and more picture books are written and published by local people for local children so that it becomes no longer necessary for us to send the books from Japan. This year's goal is to publish as many as 10,000 picture books locally. To realize this, we first need to collect 300,000 used books in Japan. Your cooperation is always welcome. You may establish a drop-off point of used books at schools and offices and send the collected books together to us. Additionally, we are also planning to issue a commemorative magazine in the spring, which will feature the history of SVA's library activities. In fall, we are holding a study tour in which participants are introduced to see our actual activities on site. We will post details of these projects and events on the SVA's website and our e-mail magazine.

Lastly, please give a message to our readers.

A. No matter where you live, there are always some who have to live through difficult situations. However, our biggest concern is on the large number of children who are affected by conflicts or wars. We want to see them holding a picture book in their hands, rather than a gun or a weapon. We want them to feel the warmth of human beings through reading or listening to stories of the picture books we send. Therefore, we want to deliver as many books as possible to those children. It would be an ideal if everybody is free to have dreams and hopes by the time our children who are reading the books we donate grow up into adults. Our goal is to serve as a bridge between those who are living tough lives and Japanese people who want to support them. If you are interested in SVA's activities or international cooperation efforts, please feel free to contact us. We can make a suggestion of how you may be part of our work in a way that fits your style.

At SVA Tokyo office

Volunteers checking the quality of handmade products

Picture books ready to be shipped to the recipient communities