Quebec City Muslims share their stories at human library event

A human library event was held in Quebec City to promote dialogue with the Muslim population. Dozens of volunteers agreed to share their personal stories, in an effort to challenge stereotypes and prejudice.

Weekend event aims to challenge prejudice through storytelling

Naïla Khalil agreed to be one of the human books at the Monique-Corriveau library in Quebec City, on Nov. 18. (Julia Page/CBC)

Dozens of volunteers from Quebec City's Muslim community agreed to take part in a human library event on Saturday.

People showing up at the Monique-Corriveau library in Sainte-Foy could sign out a "living book" and hear first-hand the stories of Muslim people who have chosen to live in Quebec City or who have converted to Islam. 

The city's public health agency, the CIUSSS de la Capitale-Nationale, organized the event, along with several local organizations and mosques, in an effort to challenge stereotypes and prejudice.

"I felt the responsibility, the desire to speak out, to say, 'We have different beliefs but we live like everyone else,'" said Naïla Khalil, who describes herself as Tunisian, Muslim and "Québécoise."

Quebec City's public health agency organized the human library event to encourage conversations that challenge stereotypes and prejudices. (Julia Page/CBC)

Khalil remembers the moment she received her Canadian visa in 2015, after a six-year wait.

"I had always dreamed of coming here, it was really a special moment."

The mother of two is now a computer analyst with the Quebec government.

Khalil said after the Jan. 29 Quebec City mosque attack that killed six men, including her friend and neighbour Aboubaker Thabti, something changed.

"It really shocked me. I was depressed, seeing all these heinous comments on social media, on the news, it was very difficult."

Khalil said she now takes part in several community events like the human library to set things straight, and make sure people don't misrepresent the meaning of Islam.

Choosing to put on the veil

Khajida Zahid also said her perspective had changed since the attack.

"As a woman who wears the veil, it's a topic that comes up all the time, in the media, at the National Assembly, that it's a danger for Quebec society. And that affects me because it's not the truth." 

Zahid immigrated to Quebec on her own in 2007 from Morocco and secured a job in human resources for Quebec's Ministry of Environment.
Khajida Zahid immigrated to Quebec City from Morrocco in 2007 and now works in the government's human resources' department. (Julia Page/CBC)

She started wearing the veil in 2011, a decision which took her several years to come to.

"This is not something that will limit my ability to be integrated. It's a choice that I made, no one forced me to do this."

Zahid said she thinks Quebecers and Canadians have to accept the differences in culture that come with immigration.

"We come here because we are invited. [The government] knows immigrants coming from north Africa are in majority Muslim, and that they will bring their religion with them," Zahid said.

She suggested that instead of dividing the population with rules once people have arrived like Bill 62, the government should foster understanding and lay the groundwork for integration.

More than a dozen people volunteered to become human books for the event. (Julia Page/CBC)

Changing perceptions

Tackling some of these prejudices was the starting point of the initiative according to Brigitte Paquet, who works with the CIUSSS de la Capitale-Nationale.

"It's really to promote living together," Paquet said.

The health agency has been working closely with the Muslim community since the mosque attack to help in the recovery process.

"We wanted to make sure that people will understand their whole life story, and also answer questions people might have on Muslim culture," Paquet said.

Carol Vachon attended the human library event because he wanted to discuss the province's approach to religious accommodations. (Julia Page/CBC)
Carol Vachon, who attended the event, said the conversations surrounding religious symbols need to include the Muslim population.

But he said there are certain rules that need to be put in place.

"We have to legislate on these topics," said Vachon. "But we mustn't let this situation make us have no respect for women who wear veils."

Sana Tedjini is reflecting on whether she wants to return to Algeria after completing her civil engineering degree at Laval University. (Julia Page/CBC)

Sana Tedjini has been studying civil engineering at Laval University for two years.

In the midst of deciding whether to go back to Algeria to pursue her career, she said that meeting two Muslim women engineers, who raised their families in Quebec, was eye-opening.

"It's been difficult living far from my family but meeting these women has given me a new outlook.