Frankfurt fair reaches out to refugees with books
Food and shelter may be a priority for the record numbers of often desperate refugees arriving in Germany but they also need "intellectual nutrition", say experts at the Frankfurt Book Fair.
Underlining the crucial part education plays in migrants' integration, the fair's organisers and the German book trade association launched a special initiative entitled "Books Say Welcome" last month.
"The ability to read is a basic condition for participating in society and in democracy," said Jürgen Boos, organiser of the Frankfurt exhibition – the world's biggest book fair which opened this week.
Under that scheme, around 6,000 bookshops across the country are collecting financial donations from their customers.
The money will help purchase books, primarily school books, language teaching material and dictionaries, but also novels and literature. These will be distributed to special reading and learning corners close to the refugee homes around the country, said Boos.
Basic condition for democracy
"We have to go to where the refugees are and make learning material and books readily available to them."
"Our industry is driven by the idea that a free society cannot function without the book," said the head of the German book trade association, Alexander Skipis.
"We want to help and live up to our responsibility in society and that means making books accessible, not only as education, but as intellectual nutrition."
Skipis insisted that the two-week-old initiative was already working very well and had been enthusiastically received.
But he pointed out that it would be a long-term project.
"This is not just a seasonal thing. We must be aware that we're in it for the long haul."
Aiman Mazyek, head of the central council of Muslims in Germany, insisted that the conditions for the successful integration of the refugees were much better than in the past.
Unlike earlier waves of immigrants such as the Turkish "guest workers" who came to Germany in the 1950s, a "large part" of the refugees arriving now were highly educated, Mazyek said.
"That means the points of contact, particularly when it comes to education, the willingness to read and to learn the language, are very much more positive," he argued.
Top education expert Wassilios Fthenakis agreed, arguing that the refugees could also help to enrich Germany as a whole.
'Yeast in the dough'
"The starting conditions for this new integration process are incomparably better than ever before, because the intellectual qualifications of the people coming to us are very different," he said.
"These people are like the yeast in the dough. They want to rise to the top. That brings movement into the system and the whole system can benefit from this," Fthenakis said.
The German population has largely welcomed the massive influx of refugees, primarily from Syria, with open arms, even if critics are becoming more vocal about the economic and social consequences.
But experts agree that, given the demographic change in Germany, with its rapidly ageing population, Europe's biggest economy needs additional workers in order to maintain its prosperity.
Estimates put the number of qualified workers that Germany will lack by 2020 at 1.8 million.
Mazyek pointed out that the refugees also represented a potential new target audience for Germany's publishing industry.
"But that's not going to happen so quickly. I wouldn't look at it in purely economic terms like that," countered Boos. "I feel the integration aspect is much more important."
As another gesture of welcome, the fair is offering free passes to refugees this year, when it opens to the general public on Saturday and Sunday.
The organisers were working together with refugee aid organisations to organise special visits accompanied by designated mother-tongue experts, said Boos.
The refugees would be able to visit the stands of publishers from their home countries, such as Syria.
And enquiries had already been received from groups from Eritrea and Syria.
The Frankfurt fair dates as far back as the Middle Age with the invention of the Gutenberg press, and this year, some 7,300 exhibitors will be present, with 300,000 visitors expected.