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Immigration is a pressing topic in our political landscape right now, with concerns about ICE raids and immigration bans. In this episode, we listen to inspiring stories of recent asylees, the case for more bilingual librarians, and what the library means when we say “American.”

Want to read more about the topics brought up in this episode? Check out the following links:

Episode Transcript

[Opening sound from Nadia Bhokari's news segment on Dunya TV, Pakistan's Urdu-language news channel.]

Nadia Bhokari I was a TV journalist. I worked for international media outlets. I worked for UPI Next, which is American United Press International. Then I was working for an Indian TV channel...

Felice Belle This is Nadia Batool Bhokari. She worked as a journalist in Pakistan for over a decade. The clip you heard just now is from a segment she did on Pakistan’s Dunya TV. She spoke in Urdu about the challenges women who work in media can face.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Nadia can speak and understand five languages, and has reported in Urdu, Punjabi and English. But in Pakistan, she stood out in her profession because of her gender and because of the stories she chose to report.

Nadia Bhokari In Pakistan... it is still not easy for a lady journalist working in a male dominating society. I worked against terrorism, I worked against gender discrimination, human rights.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Because of her work as a journalist, Nadia received threats and experienced so much hostility that in 2014 she was forced to leave Pakistan and apply for asylum in the United States. She had to find a home and a job to support herself… and her career in journalism was set back to square one.

Nadia Bhokari Definitely it was hard because I was a typical Urdu journalist, always the newscaster and the other people always come to me. It's been four years I’m not working properly for any TV channel. But I’m doing as a freelance. But if I get a chance now, I think I’ll be a more strong journalist, I’ll be a more strong reporter.

Felice Belle Nadia clearly has journalism expertise, and she says that once she’s more fluent English and makes more contacts, she’s going to go back to her field. And, not only is Nadia a practiced journalist, but she’s also well-versed in Islamic history and how it impacts present-day Muslim stereotypes. That’s what brought her to Prospect Park one afternoon in June. She was there to give a free public lecture about Lady Fatima, a notable figure in Islamic history. 

Nadia Batool Bhokari speaks to students during her lecture in June, as a part of BPL's University Open Air.
(Gregg Richards, Brooklyn Public Library)

Nadia Bhokari People thought that in Islam, by religion women are not supposed to work and should stay at home. So this is not true...

Krissa Corbett Cavouras It’s not quite journalism, but for Nadia, teaching about an important woman in Islam challenges assumptions people may have about Muslim women. It’s something she championed as a journalist in Pakistan as well. 

Felice Belle Her lecture was part of Brooklyn Public Library’s first ever University Open Air, a three-week series that gathered immigrants from all over the New York area to teach classes in their areas of expertise.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras In another part of the library, Lyosha Gorshkov taught a class on the history of LGBTIQ activism in Russia.

Lyosha Gorshkov So I am a professor and I have been teaching at a college since 2007. And actually I have created Queer Studies in Russia, reinvented in political science particularly. And that’s why I am in the United States right now. Everybody who was involved with public education and public activities who were openly LGBTIQ , they were not welcome there. There were federal security services involved, so a lot of neo-Nazis and right rhetoric. That’s why I didn’t have any chance to leave Russia, just for my life.

Felice Belle Lyosha worked at Perm State University in the Ural region of Russia. After Russia’s president Vladimir Putin signed a law banning "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations” in 2013, Lyosha and others could be targeted for teaching Queer history or holding pride marches. 

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Like Nadia, Lyosha was also forced to leave his home country in 2014. He came to Southern Brooklyn where there is already a large Russian-speaking population. 

Felice Belle It wasn’t an easy transition. In Brooklyn, he was met with discrimination, too.

Brighton Beach boardwalk in Southern Brooklyn at sunset in 1999.
(Lev Dodin photograph collection, Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn Collection)

Lyosha Gorshkov I realized that there were people who come here who run for their lives for being LGBTIQ, they are facing the same mistreatment in Brighton Beach because it's a mini autonomous republic of the Soviet compatriots who inherited those negative attitudes not only towards LGBTIQ, towards race, towards gender identities, towards different ethnic backgrounds.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Since so many LGBTIQ asylum seekers from Russia and other former Soviet states emigrate to Southern Brooklyn, Lyosha decided to launch Brighton Beach Pride, the first ever pride march in the neighborhood. 

Lyosha Gorshkov We need to show the world that we are here and we are Queer and we are part of the commumity, we are not going to go anywhere. 

