Fredericton's virtual 'living library' gives immigrants a voice

When Inem Nsimah uprooted her life in Kenya for a career change in New Brunswick, she was warmly welcomed by her new co-workers. But when the work day ended she felt alone. 

"I suddenly became afraid, because I was happy in the day working, but at evenings I was very lonely," she said. "And I started doubting that decision."

She would like Frederictonians to learn the challenges of joining the community as a newcomer.

That goal encouraged Nsimah to be an open book for the Fredericton community during an annual "living library" event. Inspired by similar gatherings around the world, the libraries started in 2017 with a focus on homelessness and have evolved to give a voice to immigrants.

The event is organized by the city, public library and the Multicultural Association of Fredericton, which includes it as part of the Cultural Expressions Festival. 

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People are invited to come and hear someone's story in 20-minute conversations as a way to break down stereotypes and create understanding. 

The storytelling, normally held in person at the Fredericton Public Library, is going virtual with Zoom on Tuesday evening to adapt to COVID-19 restrictions. People will be placed into small groups to hear newcomers share their cultural origins, journeys to Fredericton, struggles to integrate and hopes for the future. 

Building bridges

Sebastián Salazar, the city's community liaison, said the activity has heightened relevance amid the current climate and discussions around racism. 

If the virtual format is a success, he envisions future Zoom discussions on issues like race.

"All the conversations that are going on about division, improvements in social cohesion," he said. "This is an activity that can help." 

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Those interested in participating can find the video access link on the city's website and a list of the stories. It is also possible to call in by phone.

Salazar said one of the living library's main goals is to identify obstacles and barriers of newcomers who don't feel at home in the community. The action of sharing a personal, human story helps "build bridges" and create empathy.

"It's more important now than ever," he said. "I would really like to encourage people who do not have a regular interaction with newcomers to participate."

Feeling welcome but not integrated

Nsimah moved to Saint John nearly five years ago with her two children to pursue a master's of business administration. The next big change was an internship at Opportunities New Brunswick that brought her to Fredericton. She made the decision to immigrate while she was here — something she thinks Canadians don't know.

"It was only nine months into my stay that I thought, I could live here, I could move my family and live here," she said.

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Nsimah would like to see Frederictonians grow more willing to open up their social circles and include new people. 

"Many newcomers make an attempt to get integrated. They are welcomed, but there is really no deliberate effort to open up social circles that they can feel they are part of," she said.

Nsimah tried hard to grow her connections by joining the board of the local United Way and attending church. But her friends are mostly other immigrants and few locals. 

"I don't want to just have an immigrant experience," she said. "I want to be part of the fabric of the community."

'Enriching experience' for storytellers

Jasna Jackson is participating in the living library for the third time. She moved to Canada from the former Yugoslavia and shares her story of starting a new life in Fredericton. 

"It's a personal enriching experience I feel," she said. "It helps me understand people better and it brings me closer to different cultures and understanding their views and their ways."

Jackson hopes people learn from her story that no obstacle is unsurmountable. This will be her third time participating as a "book" in the library. 

"It is useful to, especially Canadians, to learn about people coming to their country starting to build a new life, and struggles these people all go through," she said.

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Widad Ali brought traditional Iraqi food to share at the last two living libraries. She expects the virtual version of the event to have less interaction — but expects the lessons from stories to still come across. 

When Ali shares her experience fleeing political unrest in her native Iraq, tears often come to the eyes of listeners, she said.

"When they see the personal things that I tell them, they understand more our mentality and our way of living."