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What You Missed at the Human Library

By: Jackie Orchard

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If you missed the Human Library Event at 1:30 last Tuesday, March 5th, I’m here to fill you in on how awesome it was.  

Here’s how it works. You arrive in the campus center by Starbucks and some really friendly people hand you a list of human “books.” You tell them which one seems cool and they escort you to the private room where the “book” is waiting to tell his or her story.

My books were both in the “globe” and my first speaker was Zakhar Berkovich: “The Path of a Jewish Refugee: From Belarus to Staten Island.”

You are expected to sit quietly and not ask questions while your book is speaking for ten minutes. (Torture for chronic interrupters such as myself.) But when the book finishes telling his story, you are free to ask questions. Of course, I did.

“What do you enjoy most about sharing with us today? How does this help you?” I asked.

Zakhar said, “When I was invited to talk, I was kind of thinking about what I haven’t said out loud, you know, some things I was thinking about for a while. You know, I haven’t said thank you to my parents yet for bringing me here.” He pauses. “Which I should.”

And this is the best part about Human Library. You get to watch a “book” realize things about himself as he realizes it.

Zakhar was grateful that his parents brought him to the U.S. “I would not be having a master’s degree and having real estate and driving a car by this point,” He mused.

Because he was Jewish, Zakhar might not have even been permitted to a university in Russia or Belarus.

“I have a lot of opportunity here,” he said. “and I’m thankful for it.”

My second “book” was Nana-Hawa Abdul-Rahman: “Reframing Home.” Nana is also an immigrant, but instead of Belarus she is from Ghana. Her parents left her behind so that they could come to the U.S. and establish themselves.

After Nana’s story, I asked her, “Did you ever ask them [her parents] how they made the decision to leave you behind in Ghana, out of all of your siblings, why did they choose you?”

She smiled a knowing smile and said, “I did ask them. My mother’s reasoning was they wanted to get to America, establish themselves, then bring me over to meet them. And they said they chose me to stay because I was a toddler and I would be harder to look after in America. So they left me with my grandmother.”

“Did you buy that excuse when she first told you?” I asked.

“I struggled with it for a long time. That is the reason I was deeply depressed when I first got here because I did not understand. But now I am not mad at them, it was the situation.”

Walking out of the Globe in the student center, I think more than a few of us wanted to be Nana’s new best friend. Her smile is infectious and her story was deeply raw and personal.

Nana ended the session by saying that seeing the separated families at the Mexican border is very hard for her. She looks at those crying children and sees herself.

Nana and Zakhar, both with vastly different stories, from vastly different countries, somehow both had the same look on their faces: introspection. They glanced at the table and felt a whole feeling before answering our questions.

That is the moment that makes the Human Library a can’t miss event. You can’t read that look. You have to see it.

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