Help Refugees Through Science Fiction!

Science fiction and fantasy fans don’t just like reading about other, better worlds—we like working to make this world better, too. That’s been proved to me over and over during the past five years as, every spring, I’ve teamed up with other F&SF authors, with Tor Books and Tor.com, and with my undergraduate science fiction club to run the Vericon charity auction. With books and games and nerdy baked goods, we raise money for refugees, providing medical and legal aid, and stocking a refugee library. And this year, for the first time, anyone, anywhere can help out by bidding online on books and other items donated by your favorite fantasy and science fiction authors, including autographed books, advanced copies of forthcoming books, as well as other fun and nerdy goods like alien kitchen tools and blood cake.

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Craft projects, weird foods, advanced copies of forthcoming books, crazy dice, all the things that make F&SF readers go “Ooh, want!” are transforming our enthusiasm into action. This is the third year that HRSFA—the Harvard Radcliffe Science Fiction Association—has used our annual charity auction to support Citizens of the World (Cittadini del Mondo), a tiny Rome-based microcharity that takes care of refugees in Italy. Italy’s central position in the Mediterranean makes it one of the easier safe zones to escape to from both Africa and the Middle East. Thousands of refugees from over a dozen countries stream into Italy every year, only to find themselves strangers in a strange land, struggling to find the resources necessary to move on to a new life. Cittadini del Mondo provides new arrivals with shelter, medical care, legal assistance, language training, special aid for women and pregnant women, and help navigating the daunting paperwork process of applying for aid from government and international aid programs.

Every year the team helps at least 6,000 refugees as they move through Rome, in addition to serving a permanent population of 2,000 refugees living in the outskirts of Rome. And the amazing thing is that they only have seven staff members—a tiny group of volunteers and who are giving their days, and all the funds they can scrape together, to help people who are falling through the cracks of larger aid programs get back on their feet.

This is more than half of the team that does so much!

This is almost every member of the team that does so much!

I had the chance last year to visit Cittadini del Mondo in person, and see the other amazing thing they provide: their Intercultural Library, which stocks books in the native languages of all their refugees. One of the most emotionally and intellectually painful parts of long-term displacement is being completely cut off from one’s native language and culture, without literature, without children’s books to pass on culture to the next generation, often without the ability to even have a conversation in a land where no one shares your native tongue. The reading material provided by the Intercultural Library is a cultural lifeline, offering not only education and entertainment but satisfying the basic human need for stories and ideas. As founder Dr. Donatella D’Angelo put it:

“Offering people aid isn’t enough; first they need to trust you enough to believe you will actually help them. Our intercultural library achieves that, by making people feel welcome and showing we have a basic respect for their humanity. Once you give someone a book, a piece of culture, then they know you respect them, and become willing to accept medical and other aid.”

The group's founder Donatella (center) at work in a shelter.

The group’s founder Donatella (center) at work.

The intercultural library is an awe-inspiring place, clean library chairs and row on row of bright, cheerful bookcases welcoming readers of Urdu, Arabic, Bengali, Chinese, Spanish, Hindi, Ethiopian, French, Korean, and, yes, with English books too, as Harry Potter and Game of Thrones novels peek eagerly from among the stacks. An incredibly human place is the only way I can describe it—a place where anyone can fell connected, respected, and welcome.

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The amazing thing about microcharities like this, that work in the cracks between the big ones, is that even a tiny donation can revolutionize their efforts, and touch the lives of thousands. Our past two auctions, held at Harvard last March and the March before, were the first international donations the Cittadini del Mondo team had ever received. Even though our little sale of books and baked goods only raised about $14,000 over the two years, that donation has genuinely let them expand their operations.

Last year, thanks to teamwork and the enthusiasm science fiction fans have shown buying our favorite books, was able to start giving arrival kits to every newcomer, including shoes, a towel, personal hygiene materials, new socks and underwear (a very precious thing when you have nothing!) and a backpack for personal possessions. It’s a small thing, but life-changing.

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They also wrote to us last fall, as they were preparing for the harsher cold months, to send us a picture of their infirmary with the shelves fully stocked for the first time in their history. Their message of joy echoed words that are powerful in fiction, but even more powerful in reality:

“Winter is coming, and thanks to you we’re ready like never before!”

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And all this powered by books and games and fandom! Donating, auctioning, bidding: one small science fiction club, a few authors and editors, and the enthusiasm of people who love reading about other worlds, and improving this one!

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One of the biggest things we’ve been doing to help Cittadini del Mondo expand their library is seeking donations of books, especially in the languages they need most: Chinese, Arabic, Bengali, Urdu, Ethiopian, Hindi, and French, as well as Spanish, Korean, and other African, central Asian, Middle Eastern and eastern European languages. Children’s books, poetry, history, a distant homeland’s classic literature, the latest fantasy epics in translation, all kinds of books can give that spark of stimulation, and help a reader feel more human, and in touch with home and the world. If you have books to donate, especially in these target languages, you can contact us through the auction site, and make arrangements to send them over.

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But there’s a catch!

The Cittadini del Mondo library is currently full, so full they have hardly any room for new books. Just this summer, after years of fighting for it, Cittadini del Mondo was given a large new space to expand their library to more than five times its current size, but the new space needs repair. Lots of repair. It’s going to cost them $5,000 just to dig out the tree that has grown blocking the entrance, and rebuild the shattered entry ramp! And once inside…

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But in time, and with help, we’re sure it will become as bright, lively, and human a place as the current small library. That’s why we’re currently helping to run the third auction for Cittadini del Mondo: authors, publishers, and readers teaming up to raise the funds necessary to keep the aid and welcome packages flowing, to stock up for the next time winter comes, and to transform the new space into the heart-healing place a library should be.

Even in the hardest times, a library is a wonderful place to spend a birthday!

Even in the hardest times, a library is a wonderful place to spend a birthday!

So whether it’s Harry Potter on the shelves in five languages for refugees to share, or autographed Brandon Sanderson books in the current auction for donors to bid on, fantasy and science fiction readers’ enthusiasm for great stories really is making another world, a better world, right now, for some of the people who need it most.

Check out the auction site to see how you can bid, donate money or offer items for auction, share books, and spread the word!

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