Nicosia (AFP) – Inside a vintage-style Cypriot cafe, 18-year-old Ibrahima Yonga recounts to a stranger how he escaped the Boko Haram group in Cameroon and spent months at sea to reach Europe.
Seated at tables nearby, a Palestinian, a Congolese and a Sudanese also share their tales with members of the public, against a soothing background of light acoustic music.
A Cypriot non-governmental organisation had invited them to the cafe in Nicosia’s old town to become “human books” for the evening.
To add a human touch to an often complex and troubling news story, it invited eight people from the Mediterranean island’s around 6,000 refugees and 2,500 asylum seekers to tell their stories.
Founded in Denmark in 2000, the Human Library’s motto is “to build a positive framework for conversations that can challenge stereotypes and prejudices through dialogue.
“The Human Library is a place where real people are on loan to readers,” it says.
Cyprus has since 2009 hosted events at which participants can consult not a book but a fellow human being with an experience to share.
The library aims to add a new perspective, said Cypriot volunteer Margarita Kapsou, who shuttled between tables to make sure guests rotate every half an hour.
On a chart on the wall, green bits of cardboard showed which human books had become available, as volunteer translators offered to be “human dictionaries”.
– ‘Really intense’ –
After Yonga escaped his Boko Haram captors — whom he describes as “brutal” — he fled Cameroon by fishing boat, leaving his family behind, before boarding a larger ship.
“The captain took care of us and we didn’t pay anything,” he said. “Some were working on the ship. They gave me first aid.”
“One day, the captain put us in touch with another ship that took us to Cyprus.”
He now lives at the Kofinou refugee camp, home to almost 400 asylum seekers in the Greek Cypriot south of the divided island.
“The showers are broken, the water’s freezing and the rooms are dirty,” he said, looking down at the cafe’s tiled floor. “But we don’t have any choice.”
“I thought my life was over but the Cypriot government welcomed me,” he said.
Theano Stellaki, a local in her sixties, said she was “very moved” by Yonga’s story.
“We hear about this every day on television but it’s different to be confronted with it directly,” she said.
Jeremy, a French tennis teacher living in Cyprus, said he was “swept up by the force of the stories”.
But “the stories are really intense so, after two ‘books’, I need a break,” he said.
On arrival, guests receive a code of conduct asking them to “treat the ‘books’ with respect”.
“They share personal things so it’s important that they feel comfortable and safe,” Kapsou explained.
– ‘Liberating’ –
In a corner of the room, 42-year-old Kamal lifted his woolly hat in the dimmed light to show a scar where a bullet had grazed his skull as he fled the war in Sudan some 16 years ago.
He had felt “almost nothing”.
Some of the evening’s “readers” said they had feared the experience would be voyeuristic, but were surprised by how uninhibited most of the storytellers were.
“Sometimes you feel bad because you don’t know what to do,” 16-year-old school student Alexandra said. But it’s a “chance to hear the truth”.
And storytellers said sharing their tales offered some relief.
Telling his story was “liberating”, Kamal said, adding he much preferred “constructive” chats to expressions of pity.
Yonga found the evening challenging, but said it was part of a process to get his life back on track. “All I want is a normal life, wherever it is,” he said.