St. Thomas/Elgin Weekly News November 27th, 2015

It took Ath Sem two weeks on foot to reach the border.

In that time he had to scavenge for food, avoid the Cambodian military, and simply survive. However at the border his life was still in jeopardy.

What lay between him and a refugee camp where he would spend the next two years of his life before successfully immigrating to Canada, was a field, full of land mines.

“I had a choice,” said Sem. “If I went back, (to Cambodia) I would be killed, here I had a chance. I got lucky.”

This was one of the chapters that were shared at the St. Thomas Elgin Public Art Centre by six living books in the second annual Living Library, organized and held by the St. Thomas Local Immigration Partnership.

“We are doing a living library,” said Petrusia Hontar, from St. Thomas Elgin Local Immigration Partnership. “It is an opportunity for people to come out and meet newcomers who have an interesting story to tell.”

Inside the art centre, six individual tables were set up and decorated by the living books (the individuals telling the stories) with memento’s, flags and pictures of home. Those listening had 15 minutes to ask the questions they were interested in.

Immigration and the ongoing refugee crisis the world is facing continues to be major focus for governments and citizens of countries around the world. The recent attacks in Paris France have also given many individuals cause for concern. Organizers are hopeful the event will help to elevate some of the fears individual may have.

“I think that when we are looking at raising awareness of cultural diversity, so that it eventually reduces prejudices and fear of all of those issues that people just don’t understand, I think the more we can give people the opportunity to interact with newcomers, We learn about other cultures and learn how similar people are, as opposed to different,” says Shelley Harris, executive director YWCA. “Our newcomers have an opportunity to say, ‘This is my story, this is why I came here, and thank you so much for caring to ask.’ It really empowers to share their reality, not what people think or what people have heard.”

Shirley Hollick, a former teacher who has done a fair bit of travelling herself was one of a number of people who came into the art centre to hear the books stories.

“It is fascinating. I am very interested in other cultures and love meeting people from other countries and hearing their stories is incredible,” said Hollick. “I think it makes it (others experiences) a little more real and authentic. It is not just anybody or a bunch of refugee’s, it is an human being (talking to you) who has the same fears, joys that you do. It is great to connect with people from other countries. Maybe I am different, some people are afraid to do that. I have travelled a lot and people are the same all over the world, they all have the same hopes and dreams as everyone else.”

For one of the living books, sharing his experiences is part of where he feels he is at in his life.

“It was suggested that I would be a good candidate for this, because of my english and my expressions, it would be easy for everyone to understand,” said Sem. “So I thought that maybe it would be good to get the story out, and at the same time it is a different chapter of life. That time you don’t have anything to give, except your experiences. You don’t have anything to peruse, or study, or show that you yearn to climb that corporate ladder. If I can just share my story and hopefully people will look at tragedy that we go through differently. Hopefully you remember not to abuse anyone ever, not make them so angry that they are afraid for their lives, to somehow get people to co-operate, rather than disintegrate.”