Yesterday, the Evanston Public Library transformed the Parasol Room at the Lorraine Morton Civic Center into a "Human Library," where people's lives were open books.
Volunteer "books"--people who generously agreed to spend an afternoon talking to strangers about their lives, their experiences, and identities--could be checked out by "readers"--Evanston residents who stopped by to move from table to table to "read" the variety of "books" -- taking the opportunity to ask questions about the person's life journey.
Each visitor could spend up to 15 to 20 minutes with each "book."
If you missed it, I took the opportunity to check out a few of the "books" on your behalf, and you can hear some of their stories in the video below.
As much as I wanted to, I couldn't talk to all of the books since several of them were reserved or "on loan" to other "readers."
For example, I missed out on a chat with Bennett Johnson, whose book title was "African American Activist," and Gearah Goldstein who is a transgender woman and activist, though it was great to see them there. I also couldn't spend as much time as I would have liked with each volunteer.
Book title: Gay white male.
DE: What are some of the questions "readers" have asked you?
Michael: Some people want to talk about their experience. Some people just want to know things like, when did you know you were gay? How was the coming out process for you? Sometimes it's about their lived experience. Sometimes the books have to listen. That's our job too.
DE: Did you feel nervous or vulnerable when you agreed to do this?
Michael: All the above. But I am who I am. I have nothing to hide.
DE: Did anybody ask you questions you didn't want to answer?
Michael: No. But sometimes you have to realize people are coming from all sorts of different backgrounds. So maybe they'll say something and you'll be like, 'Well, that's not really PC,' but you go with it.
Nobody that I've talked to was here to offend me or hurt me. To me, it's a safe environment. We're here to share our lived experiences. Nothing could be better than that. Especially since we live in such a devices-and-digital time.
It's really heartwarming when you see somebody whose wiling to sit down with you and make that bond with you even if it's just for 20 minutes. That's really cool.
Book title: Muslim woman from Turkey.
Aysha is a stay-at-home mom who came to Evanston from Turkey eight years ago.
"I was asked mostly if it was hard to wear a scarf or not," said Aysha. "And yes, it's hard. Especially on hot summer days. but I'm a religious person and this is what I am. I'm a Muslim woman."
DE: Have you ever experienced prejudice or hatred from people on the street because you're identifiable as a Muslim woman?
Aysha: Not really, but there are a few examples. Like once in the school and once in the playground. Just few. I can't say I face discrimination or prejudice in my life here.
Book title: Holocaust Survivor
"I'm very fortunate that I'm able to be here. I'm a survivor," said Steen, who was born and raised in Denmark and was arrested with his parents and sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp in 1943, when he was eight years old.
"Less than 10 percent of the prisoners from the Holocaust survived. It's my passion to spread the word to as many people as possible that to avoid hatred we need to respect each other, we need to be kind to each other, and we need to understand each other. There's too much hated in this country, that concerns me."
DE: When did you come to the United States?
Steen: I lived in Canada from 1960 to 1962. I worked for a Danish food company and then I was transferred to the United States. I retired in 1999. In 2012, I self-published a book, A Danish Boy in Theresienstadt. And that's when I started talking about it.
DE: What happened to your family?
Steen: My mother and I survived, we were very fortunate.
Unfortunately, my father passed away. He died of starvation. We didn't get enough food.
DE: How does it feel to talk about such an unbelievably painful time?
Steen: It was a little difficult in the beginning. I'm on the speakers bureau at the Holocaust Museum in Skokie. Since 2012, I've spread the word to about 65,000 people, mostly students, and my goal is to talk to 100,000 people. And every time I talk to a group, I ask them to help me spread the word.
DE: What kinds of questions do people ask you? Steen, age 7. One year before he and his family were taken to Thereisenstadt.
Steen: They ask me, how do I feel about the Nazis. Could I forgive them?
DE: Did you have a faith in God, before ..?
Steen: I don't know if I did as a little kid. I don't know if I fully understood it. But during the time we were in camp, many of us lost faith in God because, where was God? One person who wrote about it said God had gone on a vacation. But he did show up. He did emerge. He helped us. We got liberated after 18 months, 18 terrible months in the camp, we got liberated in 1945.
Book title: Learning Differences.
DE: What made you decide to be part of the human library today?
Lindsay: So people could learn about how I feel about being a person with disability.
DE: When you agreed to do it, did you feel nervous?
Lindsay: I felt more excited that people would learn about me. It makes a difference about how people act around people with differences.
DE: What kinds of questions did people ask you?
