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Families Separated By The Travel Ban Reunite In A Border Library

Flower pots and landscaping stones mark the international border between Stanstead, Quebec, and Derby Line, Vt. Inside the Haskell Free Library and Opera House, the border is marked by a line on the floor. Photo by Amy Kolb Noyes for VPR

Flower pots and landscaping stones mark the international border between Stanstead, Quebec, and Derby Line, Vt. Inside the Haskell Free Library and Opera House, the border is marked by a line on the floor. Photo by Amy Kolb Noyes for VPR

For those living in the United States with a single-entry visa, it’s difficult, or even impossible, to leave the country to visit family and then re-enter. In recent years, the Trump administration’s travel ban has made it harder, barring individuals from certain countries from entering the U.S. For some families, it can be years between visits.

But a library that sits on the border between the United States and Canada is offering a solution. The Haskell Free Library and Opera House, in Derby Line, Vermont, and Stanstead, Quebec, is serving as a space where Iranian families can reunite.

Yeganeh Torbati, a reporter for Reuters, wrote about the library and the reunions taking place there. She spoke with John Dankosky about what’s happening inside the library.

Interview Highlights

These interview highlights have been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

John Dankosky: In this piece, you focus on two families. Tell us about Shirin Estahbanati.

Yeganeh Torbati: Shirin Estahbanati is a student in New York City studying engineering. And like many Iranian students, she is here on a single-entry visa. So that means that if she were to leave the borders of the United States she would have to apply for another visa to come back in, and there is really no guarantee that would happen quickly enough, or at all, to enable her to continue her studies. So she is for all intents and purposes stuck here. And then because of the travel ban, her parents basically have zero chance of getting a visa to the United States. And since the last time she had seen her father he had had a heart attack. She hadn’t been able to leave to check on him. And so she was very much wanting to see both of her parents.

In August, her parents who had traveled to Canada on Canadian visas, and were staying with her sister there in Montreal, they came down to the library from the Northern side, and Shirin drove up to Vermont from New York, about a six-hour drive, and they basically met at the library over the course of two days.

Shirin spoke about the reunion with her family in the library in a video that accompanies your article: 

“I don’t know, the time I was just hugging my parents, I was thinking, I wish I could stop all clocks all over the world.” 

It’s really powerful. What was it like to see these  reunions? 

I didn’t witness Shirin’s family reuniting, but I did witness a couple others in early November just by chance. I decided to go up there myself, and saw two families who decided to come there that day to reunite.

It’s extremely powerful. They are very emotional moments. You’re seeing people seeing each other for the first time in several years. There are immediate tears, really long embraces. And just the sheer pleasure of being in the company of your mother, your child, your brother, your sister, someone you haven’t seen in months or years, it was really powerful to witness.

Tell us more about the Haskell Free Library and Opera House where these reunions are taking place. It’s a very unusual building in an unusual place. 

It’s a very small library, just a couple reading rooms and a stacks area, and a main hallway. And it’s really a relic of this era where the international boundary between the U.S. and Canada was sort of an afterthought. There are these communities that have been there for early in the 20th century, if not longer, and in those days they were just sort of almost one town, but just happened to be built across this border. And so there was a local wealthy family that built the library, endowed it and purposefully had it built across the border, and a few years later, I believe, it became illegal, so this institution was grandfathered in and allowed to operate. But it’s very rare and very unique that an institution open to the public would be built across an international boundary like this.

How exactly does this work with Border Patrol from both the American and the Canadian side? 

It’s sort of hard to understand unless you go there yourself. But essentially there is a port of entry very nearby the Haskell, just a few hundred yards away, that’s an official point of entry and it really does look almost like a drive-through window, it’s a very small operation. But at the Haskell itself, the border between the U.S. and Canada is just demarcated by a line of flower pots, and the library sits squarely across the border, but it’s only entrance is on the American side. So there’s a special dispensation that the library has whereby Canadians, people entering from Canada, can park on the Canadian side, and then they walk on the sidewalk up to the library front door and then they go in, and as long as when they leave the library they go back to their cars, go back to Canada, then it’s all fine.

Here’s Sina Dadsetan, he’s an Iranian who lives in Canada, his family visited the library so they could see his sister who lives in the Untied States: 

“If my parents come next year, and if this travel ban still exists, maybe we do the same thing again, maybe. Because we are not breaking any law. This is the only solution we have right now. And if they are going to stop us from this way, we try to find another solution.”

Is there a sense that someone might try to stop this type of reunion? 

It’s a fraught situation. I heard several stories from people about Border Patrol agents trying to stop them from meeting, telling them it was no longer allowed, chastising a library staff member who allowed one of these families to enter after a Border Patrol agent had told them that they couldn’t. The head librarian told me that both Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and Border Patrol had threatened to shut the library down over the visits. RCMP flatly denied that and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which overseas Border Patrol, didn’t directly respond to my questions about that.

So the visits are fraught. The library itself, before I ever reported this story, had issued a formal policy saying that family gatherings are not permitted, and they put signs up throughout the library saying that, but the signs are very easy to overlook. And the families that met there on the day that I was there in early November just hadn’t noticed them and the library staff members allowed the visits to go forward.

It’s almost like a literal gray zone because it’s on the border, both in Canada and the United States, but also it’s like a gray zone in the sense that they’re operating in this quasi-allowed, quasi-not-allowed space. And so it remains to be seen if these visits will be allowed to go forward. But you saw in that clip with Sina that this is something these Iranians have turned to out of desperation, out of the feeling that they have no other legal option, that this is their one legal option to be able to see each other.

This is an edited interview from the December 13, 2018 episode of NEXT. You can listen to the entire show right nowFind out when NEXT airs throughout all of New England.