Together Days has always been a time to see old friends and neighbors, but one group hopes this year some newer members of the community will start a new tradition themselves.

The Westbrook Human Relations Committee was formed by Police Chief Bill Baker in February, and, though it’s still settling into its role in the city, the group was determined to have a presence at one of Westbrook’s most well attended events of the year.

Wendy Koch, who represented the committee in organizing the part it would play at Together Days, said a lot of ideas were thrown around for ways the group could stand out at the event and fulfill its mission – to promote human rights, personal dignity and positive relations between all residents and visitors to Westbrook.

They thought to do performances, march in the parade and make T-shirts with welcome written in the 28 languages spoken at Westbrook High School. Those things may still happen, but, as of last week, Koch knew that the group, at least, will have a booth with fliers, music representing the different cultures of Westbrook residents and samples of homemade food from around the world.

Koch thinks longtime residents might be surprised to see how many different countries and cultures are represented in the city.

“We have that much diversity in our community,” she said, talking about how unexpected it was to find out the number of languages spoken at the high school.

“I really want to promote that,” she said. “I don’t think our community knows.”

According to Baker, Westbrook residents come from nearly every corner of the globe, including the Ukraine, Sudan, Uganda, Cambodia, Brazil, Iraq and Iran.

“It’s a rapidly growing diversity,” he said.

Eric Nkusi, executive director of the Maine Refugees and Immigrants Association, said he believes Westbrook’s growing diversity can be attributed to the fact that refugees and immigrants who have been living in Portland feel safer in the neighboring city – and with Baker at the helm.

Nkusi, who is originally from Rwanda and has lived in Maine for the past 11 years, said he worked hard with the chief to form the committee and has been impressed with the work that’s been done so far.

“It’s taking shape,” he said.

Baker believes the group was formed at just the right time in Westbrook, before any real conflict erupted, and instead of trying to mend problems, the committee can focus on its mission – “to bring people together and have a mutual understanding of each other.”

The police department, he said, has already used committee members from diverse backgrounds to assist with calls for service, helping to avoid cultural misunderstandings and work around language barriers.

“It’s bearing fruit in a whole bunch of ways already,” he said.

Koch said she didn’t have a lot of time to organize for Together Days, but she’s determined to have the group be noticed and get the word out about the unique lives and backgrounds of Westbrook residents.

Nkusi is organizing a dance troupe with drumming to represent African culture.

“I’d like us to be a really big presence,” she said, but regardless of how many people stop by the group’s booth in Riverbank Park, Koch said it’ll be hard to miss the committee and the activities they’re planning in the city from Together Days on.

“This is just a start to what we want to do,” she said.

Wendy Koch represents the Westbrook Human Relations Committee at a organizational meeting for Together Days last month. Koch hopes the group’s booth at the event will help spread its mission to promote diversity within the city.Vinny Nielsen, Mayor Bruce Chuluda and Wendy Koch nail down the details of Together Days in the mayor’s office last month. Koch says she hopes the newly-formed Westbrook Human Relations Committee will have a ‘big presence’ at the event.On a recent trip to Augusta, Eric Nkusi, executive director of the Maine Refugees and Immigrants Association, seated, poses with others supporting the rights of non-citizens to vote in local elections. They are Ganet Tshe from Ethiopia, Jack Woods, Martin Sonki from Sudan and a resident of Westbrook, Jenna Vendil-Philipines, Sen. Justin Alfond, Alphonse Havugimana from Rwanda, and Raad Alshawi from Iraq.


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