Lindsay: What challenges I went through, how I overcome them.
DE: And what is your disability?
Lindsay: The nonverbal learning disability. I'm not able to read certain cues or body language.
DE: How does that affect you?
Lindsay: It affects me because I can't understand it and it makes me overwhelmed and makes me not want to interact with certain people.
DE: What can people to do make it easier for you?
Lindsay: If they know how I'm feeling, they can be more understanding about how they react to people like me.
Book title: Blind Woman
Adnana came to the United States from Bosnia as a young girl to be treated for retinal blastoma, a cancer of the eye. She's been blind for 25 years.
DE: What are common questions people ask you?
Adnana: A lot of people ask me what are the challenges I face on a daily basis, and what is something I want them to take away after they've spoken with me.
DE: And how do you answer?
Adnana: Challenges I'd say ... you know having been blind for over 25 years ... it's hard to say anything's a challenge. But I'd say the usual, of getting from point A to point B, and getting people to understand that even though I may be different i'm still a person and it's okay to approach me and I still do things as anyone else does.
DE: What kinds of experiences have you had with people being rude or insensitive?
Adnana: I'd say one of the biggest things is that if I have someone with me, they will talk to the person I'm with instead of me. 'What does she want on her sandwich? What does she want to drink?'
The other very common thing is instead of asking me do I need help, they'll just, you know, put their hand and push me one way or the other. And it's like, no you don't do that. You just ask, Do you need help? Or, how may I help you?
"Our children are our future, our tomorrow," Adnana told me. "I've told people, if you know children of your own or other people's children and that moment arises when their curious about something, let them go and ask. It's an educational moment for them and a better future for us all."
Book title: Asylum Seeker
Amal told me she's been contacted by many people to tell her story before today but she wasn't ready. When the Library contacted her, she says, I was like, yeah, I think I am ready. Specially with everything happening around us. I am ready to talk."
"What was interesting," said Amal, "Is we had to figure out what kind of book am I going to be because I'm a lesbian and a Muslim and an immigrant and an asylum seeker. I came here seeking asylum as a homosexual."
DE: Where did you come from?
Amal: Egypt. I'm half Egyptian, half Sudanese and I was born in Kuwait. So this was my home until Kuwait was invaded by Iraq in 1990 then we had to leave to Egypt. And I lived in Egypt for 11 years. Then I came here seeking asylum as a homosexual. There was a big case in Egypt in 2001, when police raided a bar and arrested 52 gay men, all of whom were Egyptian and let the foreigners go. And one of them was my friend.
DE: How old were you?
Amal: I was forced to leave Kuwait when I was 26. I came to this country when I was 37.
DE: How was it growing up lesbian and Muslim?
Amal: When I left Kuwait, I was the oldest. I had two brothers and a sister. Both my brother and my sister were starting university and my little one was in middle school.
Then within two years, my dad got four brain strokes, and he became a kid. He was the provider because my mom didn't work. so I took his place and I worked day and night to provide for all of them. The sick and the rest. I was 26. I worked as a science teacher in an American school, because all my education was in English. I worked and I worked so I could take care of all of them.
Then when this happened in 2001, and all of them finished school and started working, I said, maybe it's time for me to live. So I came here.
DE: Did your family know you were gay?
Amal: They didn't know why I left. They didn't know that it was because I didn't want to be arrested. If everyone knew I was arrested because I was gay, their lives would have been ruined. My siblings knew. My mom didn't know--well she knew, but we didn't talk about it.
DE: And she doesn't know today?
Amal: My mom passed away two years ago. My dad passed away in 2008 and I couldn't go back because when you seek asylum, you can't go back until you've got your citizenship. I got my citizenship in 2014 and that was the first time to go back to see my mom: two years after she died.
DE: Where do you live now?
Amal: In Andersonville with my fiance Cindy.
DE: Are you glad you came to America?
Amal: I wanted to build myself again and be who I am. and I was able to.
DE: What kind of questions did people ask you? Was there anything surprising?
Amal: what was interesting is people were wanting to know and understand. People come to connect.
DE: I guess the difficult thing is that the people who are attracted to this event aren't really the people we need to be talking to.
Amal: Yes, who's going to come to this event, it's gonna be by their choice. But how can we put this outside to the people so that instead of coming to us, I think we need to go to them.
Book title: Nigerian-American female attorney.
DE: How's today's experience been for you?
Vera: It's been amazing. I've met wonderful people. People who live their lives not just for themselves. People who are thinking about others, who are trying to make a difference in other people's lives. And that brings so much joy to me."