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The phrase “you can’t judge a book by its cover” never rang more true than during the Human Library event held at the American School of Ulaanbaatar on April 15. Over 100 interested individuals gathered to attend this event, which was aimed at using open conversations to break down stereotypes that marginalize numerous groups of people throughout society.

Human Library Ulaanbaatar was just one of many such events that have been organized around the world, but it was the first of its kind to be held in Mongolia. The original concept for the Human Library was developed in early 2000 in Copenhagen, Denmark in order to support anti-violence initiatives, promote open dialogue, and help build relationships and understanding among individuals. Since then, it has evolved into an international phenomenon and has spread to more than 70 countries worldwide.

At Human Library, people can sign out real human “books”, listen to their stories, and engage in conversations with them. The human books are chosen so that their stories highlight a particular label or stereotype imposed on them by society. Such an event provides books with a safe space to share their stories. It also gives readers the opportunity to ask questions, experience the perspectives of others, and develop an understanding and appreciation for the challenges that others face.

The human “books” who shared their stories with others at Human Library Ulaanbaatar
The human “books” who shared their stories with others at Human Library Ulaanbaatar

At Human Library Ulaanbaatar, 10 human books were represented from a wide range of topics. These books were signed out by numerous readers over seven 20-minute sessions. The books introduced themselves, recounted some of their experiences, and then answered questions and engaged in conversations with the readers.

Gerel Dondovdorj was one of the books at Human Library Ulaanbaatar. Gerel, who is the president of the Mongolian National Federation of the Blind, shared her experiences living as a blind person and working as an advocate for the blind.

Dorjjantsan (Jack) Ganbaatar also joined the event and became a human book. Jack is in his last year of a bachelor’s degree to become a medical doctor, and works as the Health Program manager at the LGBT Center Mongolia. Jack told attendees about his experiences as a LGBT person living in Mongolia.

Alungoo Byambasuren represented the LGBTQI community at Human Library Ulaanbaatar. Alungoo, who is 24 years old, has worked at the LGBT Center in Ulaanbaatar since 2016. Alungoo shared their personal experiences and discussed the importance of changing society’s attitude toward members of the LGTBQI community.

Dr. Kate Sutton Jones was also available for readers to sign out. As the daughter of mixed race parents, Dr. Sutton Jones shared her unique understanding of what it means to be “included” or to “belong,” and how it feels to be consistently seen as an outsider, both from a familial perspective as well as a societal one.

Attendees listen intently as Ms. Batchimeg Chimgee shares her story of abuse
Attendees listen intently as Ms. Batchimeg Chimgee shares her story of abuse

Batchimeg Chimgee shared her story of emotional and physical abuse. Batchimeg has received death threats and lives in constant fear of being attacked. Just one week before the Human Library event, she was attacked and kicked in the head so hard that she passed out. While she has asked for help from the police and other organizations in the past, they have been virtually ineffective. At Human Library Ulaanbaatar, Batchimeg displayed a lot of courage as she talked about her daily struggles dealing with abuse.

Purevsuren Tegsheebaatar shared her story of becoming pregnant while she was still in high school. Purevsuren recounted how she dealt with a changing body and her concern about what others would say or think about her. Yet, despite the challenges and the numerous changes that early motherhood brought to her life, Purevsuren said she never regretted giving birth to her child and pointed out that motherhood has been a most wonderful experience.

A group of interested individuals attend a session with Ms. Hulan Munkhtuya
A group of interested individuals attend a session with Ms. Hulan Munkhtuya

Hulan (Hayley) Munkhtuya, a high school student at the English School of Mongolia, explained the difficulties of living with severe depression and anxiety. Hayley also addressed misconceptions that individuals have about people with depression.

Enkhbayar Mishigdorj joined the event to share her passion for helping people by encouraging healthy lifestyles. This shone through as she spoke about her life as a vegan in a country that primarily consists of meat eaters.

Argo, who lost his right leg due to complications with diabetes, shared his story of being an amputee. As director of the Foreign Language Studies Institution, Argo explained to his readers that he has not let his disability prevent him from living a fulfilling life.

Ms. Sharon Ellis and her son, Josh at Human Library Ulaanbaatar
Ms. Sharon Ellis and her son, Josh at Human Library Ulaanbaatar

Sharon Ellis also joined Human Library Ulaanbaatar with her son, Josh, who has autism. Ellis and Josh interacted with their readers, and illustrated that someone with autism should never be viewed as “broken” or sub-human. Josh put a smile on the faces of the attendees by demonstrating his hidden talent of remembering birthdays. Individuals like Josh face behavioral, social, and communication challenges that most people do not understand. However, Ellis hopes that her participation in the Human Library has educated at least a few people on the challenges that people with autism must overcome on a daily basis.

From the very beginning of the event until the end of the final session with books, there was an exciting buzz in the air as attendees talked about the experiences they shared with the human books. Some attendees left session with tears in their eyes as what they had experienced touched them at a very personal level. Additionally, some attendees spoke with the organizers about what they could do to help the human books who were in unfortunate situations.

The organizing committee of Human Library Ulaanbaatar. Back row from left to right are: Tengis Enkh-Amgalan, Zolbayar Sanjmyatav, Enkh-Ariun Munkhgerel, Khulan Enkhbold, Uyakhan-Egshig Molomjamts, and Jason Bell. Front row from left to right are: Jargalmaa Otgonbayar, Angela Tungalag, and Enkh-Inguun Altangerel
The organizing committee of Human Library Ulaanbaatar. Back row from left to right are: Tengis Enkh-Amgalan, Zolbayar Sanjmyatav, Enkh-Ariun Munkhgerel, Khulan Enkhbold, Uyakhan-Egshig Molomjamts, and Jason Bell. Front row from left to right are: Jargalmaa Otgonbayar, Angela Tungalag, and Enkh-Inguun Altangerel

Human Library Ulaanbaatar, which was directed at individuals of all ages, was founded and organized by Khulan Enkhbold, a 10th grade student at the American School of Ulaanbaatar. Khulan says the credit for the event’s success was due to the combined efforts of a committee of seven other students and one adult who oversaw the planning, as well as the human books and the many volunteers that helped run the event. The event took over 15 months of planning, and its success was an incredible feat, considering that it was developed and managed almost solely by students. While Human Library Ulaanbaatar was the first such event in Mongolia, Khulan hopes that it will be the first of many and is already contemplating a second event for 2018.

Human Library Ulaanbaatar was a courageous step forward in a society that continues to wrestle with accepting individuals with differences. The event was a celebration of uniqueness, and it helped others to understand that in spite of the many differences that exist among us – be it in lifestyle choice, gender identity, race, disability, or the unexpected challenges that life has dealt us – we do have many things in common, perhaps the most significant of which is that we are all human.

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