‘Human books’ event aims to break down prejudice

Volunteers share life stories to promote understanding

There’s more to literacy than re-reading the same tired lines, but at least one old truism still has bite in the globalized world: never judge a book by its cover.

National Human Library day on Jan. 26 celebrated 24 events in cities across the country, including Halifax, with the presentation of “Human books.” Cripple, Prostitute, Refugee, Lesbian — just a few of the under-read genres represented by volunteers willing to share their stories at human library events. The international movement puts human “books” on “loan” for 15 minutes of conversation, an encounter, organizers hope, promoting dialogue and understanding.

The Keshen-Goodman Library’s doors were swinging at 11 a.m., Saturday. Display cards for all 18 “human book” volunteers from the Halifax Regional Municipality on a table in front where participants could read synopses and check out library cards markered for a 15-minute slot time with any “book.”

The CBC-sponsored library included a firefighter, sex worker advocate, forensic expert and the inventor of Theodore Tugboat among the 18 book volunteers who were spread between four stations in the library, prepared to demystify their lives face-to-face.

One of the “books,” Abshiro Abdille, a Somalian who grew up with her family in a refugee camp in Kenya, was sponsored to study in Canada through Mount Saint Vincent University, and hosted a constant stream of readers in the library café.

Abdille hopes her family in Kenya will join her and her sister Halima “in two or three years,” but worries the weather might be a shock to her mother, father and second sister.

“Where I come from there is no rainy season, everything is dry…I spent my life in the desert place,” she says.

Abdille, who worked from 2008-2011 in a refugee camp with the Lutheran World Federation has found a temporary-home at MSVU, where she was sponsored to study through the World University Service of Canada.

“I didn’t come here to forget the life I had in Kenya, but to help them all — that’s the reason I am here. You have to get the knowledge…after I graduate I want to make a connection between the two nations,” she says.

Abdille is studying business at MSVU.

In another corner of the library is Glenn Knockwood, a member of Indian Brook First Nation with an unusual skill set. Knockwood teaches more than 150 Haligonians how to run, flip and vault through concrete space.

He’s an instructor of parkour — the urban movement that defies both human and architectural limitations.

Knockwood used to be a 350-pound 12-year-old, who, with a combination of skateboarding, martial arts and parkour became the sport and recreation co-ordinator at the Micmac Native Friendship Centre.

“I went out one night, and I started running [practising] parkour in the back alleys,” he says.

Knockwood now offers free sessions for the whole community at the Citadel clock tower Wednesdays and Fridays at 3:30 p.m. — where he shares the tricks he’s learned such as keeping your heels off the ground and landing without injury.

“You’re trying to land very light, pull your legs away from the ground as your knees bend and your trying to go for a silence, awareness, breathing,” he says. From troubled teens to a 64-year-old grandmother, who was reluctant to begin because of her osteoporosis, Knockwood says parkour is about starting where you are and getting better: “Things I thought were impossible, I can do now,” he says.

Occupational Hazards

Human Library co-founder Ronnie Abergel hopes the movement will provide a forum for those who have been stigmatized or suffered discrimination.

“It is not intended as a storytelling event for interesting people who already have a voice in the community and media. But rather to give a voice, space and visibility to those of often have none or are overlooked as part of their marginalization,” he writes in a statement on the Human Library website.

The Keshen Goodman Library staff do seem to categorize their “books” with a lean toward traditionally exciting and powerful occupations.

Every job has stereotypes, but Adam Sarty, a nuclear physicist and associate dean of science at Saint Mary’s University, once considered himself a jock. Sarty, who acknowledges a love of British sci-fi television show Dr. Who (”I bought a Tardis [time-machine] themed towel for my daughter”) seems miles away from the mechanical engineer who just wanted to design fitness machines. He sits with a static electricity machine that crackles and shocks approaching knuckles. He’s very much a scientist now.

Working in the 70s on a particle accelerator much smaller than the Hadron Collider, Sarty fell in love with nuclear physics — with the possibility of discovery at the smallest level of reality.

Though his research may seem inaccessible, the results are practical, he says.

“Most of the equipment we [develop] is now in hospitals — everything that came out of physics research. I like that connection. I’m not doing anything medically related, but the tools my students are using are diagnostic.”

Human Library was founded in Denmark in 2000 when Abergel and four of his friends reacted to the murder of their friend on the streets of Copenhagen by starting a youth movement. Their group, Stop The Violence, grew into the Human Library event, which celebrated its first national day last Saturday in Canada.

Halifax's Keshen Goodman Public Library hosted the Human Library on Jan. 26.
Abshiro Abdille was sponsored to study in Canada through Mount Saint Vincent University.
Glenn Knockwood offers free parkour sessions for the whole community at the Citadel clock tower Wednesdays and Fridays at 3:30 p.m.
Adam Sarty, a nuclear physicist and associate dean of science at Saint Mary’s University fell in love with exploring at the smallest level of reality.

Slideshow: Patrick Wilson