Felice Belle In more ways than one, Lyosha felt that he had to rebuild in the United States. As for his career as a professor, it’s been hard to get back on track.

Lyosha Gorshkov Coming here it definitely feels that I have to start over. And part of me was ready for that but I didn’t expect it to take so many efforts and eventually, even though your PhD is recognized, and even though they will embrace you, they will tell you that, “Hm, you taught in some university in Russia? Mm... it’s not the United States.”

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Finally, five years after arriving in Brooklyn, and two years after receiving asylum, Lyosha is one step closer to his dream.

Lyosha Gorshkov Recently, I was invited to the Indiana University in Bloomington to teach my own course, "Russian Queer Politics and Gender Outlaws” in the state of Indiana, which is considered one of the conservative states because it’s Mike Pence’s state. But I’m pretty happy because it’s kind of a start up for me.  

Felice Belle Lyosha doesn’t plan to go back to Russia any time soon. He doesn’t see the country changing for the better within the next decade, and so he’s settling down in America. 

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Today, we’re bringing you stories of immigration at Brooklyn Public Library. I’m Krissa Corbett Cavouras.

Felice Belle And I’m Felice Belle. You’re listening to Borrowed.


Krissa Corbett Cavouras You know, Felice, it’s not really a new thing for public libraries to provide programming to immigrants. Since the turn of the century, when public libraries were just starting to emerge here in the U.S., they have been places for immigrants to congregate.

Felice Belle Public libraries have for a long time stocked newspapers from around the world. In the bustling new cities of America, library reading rooms were places where immigrants met one another. In 1901, a librarian at the Boston Public Library wrote about seeing strangers walk up to the reference desk, request the same foreign newspaper, and discover that they had come from the same home town.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Today, you can walk into almost any public library in American and hear or read languages from around the world. BPL has storytimes for children in 12 languages, and books in over 100. 

A sign outside a business in Williamsburg advertising translation services in 1965.
(Irving I. Herzberg photograph collection, Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn Collection)

Felice Belle And then there’s this new kind of language access—something you definitely wouldn’t have heard at the turn of the century.

Kateri Rothschild What type of book do you need, and do you know the author? 

Translator Какой тип книги вам нужен а ты знаешь автора?

Kateri Rothschild ...and then if the person was responding, it would translate back into English.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras This is Kateri Rothschild, a circulation supervisor at Highlawn Library, explaining how to use Travis, a pocket translator. 

Felice Belle These devices are at several of our library branches, and they help our staff communicate with the many Brooklynites—nearly half the population of the borough by the last count—who speak a language other than English. 

Krissa Corbett Cavouras And another thing that might be new for public libraries? Immigration help… in an Uber.

Mariaelena Garcia I use Uber frequently and I’m always picked up from work to go home. And people always ask me, "Do you work in the library?" And I’m like yeah, I work at the library. Do you go, do you use it? 

Krissa Corbett Cavouras This is Mariaelena Garcia, a librarian who also worked at Highlawn library in the Bensonhurst neighborhood of Brooklyn.

Mariaelena Garcia And they’ll start asking me questions about ESOL classes, the immigration lawyer that we have. They'll ask me all these kinds of questions about, "Is it free, can I get a library card?" And I was like, let me get into the front seat, and let me show you on my phone or on their phone.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Mariaelena is the leader of the library’s new immigration network, an initiative we started a year ago to expand immigrant services in our libraries. 

Felice Belle There’s no question that immigration is a pressing topic in our political landscape right now. With concerns about ICE raids and immigration bans, the library is having to keep up.

Mariaelena Garcia I just think it’s made it more relevant in the work that we do, to highlight the fact that we are helping immigrants here and that libraries really do stand for everyone. Not just because we’re funded by the government we’re going to listen to everything the government has to say. 

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Librarians all across the borough are tasked with connecting patrons to the services they’re looking for. And when it comes to immigration, that information can be incredibly important.

Mariaelena Garcia Any time someone comes up to me and asks, can I become a citizen, I want them to get to that point. And a big thing about immigration is we’re not lawyers, so if they’re looking for legal resources, librarians cannot help with that. We can’t help them fill out an N400, which is the citizenship application. We can lead them to it. We can print it out for them, but when theyre asking us questions of how can I fill this out, its like no, there’s that line. 

Felice Belle So, the library partners with organizations that can provide that help. You can get a consultation with the immigrant legal services, you can attend a citizenship class or workshops designed for people seeking a specific legal status. 

