After years of discrimination, threats, and violence because of their sexual orientation, Boban Stojanovic and his partner fled Serbia in October 2016 and claimed refugee protection in Canada. As they adjusted to life as newcomers in Calgary, they began to hear a common question.
“Everyone kept saying ‘have you been to the library?’ ” says Boban, a prominent Serbian human rights activist and key organizer of the Belgrade Pride Parade. “We were like, ‘OK, but why?’ In our culture, you don’t often go to the library. It’s not such an important institution in the everyday lives of people.”
At the time, the couple were anxiously awaiting a government hearing to determine if they would be granted refugee status in Canada. Boban describes that period in their lives as a stressful grey zone. “You are in some kind of limbo,” he says. “You can’t make any concrete plan because you don’t know what will happen with you.”
Looking for something to take their minds off the looming hearing, the couple heeded the advice they’d repeatedly heard from insistent Calgarians: visit the library. The newcomers walked to nearby Nose Hill Library and asked about becoming members.
Boban remembers nervously unfolding his refugee claimant document, the lone piece of identification he had. To his surprise, a Library employee politely handed the paper back and explained that just his full name and address were required for a free Library card.
“In Serbia, everything is very bureaucratic,” Boban says. “Here, this institution is open.”
‘I belong here’
Boban's new plastic Library card felt significant. “This was the first official proof I belong here. I am part of this system. I have some roots in this country,” he says.
The card also made him feel equal. “In that moment, I was like every other Calgarian,” he says. “They became a member the same way I became a member.”
In awe of the fact one person could borrow 99 books, Boban began to explore books at Nose Hill Library. “Having the opportunity to find all those books was something that really gave me hope,” Boban says. “You must have something to occupy your mind.”
As he waited for the upcoming hearing, Boban found a sense of sanctuary at Nose Hill Library. He’d read coffee table books about Scandinavian design and imagine how he would decorate his future home in Canada.
Boban also borrowed autobiographies, feeling solace in the fact people he admired had also experienced ups and downs in their lives. “Reading all these books, I was more comfortable with my life,” he says. “Claiming for refugee status or waiting for the decision, it doesn’t mean something bad. Because all those people had … some very challenging periods in their lives.”
An Open and Safe Place
In March 2017, Boban and his partner learned their claim for refugee status had been accepted. They could now apply for work permits, social insurance numbers, and to become permanent residents of Canada.
Today, Boban's partner is improving his English through LINC classes, while Boban works at the Centre for Newcomers in a new role, as Settlement Practitioner for LGTBQ+ newcomers.
“I am very lucky and happy and privileged to work there and to help people from my community who just came here,” he says, noting LGTBQ+ refugees face distinct challenges. Boban is grateful newcomers can turn to the Centre for Newcomers and Calgary Public Library, both open and safe places for all.
Boban also worked a seasonal job at Pier 1 Imports, a position that drew on the interior design books he loves to peruse. He continues to regularly visit the Library; following a move downtown, he calls Central Library home.
Boban now finds himself repeating to newcomers the line he once heard again and again: visit the library. “I never had that perception before that something called a library could be so important to my life,” he says. “Now I do.”