Father Mick Ngundu has survived the rolling conflict that has ravaged the Democratic Republic of Congo, emerging as a passionate advocate of the poor and critic of corruption he claims poisons chances of democracy. From the stately grounds of a former French monastery, he describes how many in his resource-rich homeland are too destitute to afford electricity.

French retiree Veronique Couque is listening. She has never stepped foot in sub-Saharan Africa. Their paths might never have crossed had it not been for a growing citizen movement known as Living Libraries designed to smash stereotypes and prejudice through dialogue.

“They allow you to actually speak to a black, or an Arab or a Jew, and discover what it’s like to be that person,” said Natacha Waksman, a former French diplomat who helped to launch the latest Living Library encounter this month in the Normandy city of Caen. “It allows you to discover what it’s like to be that person. It’s an opportunity to break barriers.”

The initiative coincides with a new report by Europe’s top rights watchdog that shows rising levels of xenophobia and hate speech across the region, partly driven by populism, terrorist attacks and the massive influx of migrants, the subject of a European Union summit next week.

Along with newer targets like Africans and Arabs, the study authored by the 47-member Council of Europe finds older prejudices also linger against Jews, Roma and the LGBT community, despite strides in some countries.

​Changing the narrative

“It’s not that there is no will to change things, but it shows we need to make more efforts” said Zeynep Usal-Kanzier, a lawyer at the council’s European Commission Against Racism and Intolerance, in Strasbourg, France. “We still have to encourage a change in the narrative, for example, by showing the positive contribution of well-governed migration.”

Living libraries also aim to shape the shifting narrative, supporters say, by offering people a chance to meet those they might otherwise shun and ask them frank questions. The initiative’s motto: Don’t judge a book by its cover.

“The living books are often people who have personal experiences of discrimination or social exclusion that they are willing to share with the readers,” said Tina Mulcahy, executive director of the council’s European Youth Centre, which promotes Living Libraries and has written an organizer’s guide. Like their brick-and-mortar counterparts, Mulcahy said, readers can check out subjects they’re interested in, “borrowing” human books for conversations.

Founded by a Danish NGO nearly two decades ago, Living Libraries have spread to more than 60 countries to date, including the United States, New Zealand and India. In Hungary, where right-wing lawmakers toughened anti-immigration legislation this week, Living Libraries have been held nearly annually in Budapest since 2001.

 

WATCH: Fighting Prejudice by Checking Out People

On a recent afternoon, the Caen event was packed, as visitors sat down for conversations with the homeless and immigrants like Ngundu.

For the Roman Catholic cleric, who now works as a priest in Normandy, the experience has been transformative.

“Since I experienced war, I can offer ideas for how to end it,” he said, sketching out ideas for starting similar initiatives in local schools.

​Moving forward

“It helps people think, and perhaps move forward,” added Couque, the elderly reader, who described her conversation with Ngundu as a primer on politics and development.

Waksman, the former diplomat, is already thinking beyond Caen, describing cross-border initiatives that might bring Europeans together.

“That would give people another image of Germans, for example,” she said. Perhaps Britons might not have backed Brexit, she added, had they been more in touch with fellow EU nationals.

In Normandy, some have approached Waksman about starting an online library, but that is one idea that she rules out.

“I believe it’s great that people actually get to meet, shake hands, look into each others’ eyes,” Waksman said. “With our smart phones and virtual lives, it becomes harder and harder to talk to each other. This creates an intimacy that’s helpful in today’s society.”

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