Students prepare for for the citizenship test at Brooklyn Public Library.
(Gregg Richards, Brooklyn Public Library)

Krissa Corbett Cavouras For example, when it was announced that DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, was in jeopardy, the library ran DACA renewal clinics. And when the time for renewal of a Temporary Protected Status or TPS came around, the library ran clinics for that, too.

Miguel Angeles Unfortunately, a lot of the work that we do in immigrant services here at the library, and I think abroad, is really responding to the things that are happening on the national political stage. 

Krissa Corbett Cavouras This is Miguel Angeles. He is the new Americans navigator at BPL, and in 2017, he noticed a need in the community.

Miguel Angeles There were some ICE raids that were occuring, I believe in March or February of that year and so we were starting to hear from the learning centers and from the libraries themselves about people that had stopped coming to classes and stopped coming to the libraries because of fear of exposure to ICE.

Felice Belle Miguel and the team at immigrant services started offering “Know Your Rights” workshops at different library branches, where learning center students and ESOL students could come and learn what to do if they encountered Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.

Miguel Angeles We like to remind people... well, first of all, everyone has rights in the United States whether they're citizens or they're immigrants. It doesn't matter their status, everyone has rights here in the U.S. and one of those rights is to remain silent when they interact with law enforcement of any kind, but in this case specifically with ICE. So the most important thing for them to remember is that ICE will ask them for their name, and for their identification. They should identify themselves but other than that, they don't need to answer any other questions.

Felice Belle For more information about your rights when interacting with immigration officers, go to our website: bklynlibrary [dot] org [slash] podcasts. We’ve put a link there that can help.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras It might be surprising to listeners that libraries offer these types of programs, but public libraries are here to serve everyone… and if fear or any kind of immigration status instability is keeping someone from coming in to the library, then we can't do our job.

Felice Belle And, I think it’s worth saying, too, that even though this country is in a state of unrest over who is considered an American and how, the public library is not in doubt.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras In every library in New York City, there is a section specifically for immigrants, called the New Americans corner. There, you can find information about the naturalization process, different legal services that are available for immigrants, and also things like tenants’ rights and workers’ rights—protections that any American is entitled to, no matter your citizenship status.

Miguel Angeles There is this understanding that even people that are not citizens are Americans, and they are here and participating in American culture and they're both taking and giving. And I think that’s part of the reason that those spaces are necessary in libraries.  

Krissa Corbett Cavouras And then the question becomes, how do we make sure that the library’s immigration resources are getting to as many people as possible?

Felice Belle That question of access and outreach has a lot to do with language.

Izabela Barry Even if we speak with a funny accent, and we make mistakes and cannot deal with articles, and we never know if it’s the or a or nothing at all, we are useful people [LAUGHS]

Felice Belle This is Izabela Barry, one of Brooklyn’s many librarians who speak more than one language. 

Izabela Barry I left Poland in 1988, basically the last huge wave of people leaving the country. The political climate in Poland was pretty gloomy. We decided to go somewhere for maybe half a year, earn some money and come back.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras But on June 4, 1989, Izabela’s plans had to change. That was the date of Poland’s first free democratic election in over sixty years.

Izabela Barry We cried, we danced. We were so happy because that was the end of communism. But... basically withiin a week, our 5,000 dollars which we saved and which would be enough to make a down payment for an apartment became, like, five times less. 

Felice Belle Instead of going back home, Izabela decided to emigrate again, and she ended up in Edmonton, Canada where she became a librarian. After a few years in Canada, Brooklyn Public Library offered her a job in Greenpoint, a Brooklyn neighborhood with a strong Polish-speaking community. 

Krissa Corbett Cavouras For the first few weeks, Izabela commuted from Staten Island, taking the ferry across the Narrows.

Izabela Barry You know there is like what, two, three thousand people on a ferry rushing to work in the morning? And everybody goes fast. And I feel myself, how my pace is just adjusting, and how I am not an outsider, I’m a part of this crowd. It’s a wonderful feeling, and I said to myself, "I’m not going back. I’m not going anywhere from here. It's my place."

The Verrazano Narrows, the waterway dividing Brooklyn from Staten Island in 2010.
(Lev Dodin photograph collection, Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn Collection)

Krissa Corbett Cavouras She dug right in, putting on cultural events in Polish and in English for her branch library, and building up a collection of Polish literature. Izabela quickly became a vital part of Greenpoint, perhaps especially for those who spoke mainly Polish.

