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#InConversationWith: Laura Cerrolaza and Susana Gallego (Abriendo Fronteras)

Abriendo Fronteras is a Spanish organization that aims to make the integration of migrants and refugees into Spanish society easier. Its method involves reading together. The organization has started an easy-to-read club for migrants, refugees and people with intellectual disabilities, in collaboration with CIRVITE, an association devoted to the wellbeing of people with learning difficulties. We were able to ask two of those who thought up the project, Laura Cerrolaza (Abriendo Fronteras) and Susana Gallego (CIRVITE), a few questions.

Who are you and what do you do?

Susana: One of the things we do at CIRVITE is to look at how existing texts can be adjusted to make them easy to read and understand. I also work on projects that make other accessible material available, including radio and television programmes for people with intellectual disabilities. Along with Laura, I organize the easy-to-read club.

Independently, I also created the first TV channel for people with intellectual disabilities.

Laura: At Abriendo Fronteras I work mainly as a teacher of Spanish to migrants and refugees. Our organization tries to help people in vulnerable situations in various respects: language, work, training and free time. The easy-to-read club falls into that last category.

What is an easy-to-read club?

Susana: An easy-to-read club is a club where people come together to read accessible books and talk about them. Our members are people with intellectual disabilities or people who don’t yet have a full command of Spanish. We think it’s important to offer them reading materials that they can thoroughly enjoy.

How did you arrive at the idea of starting an easy-to-read club?

Susana: At CIRVITE we noticed that many people were interested in the books in our library. You can’t simply assume that people in our target group will be able to read and understand written texts. So we saw people without any experience of reading demonstrating their fascination for books by picking them up and leafing through them, without paying any attention to the text. People who did have some ability to read refused to be content with that. They wanted to read, but they came up against the obstacle of simply being unable to understand the books. So we went in search of texts that are easy to read. When we started the club, people said that only those who could read would be able to come, but we refused to accept that. Even those who have difficulty reading can listen to someone reading aloud and afterwards contribute just as much to the discussion as anyone else. For many people who are struggling, the club is a kind of homecoming. They can escape reality for a bit, and that’s important for us too.

How did you start off the easy-to-read club?

Susana: Because we saw that our participants were so fascinated by books, we thought it would be a good idea to contact a library and tell the people there about our idea. The library responded with great enthusiasm and made a room available to us for our weekly sessions.

As soon as the location had been arranged, we wanted to reach even more possible participants to give them a chance to read with us and join in the conversation. We used the website and also made personal contact with various collectives. That personal aspect is very important in the whole project, since we don’t want there to be any barriers between us and the club members.

Then we had to decide what we were going to read and we wanted to involve the participants in that. Each time we tell them what titles we can offer and then we all make a choice together as to which book it will be. At the moment we’re reading ‘Robinson Crusoe’, one of the most difficult books we have. We started six months ago and we’re still at it [laughs].

Laura: Our case was very different. I was working in another reception centre and we decided to contact CIRVITE directly when we noticed our coordinators were looking for a new and innovative tandem – they were ready for a new challenge. CIRVITE told us about their easy-to-read club, and we thought it would be a good idea to introduce the Spanish students to it. At that stage, they were all at a beginner’s level, but that did not stand in the way of them completely adoring the new group of people they met at the easy-to-read club. From that moment on, we’ve been inseparable – even amidst the COVID pandemic. It was also a big challenge to try to run the project on our own, without depending on any other organization, but we made it in the end, and now we’re ready for new challenges and to broaden our horizons.

Do you sometimes deliberately choose titles in which your participants are represented?

Susana: No, not really. We mainly read classics, and you don’t find much diversity in those. There are subjects that speak specifically to our club members, though. With ‘Robinson Crusoe’, for example, there was a lot of interest in the theme of religion. So we got talking with our Muslim members about their faith, with Christian club members joining in to compare their religious traditions. Debating is almost more important than reading. During our sessions, many subjects present themselves, and we discuss them with the help of the divergent experiences of our members. Everyone has something to learn from that.

Why do you find it important to engage in conversation after reading?

Susana: By discussing subjects like religion, culture, ethnicity and so on, people with intellectual disabilities learn about diversity in all its many different forms. We find it important to deal with subjects in a natural way, so that stereotypes fall away and we can broaden participants’ view of the world, and our own.

Did you encounter obstacles along the way?

Susana: Obstacles are there to be overcome. Years ago, when I was walking through the centre of Madrid with a group of people with learning difficulties, we sometimes encountered surprised looks from those not used to seeing people who are different from the norm. We overcame that obstacle by going outside more, so that we became more visible. We discovered that disabilities of all kinds are far more normalized and accepted by society in general these days.

Laura: As a teacher I find it frustrating that it’s so difficult to put together regular groups of students. Nowadays migrants have to achieve an advanced level of Spanish, which requires many hours of teaching. But it’s difficult to find people who don’t work or have other things on the agenda that mean they can’t always come to lessons. As a result there’s more work for me, because I’m always having to look for new people and put new groups together. But it’s also hard for the participants to form a close-knit group, and they’re often in difficult situations, so they really do need this kind of support. In spite of all these difficulties, we are still very grateful that our organizations came together to work for such an incredible project. Our main priority right now is to find a way to reach and include more migrants who could benefit from this project.

What is your dream as a club?

Susana: We have a lot of dreams, but one of them is that diversity in society will become completely normalized. We want society to be fully inclusive, so that disabilities of any kind will stop turning heads once they are fully integrated into our daily lives.

What tips would you give similar clubs?

Susana: Be audacious! Don’t be afraid of possible obstacles, because you can always overcome them. If we don’t try to change things, we’ll never find out that they really can change.

Another tip: listen to the experiences of others and learn from them. Look at what they’ve done to achieve success and try it yourself.

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