On a late afternoon in early April, a small group is quietly gathered in a meeting room at Midland Library.
Terhas is watching as an instructor named Corinne smiles from the front of the room as she points to a slideshow projected on the board. Speaking in short sentences, Corinne explains in English the various levels of education in the United States, such as high school, community college and universities; she pauses and then waits. Terhas and the other students in the classroom turn attentively to the interpreters sitting nearby.
The room fills with chatter and animated discussion in Arabic, Rohingya, Kinyarwanda, and Tigrinya, as interpreters relay Corinne’s lesson.
Terhas is attending a cultural orientation session organized by Catholic Charities for newly settled refugees. During the sessions, refugees learn the basics of navigating transportation, banking, employment, health services, education, and thanks to a partnership with Multnomah County Library — they also learn all about the library.
When Corinne finishes, she introduces Elena, a library assistant at Belmont Library and Gesse, a community outreach librarian, to talk about the library and distribute gifts to each of the refugees — Oxford Picture Dictionaries. The dictionaries were purchased as part of the staff-led library innovation program, Curiosity Kick! Each year, staff submit ideas for new services or programs that cost under $15,000 and could help the library better serve the community. Library staff vote and select the top ideas to move forward as fully funded projects. Last year, staff selected the dictionaries project as a winner.
“The library is here to help people live their lives as they wish, and library staff are very perceptive at identifying changing community needs,” said Vailey Oehlke, director of libraries. “The Curiosity Kick! Program has been an encouraging model to introduce new services while supporting staff innovation and problem solving.”
Elena and Gesse make their way around the room, handing out the new dictionaries along with forms to sign up for a Multnomah County Library card.
“The dictionaries have been a wonderful gift to the refugees during these sessions. They’re getting so much information in a short period of time so the ability to have something tangible to keep and hold on to and learn from is very meaningful,” said Corinne.
In addition to partnering on the cultural orientation sessions and handing out free dictionaries, the library offers ongoing support and services, including English conversation classes, citizenship classes and one-on-one adult tutoring, which can help adults studying for a degree or professional certification.
Until the allocated funding runs out, the library will continue to provide dictionaries to refugees through Catholic Charities and two other local refugee resettlement agencies. The project team is currently looking for ways to continue the program after the Curiosity Kick project ends.
After receiving their new dictionaries, the group follows Elena and Gesse out for a tour of the light-filled Midland Library. Delighted with her new library card, Terhas pulls an item off the shelf and heads straight for the self-checkout machine, eager to check out her first book.