The treasure of languages

A few children sit down in the small pa- vilion. Staring up at the arched ceiling they see glittering shards of mirrored glass, co- loured yellow, green, blue, red and black. The tiny rhomb-shaped pieces form stars and cubes in constantly changing patterns. It is an optical illusion, the product of a mil- lennium-old tradition of Persian glass art. The pavilion is a part of the ‘Magic Mantle’, an exhibition for children featuring Islamic art and design.

The Magic Mantle

Barbro Bolonassos is in charge of the Fisksätra Library: “When we started the project ‘The Treasure of Language’ we discovered that it was difficult to find children’s literature from other parts of the world, especially bilingual literature. During a visit to London we managed to make contact with the publisher Mantra. Their children’s book Journey Through Islamic Art has now been translated into twenty-four languages. At roughly the same time we initiated the production of the ‘Magic Mantle’ exhibition which has subsequently attracted a lot of attention. Libraries in Sweden, Denmark and Norway are interested in displaying the exhibition.”

People from all over the world live in Fisksätra, a suburb just outside of Stockholm. The area was developed about thirty years ago as part of the socalled ‘Million-Programme’ designed to solve the acute housing problem prevailing at the time. A few years later the first Chileans arrived as political refu gees. Since then Fisksätra’s population has reflected the upheavals of world politics: War, political oppression, social misery and poverty. People here come from around eighty countries and speak fifty different languages.

The library is the door to the invisible municipality. During recent years there has been, with the exception of the library, virtually no municipal service in the centre of Fisksätra. Many of the inhabitants here have been forced to reestablish their lives in a new country. Many have difficult experiences behind them. They need permanent housing, Swedish language lessons, work, allowance benefits, schooling for children and adults and parent support. They need to feel as though they are a part of society and to be given the opportunity to be responsible citizens. And they go to the library with all their questions.

Children and young people go there too. It is a place to be after school and during the holidays. Some are there while they wait for their parents to come home and unlock the apartment door.

How then can one best understand the concept of the library in an area like Fisksätra?

“Different kinds of local communities place different demands on their library” says Barbro Bolonassos. “The inhabitants here come to the library for help with their various needs, hopes and expectations. Moreover, many of our patrons, both children and adults, want the library staff to help them with different, sometimes quite difficult moral issues. They come too, with a never-ending stream of project ideas that they want to carry out together with the library. We do not have the resources for that kind of work, but we do try to see that these ideas come to the attention of people who have.”

Long-term development

‘The Treasure of Language’ project was designed to create long-term development in Fisksätra. The idea that language itself, foreign languages and multilingualism, is a commodity or ‘treasure’ should be seen in the light of the municipality’s short-sighted political planning and the view that Fisksätra is a ‘problem area’. Thanks to the project the library has been able to extend its cooperation with preschools, schools, churches and local voluntary associations such as Rosen, a local women’s association. Barbro Bolonassos continues: “A few years ago native language tuition was significantly reduced in Sweden. My opinion is that this was a tragedy both for individuals and Swedish society as a whole. Language is a way of seeing the world. Something happens when people stop using their native language, a vacuum emerges and unique perspectives disappear.”

The emphasis of the project on longterm development has become even more important due to the fact that other municipal language-projects, art therapy and summer camps for refugee children have been terminated. “The most important aspect of the project” says Barbro Bolonassos “has been that we have established a cooperative structure for Fisksätra’s children and their parents. Another important question has been the introduction of further education courses for everyone in the area who works with children and young people. We organise workshops around current research into children’s language development, bilingualism, intercultural pedagogy, the importance of the arts in the teaching process, as well as segregation and integration.”

Arena for democracy

The Fisksätra Library works with the question of culture as a fundamental right, a basis for empowerment in the area. Part of this work has resulted in an attention-getting proposal, a Policy Programme for Local Culture (2005). The proposal outlines a far-reaching collaboration between local initiatives and the establishment of creative new networks in the areas of schools, education, cultural activity and citizenship.

The library has also, during 2006, established a very distinct profile: Arena for Democracy – language, health, society. The library staff has on occasion felt that their activities have covered too wide a spectrum. The above profile has allowed them to pinpoint this complexity and focus on it as a beneficial source of deep experience and competence.

Arena for Democracy also plays a significant role in a local community that does not have a meeting locale. The group working for a local community centre in Fisksätra has had an uphill struggle for several years. The library, which more or less functions as an unofficial community centre, has supported this group from the start, in all manner of ways. There are however plans under way to establish a community centre in one of the local schools.

The library’s involvement with the entire social structure in Fisksätra has in recent years increased the pressure on local politicians as well as Stena, a local real estate developer. A special working group for Fisksätra has now been established with the aim of coordinating the municipality’s traditionbound routines.

“‘The Treasure of Language project’ is” says Barbro Bolonassos “now in its third and last year. The question is how the project can continue when Government subsidy is no longer available. We hope that both ‘The Treasure of Language project’ and the ‘Communication Project’ (help with homework, study groups for parents) will be able to continue as regular activities under the auspices of the planned Family Centre, which will be administered by the municipality and the county council. If we manage this, the project has accomplished its goal of introducing complicated questions of alienation and integration, health and citizenship into local practice on an everyday basis.”

Further reading:
For more information about The Treasure of Language project and the Magic Mantle exhibition, contact Barbro Bolonassos, enhetsledare, Fisksätra Bibliotek.

Amelie Tham
Freelance journalist
specialising in cultural issues

barbro.bolonassos AT

Freelance journalist specialising in cultural issues