The “Welcoming Library,” a diversity celebration project of the Portland-based I’m Your Neighbor Books, will be at the Congregational Church in Cumberland until March 15. Kirsten Cappy, at left, heads the organization and Allison Smith is the church’s senior minister. Alex Lear / The Forecaster

CUMBERLAND — As immigration continues to be a hot-button topic, a mini-library of children’s books at the Congregational Church in Cumberland is meant to increase sensitivity and awareness for all ages about America’s new residents and the struggles they’ve endured.

The “Welcoming Library,” a project of the Portland-based I’m Your Neighbor Books nonprofit organization, consists of 28 books that travel to schools, libraries and faith and community centers, and are displayed for one to three weeks before moving on. The picture books feature new arrivals to the country and new American families.

The library – which started in late 2018 and is at the 282 Main St. church through Sunday, March 15 – “really comes out of our discomfort with the Muslim ban, and comments coming out of the (presidential) administration about Mexicans (and) Mexican-Americans,” said Kirsten Cappy, co-founder and executive director of I’m Your Neighbor Books. She referred to a 2017 executive order that in part temporarily banned people from seven primarily Muslim countries from entering the U.S.

The Welcoming Library contains 28 books meant to encourage awareness and sensitivity around immigrants to America. Alex Lear / The Forecaster

“We decided that it was not enough just to talk about the books and recommend the books; we really wanted to bring the books directly to people,” Cappy said. “Because we found, and I still find, a lot of the conversation around immigration … is divisive and shows immigrants to have deficits, when they have so many strengths.”

The library is “an effort to invite both adults and children to meet families on the page,” she added. “Because each one of these stories is about a human being who’s been through this experience.”

The inside back cover of each book has a guide to inspire conversation around belonging and welcoming, to create a better understanding of what it’s like to arrive in a new country or community with a new culture.

“When adults open them up, I say they’re 10-minute cultural competency guides,” Cappy said.

She referred to “My Two Blankets,” by Irena Kobald and Freya Blackwood, about a friendship forged between two children from different places and backgrounds. One of them, Cartwheel, has come to a new country with her aunt; the whereabouts of the rest of her family is unknown, Cappy explained.

“You don’t know what trauma she’s experienced,” she said. “Her nickname is Cartwheel, and nobody calls her that anymore; just that one line tells you that that happy name doesn’t belong to her anymore.”

An I’m Your Neighbor Books press release quotes poet and author Amit Majmudar, who said in a New York Times essay that “true meeting takes place when the book opens, and a stranger reads about – and comprehends – a stranger.”

“Spending time with (Cartwheel), I think changes the conversation,” Cappy said.

I’m Your Neighbor found through a survey that 93% of Welcoming Library readers saw their own families reflected in the books they read about immigrants. With the program piloted in Maine, which, according to census.gov is 94.6% white, “most of those readers are not seeing a racial or cultural similarity, but they’re seeing siblings and parents, and arguments and resolution, and celebration,” Cappy said.

A 2019-2020 profile of Cumberland-North Yarmouth students in School Administrative District 51, presented recently by Superintendent Jeff Porter, showed that 91.3% are Caucasian, 2.1% Hispanic, 1.8% Asian, 1.6% African-American and 3.1% of two or more races.

There are 16 libraries in total, which have been to nearly 80 locations in Maine. They are also traveling in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Virginia, Illinois and soon to Rhode Island.

“Our faith teaches us to welcome a stranger and also to love our neighbors,” said Allison Smith, the church’s senior minister, adding that the library’s objective “just fits so beautifully.”

“We receive so much by learning about their courage and resilience and strength,” she said. “… It’s important for us to keep working as people who care, because those families right now still face such hardship in terms of … making this their home.”

The church invites everyone to “continue to celebrate diversity, and to learn more about who we are” as a town, state and global community, Smith added. The stories told in the Welcoming Library’s books, of connections forged between strangers, “can help break down any barriers or preconceived ideas and help us realize we’re part of the human family.”

Visit imyourneighborbooks.org for more information.

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