Library Bridges U.S.-Canada Border, and Brings Together Families Separated by Travel Ban30 Jan 2020
For many people in the U.S., the first thoughts that spring to mind at the mention of Canada are well-worn stereotypes of a perpetually freezing country full of hockey fans and maple syrup. But we have more in common with our neighbor to the north than most Americans realize. Both the U.S. and Canada were born as European colonies, claim English as their most spoken language, and have thriving economies centered on tech and international trade. And while it’s common knowledge that the two nations share a border, a little-known building that straddles Vermont and Quebec lets visitors traverse between the countries just by walking across the room.
The Haskell Free Library and Opera House sits on the border between Derby Line, Vermont, and Stanstead, Quebec, making it one of a handful of structures in the world deliberately built to sit atop a border line. Completed in 1905, it was commissioned by wealthy American sawmill owner Carlos Haskell and his Canadian wife, Martha Stewart Haskell, as a gift for both countries to share. The 400-seat opera house portion of the building was added as a profit-producing venture to support the free public library that is open 38 hours a week. While the only entrance to the building is located on the U.S. side of the border, Canadians, and third-country nationals who are in Canada, traditionally have been able to access the library without the need for any identification, visa, or passport, provided they return directly to Canada when they leave. Visitors from both nations are free to roam the entirety of the building, and they can determine whether they are on the U.S. or Canadian side of the library at any time by checking the black line painted on the floor delineating the border between the two countries.
While the library has been known as little more than an obscure geographic oddity for most of its history, in recent years it has become a beacon for foreign nationals caught up in the nightmare of the recent travel ban on citizens of countries deemed to be a threat to U.S. national security. Citizens of countries on the banned list, which include Iran, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, and Venezuela, are spending thousands on airfare to fly into Canada and enter the library to physically connect with family and friends who reside in the U.S. While an expensive and time-consuming proposition for those affected by the travel ban, it is one of the only feasible ways to be in the same room with their loved ones.
Iranian student, Shirin Estahbanati, who was profiled by Reuters in 2018, had been studying in the United States, unable to visit her parents in Iran for fear of not being able to return. So, the family coordinated a lengthy journey to meet at the library. And while their visit only lasted about ten hours, Estahbanati was intensely grateful for the experience and wished she could “stop all clocks all over the world.” [See Separated by Travel Ban, Iranian Families Reunite at Border Library by Yeganeh Torbati, Reuters, 28.Nov.2018.]
The board of trustees who oversees the library’s operations has tried to keep the facility apolitical. While they do not want to end the heartwarming family reunions, they also recognize that the U.S. government could shut down the facility if it is viewed as a security risk. The trustees eventually felt compelled to set up a sign that reads “family gatherings are not permitted,” but the staff do not appear to diligently enforce the rule.
Still, there has been an increased presence by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) in the area, and CBP has installed a motion-triggered camera nearby to keep an eye on those trying to cross into the U.S. illegally. For the time being, however, the Haskell Free Library and Opera House remains open – for browsing through books and DVDs, and for tearful reunions with loved ones. [See U.S.-Canada Border Community’s Culture Changes as Security Tightens by John Burnett, NPR, 21.Nov.2019.]
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