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Getting books to Ukraine’s displaced children

August 3, 2022 | 6 min read

By Agnieszka Freda

Elsevier's Agnieszka Freda and Susanne Janse pick up samples at StyleMathôt, a printer in Haarlem, the Netherlands, that has printed children’s books from Ranok Publishing House in Kharkiv, Ukraine.

Elsevier colleagues are working with Ukrainian publishers to get books printed and into the hands of the children of refugees

Two years of COVID was tough on all of us, but as it turned out, it had nothing on me compared to the first two weeks of the war in Ukraine.

I’m an Executive Publisher responsible for a portfolio of psychiatry journals at Elsevier. I am originally Polish, forming what you could call a European family in the Netherlands with my Spanish life partner.

Recent politics in Poland have made me question my feelings of identity again and again. However, the first day of the attacks on Ukraine silenced that for the first time in years. The only thing that mattered was that there was a war on our doorstep — like war that we, as a country, had gone through in the past: with the same aggressor, with the world watching and not stopping it — with the trauma still accumulated in our generations that never had the opportunity to heal.

The need to do something was so strong, it made normal functioning almost impossible. I could see from a distance how much people in Poland were doing and how much it mattered — and how little politics meant when individuals take ownership of being there for another human being.

I kept asking myself: “I cannot do what they are doing, but isn’t there something I can do from where I am?”

Where are the books?

During one of various conversations with my people in Poland, the topic of children’s books came up: there were none. No one thinks of books as a priority when you need to grab a backpack and a suitcase and run.

Children would often have their basic needs met: a roof over their heads, food on the table, warm clothes to wear. However, these were all part of a completely new reality: a stranger’s home, a new country, a different language — a situation daunting for any adult.

All the above needs must be met, no question; however we cannot overlook that no one should have their childhood taken away. In the current crisis, we hope to help them connect with their homeland and find calm and playfulness in this time of uncertainty.

We can do this!

While we might not publish children’s books at Elsevier, we definitely know how to publish. We have people in place who know all the ins and outs of operational, legal and editorial processes and who immediately grasped the heart of my idea.

Our plan was to collaborate with publishers of Ukrainian children’s books to print and distribute books in the Ukrainian language across European refugee centers, starting in the Netherlands. We would ask publishers to make certain titles available, and we would raise money to have them printed locally. Our volunteers would then bring the books to local refugee centers.

Within a week, we had an army of people working together, pushing this concept upward and forward.

“It takes a village …”

As they say, “It takes a village” — and what a village we have here at Elsevier!

Anita Chandraprakash, Executive VP of Operations at Elsevier, enabled us to run with the concept within a week. Company Counsel Sergio Oreni Gordilloopens in new tab/window never complained about the detailed documents and procedures required for copyright clearance. Dr Michiel Kolmanopens in new tab/window, SVP of Research Networks and Academic Ambassador, helped us find advisors from reading foundations in Poland. Pauline Riebeek-Brett, coordinator for ECP Publishing Support, supports me on a daily basis to make sure our finances are in check. And Suzanne Janseopens in new tab/window, VP of Data Science – Health, simply embarked on this journey with me as a co-pilot. It would be difficult to list every single person who backed me up and pushed me forward.

Meanwhile, the heads of our business units in Operations, STM Journals, Corporate Markets and Health offered budget to facilitate the project,  and employees have also made contributions.

It has also been overwhelming to see how willingly external partners wanted to make this idea a reality. StyleMathôtopens in new tab/window, a local printer in Haarlem, the Netherlands, has done all the printing for us, working at cost. Selby Gunteropens in new tab/window, the owner of Mona Cottageopens in new tab/window publishing, which specializes in bilingual nonfiction books for children, translated some of her books from English to Ukrainian/Dutch and offered them to us at cost. And Ranok Publishing Houseopens in new tab/window in Kharkiv supplied their original content.

The first palette

The arrival of the first delivery to the Amsterdam office was such a special day. News circulated very quickly on all levels, which felt extremely rewarding. I never felt prouder to be part of Elsevier. Boxes were assigned to our network of volunteers. I packed two myself to take to Leiden on Sunday.

Julia, a mom who is a refugee from Kiev, came down to help me carry them into their local refugee center. She did what we often do to new books: smelled them and touched the colors of the drawing as if she could see them through her fingertips.

Agnieszka Freda with samples of each book.

Agnieszka Freda with samples of each book.

In a moment, however, my pride stepped aside to be replaced by humbleness. Our books will not fix it all. They will not meet all the needs of a refugee family. These books are a small deed in the midst of a war that has displaced tens of thousands. But if they can bring a moment of connection and calm for a mother and a child, it is all worth it.

We have now distributed the first 1,000 copies of books to various centers in the Netherlands, driving the books ourselves after work and handing them over to colleagues who volunteer locally.

We have received lovely thank you messages with pictures. But what I really hope for is that those key moments will never be seen by us — that they happen when no one is watching, in privacy and peace.

What’s next?

Our next print run is on the way while we continually evaluate and reconsider the distribution. Needs evolve, we learn all the time. We are collaborating with SOS Children’s Villagesopens in new tab/window in Poland, which support children without caregivers, and we are considering reaching out to the Dutch libraries. The first two print runs were for the youngest readers; we are now gearing up towards content for 8- to 11-year-olds.

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Agnieszka Freda Headshot


Agnieszka Freda

Executive Publisher