Giving The Gift Of Literacy

by Leviana Coccia

Imagine not being able to read this sentence or not being able to text your friends. Have you ever stopped to think about what life would be like without literacy? I haven’t. I’ve personally taken my ability to read and write for granted. It’s a gift I’ve always had and never had to experience life without. Literacy is a huge part of who I am and is the reason I identify as a writer and work in public relations.

Not everyone is so lucky to be able to read

According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, there are 781 million adults and 126 million youths who cannot read and write across the globe. 64% of these people are women. Three out of five youths who lack basic reading and writing skills are women. In some countries, low literacy rates amongst women are the result of continued exclusion from education.

In Toronto, over 2,000 young and marginalised mothers are taking proactive strides against these statistics. They are able to do this through resources provided by a non-profit organisation called Literature for Life. This organisation helps at-risk mums develop their reading ability, allowing members to access opportunities, leading them to better futures.

Huda Eldardiry

Huda Eldardiry is one mum whose life completely changed after joining Literature for Life. At 19, Eldardiry learned she was two months pregnant with her son, Amiel, who is now eight. She immediately feared having her baby. This is because it made her worry that she would lose support from her traditional Muslim family and surrounding community.

“I wasn’t excited about the baby, at least not at first,” Huda says. “I wasn’t going to have the baby. When I decided to have sex, I was very careful about planning my sexual health. I was at the doctor’s regularly, on birth control and using condoms.” Huda also says she had the contingency plan that if she still found herself pregnant, abortion would be her only answer.

Pregnancy can be scary

“I never took into consideration that I would fall in love with the baby,” she adds. “But, everyday that I waited to get the blood results to confirm my pregnancy was another day I connected to my growing peanut.” Huda no longer began to fear pregnancy and losing her community and family. At this point, her biggest fear was life without her baby.

“I worried I wouldn’t be able to take care of Amiel, because at the time, I could barely take care of myself,” the now 27-year-old says. “I worried about losing everyone I loved and cared for because I went against everything I was taught to believe. I’d worry about not being able to shower my child with care and affection because these experiences were rare as a child. I asked myself, ‘Would I be able to learn how to love him when I barely had experience being loved?’”

Life doesn’t stop

During her childhood, she had low self-esteem and difficulty learning English, maths and science. This impacted Eldardiry and made it difficult for her to realise her potential. She found it hard to see her options for different possible careers. Disillusioned, she worried about how to pay her bills and how to learn the skills she needed to succeed.

It’s worth it if it’s worth it to you

In 2007, Eldardiry met Jo Altilia, then Executive Director of Literature for Life. The organization was what tied her to the relationship she gained with Altilia. Eldardiry recalls having a conversation with Altilia about the value of books. If buying a book and becoming inspired by a story is what made her happy, she should not being afraid to spend money on it.

“For a long time reading was a secret habit,” Eldardiry says. “For a long time, and still to this day, I am told buying books is a waste of money when in fact they are an investment for a persons mental, emotional and personal well being.” Altilia’s friendship and guidance is what made an impact in how Eldardiry saw and related to literature and self-advocacy. “My journey in building myself and my career was inspired by the relationships I built and my ability to learn how to ask for help. This is how and where the relationships I established at Literature for Life have inspired my transformation journey,” Eldardiry says.

Your love for reading changes and develops

These advancements inspired Eldardiry to find a job as Designer and Community Artist at SKETCH Toronto. SKETCH provides creative training initiatives for street-involved, homeless and at-risk youth. Eldardiry has also been able to share books, and her success, with Amiel. She says Amiel has developed confidence, an imagination, a love of reading and trust in others as a result.

Literature for Life has taught Huda about becoming confident and learning to love herself. Having a home now full of books and art has shown Amiel, her son, that if Huda can be successful, than so can he. She says, “Amiel is learning key life skills and becoming confident that asking for help is okay, that falling down is good, that finding someone to trust is both beautiful and possible. And he’s doing all this while being re-affirmed that he’s loved and not alone. Literature for Life does for me what I do for my son in many ways. The organisation has become one of my chosen families.”

It can bond people together

Amiel watches his mother read everything, from newspapers, to books, to blogs. Reading has become a way for the mother and son duo to bond. “I often find him picking up his own books and making up his own stories for hours,” Huda says, adding that their conversations are often based on Amiel’s creativity, imagination, curiosity and problem solving.

When mothers first enter programmes at Literature for Life, they often have a wall up that prevents them from connecting with group facilitators. Programmes offered through the organisation encourage members to read out loud, which can be a huge challenge, but an even bigger confidence builder.

It can help you grow

Literature for Life’s programmes involve women who have likely been victims of physical and emotional abuse, neglect, homelessness and discrimination and are economically disadvantaged. Reading isn’t on their mind and nor is it a priority. By trusting books and by trusting the others at Literature for Life, it helps them to be better parents, improve their chances of employment and develop their confidence.

Growing up with books everywhere, Huda says she was always thirsty to unlock hidden mysteries. However, because of her low self-esteem and difficulty learning, Huda didn’t pick up her first book to read until she was in grade seven. “I got tired of being different and not having an outlet that gave me space to feel safe.” For her, reading became a means of survival in a world crumbling everywhere she turned.

Don’t be a robot, think freely

The Toronto artist also says, “Without the ability to read and write, we become subjects of someone else’s beliefs and practices. We become programmed robots versus thinking, problem solving, and self-advocating human beings. And that makes for a very sad and mad world. By reading, we learn about everything around us and how it works.  We even are able to learn about ourselves, too. This helps us to become more capable and involved members of our society.”

To learn more about Literature for Life and the great work they do, click here. Get inspired and join Literature for Life. Give the gift of literacy.

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