Haskell Library; The Site Of Returned Books And Family Reunions Following US Travel Ban
Grow Talk by Sofy Robertson
Many Iranian students living in the United States hold a single entry visa, meaning that they can’t leave the country without the risk that they won’t be allowed back in. Under President Trump’s travel ban, the parents of these students are unable to visit their children.
Iranian student Shirin Estahbanati had not seen her father in three years. He had suffered a heart attack in that time but she dared not leave the country for fear of not being allowed to return.
A visit to the Haskell Free Library and Opera House was about to change things for Shirin and her father. Through a historic anomaly, the library straddles the US-Canada border and has thus become the site of emotional reunions between people separated by the Trump administration’s immigration policies.
Shirin spoke of the moment where she hugged her parents after three years;
“I was thinking, I wish I could stop all clocks all over the world.” (Reuters)
Dozens of families have reunited at the Haskell library, drawn by word-of-mouth and social media posts. The site forms a geopolitical grey zone; located at once in Derby Line, Vermont and Stanstead, Quebec.
Those who have gathered at the library have undertaken fraught and costly journeys for the chance to spend a few hours together on the library’s grounds. Several of the Iranian families said that they hadn’t faced any obstacles from immigration authorities, but others said US border officers had detained them for several hours or tried to bar them entering the library. One library member of staff revealed that American and Canadian officials had threatened to shut the library due to the visits from Iranian families.
Sina Dadsetan, an Iranian living in Canada who had travelled to the library to see his sister on the same day as Shirin, said:
“This is a neutral area, but the U.S. government doesn’t accept this situation, and they put a lot of pressure on us.”
Mahsa Izadmehr, an Iranian doctoral student in engineering at the University of Illinois-Chicago, hadn’t seen her younger sister in seven years. Her sister, who lives in Switzerland, travelled to the library in late September so that they could meet. As they approached the border, demarcated by a line of flower pots outside the library, a US Border Patrol agent got out of a car parked close by.
“He said, ‘It’s been about a month that we’ve closed this; we don’t allow anyone to meet here,’” Mahsa said. “I asked him, ‘Can you at least give me permission to hug my sister?’”
The agent allowed them to embrace but prevented them from exchanging gifts of dresses, Swiss chocolates and a watch. He continued to watch them as they talked from opposite sides of the flower pot line.
The sisters were able to enter the library after a staff member offered them a tour. Mahsa later witnesses the Border Patrol agent chastising the member of staff for allowing them entry.
After a lengthy legal battle, the Supreme Court upheld Trump’s travel ban this summer. Iranians are by far the people most affected by the ban, as they study most frequently in the United States and tend to be from middle class families who can afford international travel.
The library is vulnerable to pressure from authorities as although the building sits on American and Canadian land, its entrance is on the US side. It is evidence of a time when Americans and Canadians could cross the border with simply a nod or wave at the border agents. Former library board member, Susan Granfors said:
“What we are so proud of is that we do have a library that is accessed by one single door. You don’t need your passport. You park on your side, I’ll park on my side, but we’re all going to walk in the same door.”
This all changed following the September 11 attacks in 2001. The Northern border hardened and the law enforcement presence is now immediately visible in the area.
On the day that Shirin and Sina visited the library to see their families, they found the library unexpectedly closed due a water cut-off. Although a library staff member had given the families written permission to meet on its grounds, Border Patrol agents objected to them meeting there. After pleading with the agents, Shirin and her family were allowed to meet outside the library for twenty minutes. Though the agents watched them from close by, the twenty minutes passed without interference and they allowed the families to meet for several hours that day.
In November, signs were put up in the library declaring that, by order of the library’s board of trustees, “family gatherings are not permitted”. Despite the tensions between library staff and Border Patrol agents, at least twelve Iranian families have been reunited at the Haskell library; catching up on years of news and stories, exchanging gifts and eating home-cooked food and holding onto their loved ones, wishing that these acts would once again become normal and every day.