Izabela Barry I was translating birth certificates and wedding certificates, and I was advising what to do. I was not only a librarian but a priest slash nurse slash lawyer slash counselor. [LAUGHS]  

Felice Belle Izabela says libraries should hire more bilingual people, and that librarians should make an effort to learn a little bit of the languages spoken in their neighborhoods.

Izabela Barry I know there is this device which translates, but learn a couple of phrases. Greet people in their own language, ask how they feel in their own language. It's just like opening the door, making the entrance wider. 

Felice Belle Izabela is a New Yorker now. One of millions of New Yorkers who find themselves here for one reason or another, and decide plant roots. It’s not an easy thing to do, but the library, hopefully, can help you feel a bit more at home.


Krissa Corbett Cavouras Next up we have our Book Match segment. YA librarian Rakisha Kearns-White has a list of audiobooks you might enjoy. Audiobooks are a great option for people who are learning English or who have barriers to reading for one reason or another. I’ll let Rakisha take it from here.

Rakisha Kearns-White I chose a few non-fiction books for teens and some fiction books for adults and teens. And my first one is Period Power: A Manifesto for the Menstral Movementwritten and narrated by Nadya Okamoto. And it's a Young Adult non-fiction book about gender equality, period poverty. The narrator Nadya, she's very engaging and you can tell she's very excited and educated and passionate about the topic and it just draws you in.

My other favorite book that I read this year on audiobook is Pride by Ibio Zoboi and it's narrated by Elizabeth Acevedo. And it's a YA fiction, it's a remix of Pride and Prejudice, told from the perspective of a Dominican-Haitian girl living in Bushwick. And my favorite part of this book is even though it takes place in present-day, it talks about the gentrification of Bushwick and it's so familiar to me because I used to live near that area. So it was just like going back to a time when I was a child and a teenager, being on those blocks and hanging out in Brooklyn.

Now this is an adult fiction book and it's Call Me By Your Name by André Aciman and it's read by actor Armie Hammer. And it just really draws you in to this relationship between Elio and Oliver, and how this one summer where this young man finds love and it becomes a powerful romance that goes throughout his whole life. It's a love that he's never able to shake. And I think the romantic in me really realted to that.

Felice Belle Borrowed is brought to you by Brooklyn Public Library and is hosted by me, Felice Belle, and Krissa Corbett Cavouras. You can find a transcript of this episode at our website, B-K-L-Y-N Library [dot] org [slash] podcasts.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Borrowed is produced and written by Virginia Marshall with help from Fritzi Bodenheimer, Jennifer Proffitt, Meryl Friedman and Robin Lester Kenton. Our music composer is Billy Libby.  

Felice Belle We are recording from Central Library’s Information Commons Recording studio. And guess what, if you have a BPL library card, you can reserve time here too and make your own podcast.  

Krissa Corbett Cavouras And as long as we’re recommending books on Borrowed, why not recommend another podcast? We’ve been talking on this episode about immigration and language, and another podcast produced in New York is doing something similar. The Thing About France is a podcast about the way that Americans perceive France, and vice versa. It’s produced by the French Embassy. Episode one is an interview with the writer David Sedaris, who spent a few years living in France and wrote about it, with quite a lot of humor.

Felice Belle You can check out The Thing About France on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher or Spotify, which are all places you can also find Borrowed. So while you’re in your podcast app, go ahead and subscribe to Borrowed and leave a review to let us know what you think.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras And, guys, this is the last episode of season one! We’ve had such a great time bringing you stories from the library. And if you missed any of our ten episodes, you can always go back and listen. Let us recommend some great ones. My personal favorite was "Weathering the Storm" which is the episode we did about climate change and libraries and I loved Nurys Pimentel talking about the resiliency of Red Hook, that has really stuck with me.

Felice Belle Nice. And my favorite episode was "A Writer Grows in Brooklyn" where we got to talk to some Brooklyn writers about the influence the place has on their writing and in particular I loved what Mahogany Browne had to say about why poetry is relevant today.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras I loved that interview. So, we’re going to take a break and come back to your ears in the Fall, with an exciting new roster of stories. In the meanwhile, if you have a story about the library you think we should be telling, or a question, or if you just want to tell us how awesome we are, you can always email us at podcasts [at] BKLYNlibrary [dot] org. We love fan mail.

Felice Belle As always, thanks for listening.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras And in my mother tongue, obrigada para ouvir.

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