A high school teacher in Edmonton, a teenaged Syrian refugee adjusting to a new life in Canada, a librarian in West Vancouver, you, me, your neighbour down the street who you’ve only ever nodded to, and a whole city of friends you haven’t met.
They are all different, but in so many ways, they are the same. That, at least, is one of the driving theories behind a new project beginning now at West Vancouver Memorial Library. One Book, One Community is a reading and discussion program that encourages all West Vancouverites to read the same book – Homes: A Refugee Story, by Abu Bakr al Rabeeah and Winnie Yeung – and come together to explore and share ideas arising from the non-fiction work. It’s like a book club for an entire municipality.
“The goal of the project in general is just bringing people together of all different backgrounds to have conversations, to explore what they might have in common and also what their differences are and what are the reasons for those differences – just to celebrate the cultural diversity that actually exists in the community,” said Pat Cumming, acting director of West Vancouver Memorial Library. “We hear from people that they would like more opportunities to talk to people who have different backgrounds, but they just aren’t sure how to go about it, or how to make those initial connections. Starting with the One Book, One Community series, we’re hoping that in those book chats we will bring together people of all different backgrounds to have a conversation about a book, but then from that they might be able to develop a relationship.”
Homes: A Refugee Story is a perfect book to spur those discussions and help build new relationships, said Cumming. The book is a collaboration between al Rabeeah, a member of a large family that moved from Iraq to Syria and then to Canada, and Yeung, his language arts teacher at a high school in Edmonton. What started as a short story written by al Rabeeah turned into a months-long project as the young student told his teacher about life in Iraq and Syria and his family’s transition to Canada, with Yeung then gathering those conversations into a book.
“It’s a really kind of fascinating story that basically gives some historical context to the conflict in Syria from the point of view from a very young person, and then on to his relationship with his teacher once he comes to Canada,” said Cumming. “Just telling that story of what his life was like, and the connection that they create is really quite moving. It gives historical background that can help people in Canada understand what a refugee experience is like, what it’s like for them in their home country but also what it’s like for them when they come to Canada. And how they start to integrate, and the challenges of not knowing the language and having that trauma, but also coming to a new place and having to establish a new life. And really the incredible relationship that develops with that teacher whose empathy and involvement produces this amazing book.”
The book was a finalist in the 2019 Canada Reads contest as well as a finalist for the 2018 Governor General’s Literary Award for non-fiction.
“A couple of us read it and we thought, oh this really fits in quite nicely with the ideas that we want to promote discussion about,” said Cumming.
The library has about 100 copies of the book available for loan, as well as accompanying discussion guides for anyone who wants additional resources for a home book club. There will also be discussion groups hosted at the library and facilitated by librarians.
Cumming was quick to add, however, that the project is not just for readers.
“We have all these other activities that are included in the project – we have a film being shown, we have lectures, we have a panel discussion. … We have multiple entry points, so if you’re not a reader you can come to the film or you can come to the lectures. There’s lots of different ways to participate.”
There are even prizes. Participants can earn stamps on a passport for attending One Book, One Community events, and each time they attend an event they will be entered to win a $100 gift card for Park Royal.
The ultimate aim of the campaign is to help create connections in the community, said Cumming.
“Inclusiveness is really one of the core values of the library, and so we really feel that this program really demonstrates how we can act and bring more inclusiveness to the community,” she said. “It’s really about creating connections. People can connect with their own stories, people can connect with this particular story, and then it shows how people in Canada can connect with people who have come from another place and another experience.”
For more information on the project and upcoming events, visit the library's website.