WEST HARTFORD — As much as the Building Connections Book Club is about reading and learning English, it’s also about a group of immigrants bonding together with shared experiences.
The book club, which meets every Thursday at the Faxon Library branch and was started as a collaboration between the town’s libraries and the Hartford-based nonprofit Golden Door, has become a sanctuary of sorts to the West Hartford residents who gather each week.
Erica Nishizaki, who gave up her career and came to the United States from Brazil four years ago with her husband, said the book club has been a great way to practice her English.
But at the same time, the group has been a place for her to connect with other immigrants who have had similar experiences. Even though the other members of the group are from different countries and speak other languages, she said they all have the shared experience of coming to America as outsiders.
“This is an opportunity as immigrants to meet people that have the same experience and have the same struggles,” Nishizaki said. “Otherwise, we don’t feel like we belong. We will always be someone from outside America as an immigrant. Emotionally, we are so weak. We just think about how do we survive here. The book club makes us feel that we can enjoy our life and not be stressed.”
Rashida Avamova, who is from Kazakhstan, has been in the country for three years. She always wanted to join a book club, but was previously hesitant because of her language barrier. This group, though, changed that.
“I was reading the library’s calendar two years ago and I always wanted to participate in the book club,” Avamova said. “I was always hesitant to sign up for those book clubs ... because what would I say? When I saw this opportunity it was a game-changer for me. I was so excited to sign up for this group so that I can participate in a real book club. It’s so comfortable to be in this environment.”
The class - which is funded by the West Hartford Greater Together Community Fund through the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving - is being taught by Elizabeth Hanlon, and is supported by Golden Door’s president, Ellen Salzman-Fiske,and Pramod Pradhan, the library’s community engagement librarian. Pradhan is from Nepal.
“One of the things we believe in is access to information and access to what we have here,” Pradhan said. “Working with other community organizations like the Golden Door ... this is one of those programs that’s going to support that idea. We ran for it.”
The group has its last meeting of this session on Dec. 9 and its second session will start in the beginning of January.
Hanlon said she’s seen a remarkable change in the group over the weeks they’ve been meeting.
“Everyone has loosened up a little,” Hanlon said. “When everyone started they were afraid to open the book and read. I hope that I’ve relaxed everybody to not be afraid of books in English. And everyone is friends now.”
When it comes to learning English, the group said reading and discussing American books has been very helpful in expanding their vocabulary but also learning about American culture.
“I like reading and I wanted to learn more about society in America and culture in America,” said Thi Viet Le, who came here from Vietnam four years ago. “I enjoy book club because I can get information from the teacher and get a point of view about the book. The books have a lot of difficult vocabulary.”
Saori Tanaka, who is from Japan, said while she loves reading she previously did not like trying to read books written in English. A problem, she said, is when vocabulary becomes overwhelming. Hanlon taught her to just “get the gist.”
“I wanted to look up all of the words I didn’t know,” Tanaka said. “I wanted to know every word and what every sentence means. I learned it’s important to get the gist. If I look up every word I don’t know it would take a long time to understand the book.”
But even with all that they’re learning, the discussion between these new friends circles back to adjusting to life in America.
Huiwen Jiang, from China, said the book club is stress-free, and Surya Shrestha, from Nepal, said the group has given him new friends.
“I’m not lonely in Connecticut,” Jiang said. “I feel better than I did two years ago.”
“When you arrive you don’t know anything,” Avamova said. “Even simple things like grocery shopping. This is a group we can talk to and speak out and people can understand you. It’s important to outline that this isn’t only about English, it’s about the social emotional feelings of the participants. When you start to feel better with your English you feel stronger because you can express your feelings and speak out. This is exciting.”