Living Library in Riga: Stories as means for promoting understanding

“What matters is that they all have something to say, and that we can use conversation to erase the artificially constructed boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them’ in order to see what unites us all”

An asylum seeker from Eritrea shares his story / © Renāte Šnore

Stories are means of introducing, explaining, and communicating. A Riga, Latvia-based NGO “I Want to Help Refugees” believes that stories can also be found outside of books – in voices of those who want to share their experiences. People’s stories create a ‘Living Library’.

“What matters is that they all have something to say, and that we can use conversation to erase the artificially constructed boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them’ in order to see what unites us all,” as it reads in the invitation to the event.

A wide range of emotions could be observed in the Living Library / © Renāte Šnore

A wide range of emotions could be observed in the Living Library / © Renāte Šnore

Living Library is an outlet for stories of those who have been on the move. Whether the person has left their home country voluntarily or has been forced to flee, they all face challenges on their way and after arrival. What have you sacrificed in order to make this journey? How do you form a life in an unknown country? How do you redefine your dreams in a new environment? What food do you miss from home? What do you think are the weirdest character traits of Latvians?  Seven speakers from six different countries – Gambia, Germany, Eritrea, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey – shared their answers to these and many more questions to about 60 attendees from various backgrounds. The room was buzzing with many languages, intonations, laughter, and gasps, and questions didn’t stop pouring even during breaks. Everyone wanted to know more, which can explain why some of those in attendance had returned after participating in one of the previous three Living Libraries as well.

Asylum seekers from Eritrea during the story circles / © Renāte Šnore

It was a Monday evening in Riga when people started arriving at Kanepes Cultural Center, a building that is an embodiment of the social life in Riga across different times. Almost as soon as one entered the door, volunteers of “I Want to Help Refugees” encouraged everyone to share episodes of their own life stories in a short introductory round. Thus, attendees were immediately immersed in an informal conversation – the format chosen by the organizers as most suitable to promote understanding of the various experiences of people among us.

The organizers believe that such personal encounters in a friendly environment on topics ranging from food to culture, from daily experiences to journeys made during times of war are what facilitate understanding the different experiences and shaping one’s own views on migration beyond the widely reproduced stereotypes. According to Laura Bužinska and Agnese Freimane, representatives of “I Want to Help Refugees”, such events will have a long-term impact: “We challenge stereotypes and eliminate the unknowns, which helps people to shape their views and opinions even if they had never even given it a thought.”

Participants hug after the sharing circle in conclusion of the event /© Renāte Šnore

The Living Library usually closes with a sharing circle, where everyone has the opportunity to tell a short story of their experiences of the night. A recent returnee said: “This is the group of people that makes me feel at home.” By providing an outlet for voices of migrants, asylum seekers and refugees, Living Library has created a space that is inclusive and open to all.