A Million Stories

Melanie Holst describes 'A Million Stories'. The library-led intercultural storytelling project is the largest curated collection of unfiltered personal accounts from refugees in Europe.

A Million Stories is an intercultural storytelling project initiated and led by Roskilde Libraries (Denmark), in collaboration with Malmö (Sweden) and Cologne (Germany) public libraries and Future Library in Veria (Greece). The project has created an online digital library of human experiences, containing more than 600 unfiltered accounts from refugees that have fled to EU in recent years, making it the largest curated collection of unfiltered personal accounts from refugees in Europe.

Our website enables refugees to share their experiences, culture and life stories in various formats including film, audio/visual and written stories. By doing so, refugees can communicate their stories regardless of language and storytelling capabilities.

The range of formats and the geographical outreach that an online platform provides enables us to communicate not only on a social level, but also on a political and an educational level, e.g. making it possible for schoolchildren to learn about the lives of refugee children living in their country, or higher learning facilities using stories to conduct sociological research.

Integration through identification

The main intention has been to create a platform likely to foster respect for intercultural diversity by creating references we can all recognize from our everyday lives. By offering refugees a platform from which to share their experiences, we have brought forward the possibility for EU citizens to identify with their new neighbors, thereby contributing to the integration process from a new angle.

Stories about refugees, portrayed to us in the media, edited by journalists or told from a political perspective, are often taken out of context. Instead of telling parts of stories, which tend to illustrate our differences, A Million Stories seeks to encourage identification between people. An interesting characteristic about the stories told in this project is that they create narrative connections between two different storylines. One from the storytellers past life and one from their present, which offers great insight into the cultural context they are a part of. Not only do we learn about the storytellers past lives, and harrowing experiences of war and plight, but also we receive outside perspectives on our own cultures and way of life. These perspectives are relevant in both a sociological and a political perspective.

Storytelling enables refugees to share our experiences across time and space. Through storytelling, they are able to reflect on their own experiences and express them to others. Identifying with other peoples experiences, feelings and perspectives is what makes cultural transmission and social integration possible (Horsdal 2013).

Promoting cultural inclusion

For more than 100 years, it has been the purpose of public libraries to promote information, education and cultural activity. The aim being to promote free and equal access to knowledge and informing the democratic debate.  Since the large flow of refugees into Europe culminated in 2015, the demography in many European countries changed, leaving libraries in Europe, along with many other public institutions, in need of new initiatives that could ensure the inclusion of newcomers. To foster integration, giving EU citizens the opportunity to discover, learn from and understand the values and cultures of refugees was paramount.

In this context, the European Commission revised its work program 2016 to include specific measures supporting the integration of refugees and encouraging mutual understanding between refugees and host country populations in Europe. When the Creative Europe program put out a call for projects supporting integration through intercultural dialogue and understanding, Roskilde Library, in cooperation with our partner libraries, was quick to respond. We put together a comprehensive proposal, relevant not only to our main purpose as libraries; promoting information and helping refugees improve digital and lingual skills, but to foster integration through storytelling.

The cooperation project

The refugees we have interviewed in this project come from a wide variety of cultural backgrounds. Not all have experiences with public libraries, and many have distrust of public institutions. Therefore, it was necessary to work with local gatekeepers and volunteers from the refugee community in order to gain access to people whose life stories could otherwise have gone untold and undocumented. Building trust and creating safe environments for storytelling has been the greatest part of the project. We have talked to people in libraries, asylum centers, camps and even in their private homes to collect and convey the personal sides of the historic refugee crisis we have witnessed in recent years.

The partner libraries involved in the project represent societies with different political standpoints regarding the question of refugees and migrants. They are also logistically very differently placed on the routes of migration. Where Greece has status, as an arrival country and Denmark a transit country, Sweden and Germany are destination countries on the migration route. This diversity has been an important asset for the project, as it has allowed us entrance into a large variety of refugee communities, and offered insight into very different cultural and political contexts, which have influenced the life stories greatly.

A Million Stories encourages cultural institutions worldwide to contribute to the digital human library of personal accounts from refugees, offering a toolkit and short film describing our work and methodologies.

Please go to refugeelives.eu to learn more.