Can books be a tool for building curiosity and empathy between refugees and receiving communities?  Learn how one passionate community member made it her mission to bring the refugee experience to Portland – through reading. 

Kirsten Cappy of Curious City was a children’s bookseller and consultant when she realized that there were a lack of books that encompassed the experiences of refugee and immigrant children.  While her community in Portland, Maine, was growing more diverse, there were few books in which new arrival children could recognize themselves or that could be used to introduce new arrivals to the community.

With authors Terry Farish and Anne Sibley O’Brien, Cappy envisioned a database of books reflecting the experiences of immigrants and refugees, and I’m Your Neighbor was born.  The I’m Your Neighbor website is a national online searchable database of titles, built by Wheaton College intern Delanie Honda.  The website has titles from picture books to young adult novels, set in a variety of locations and dealing with a diversity of migration and identity experiences.  Books are categorized by country of origin, ethnic group, age level, and universal themes such as food and family relationships, so that libraries and other organizations across the country can use these books to bring together refugees and receiving communities. 

I’m Your Neighbor Portland was launched as a pilot project to demonstrate how books can be used to bring newcomers and receiving communities together.   According to Kirsten, “The project grew out of my pride in Portland not only being a refugee resettlement city, but a city that has remade itself into a model multiracial, multicultural center in a matter of a decade.  Many people in the city - both new arrivals and long-term citizens - share that pride.  But do we have enough opportunities to really get to know each other as neighbors?  My mission on all projects is to share books to increase understanding, curiosity, and empathy.”

The project also incorporates a citywide read, which consists of seven community events that bring the books to life.  An event based around the book The Good Braider by Terry Farish featured a reading and rap performance by members of the Sudanese community and an author-led discussion. Sudanese rap artist OD Bonny shared several of his songs, including “A Girl from Juba,” which was inspired by the book and spoke about the ways in which his experience related to the journey of the book’s characters.  Other audience members identified with the mother-daughter relationship that is central to the book, naturally turning the conversation to cross-cultural similarities in family relationships.  One audience member connected the book’s theme of identity to her family’s history of being Russian Jewish immigrants in the early 1900s.

The Good Braider author and audience also spoke about the importance of bringing together newcomers and longterm residents. One participant commented, “I moved to Portland a few years ago, and I’m aware of the immigrants in the city, but I don’t know any of them, I don’t know their stories.  This book series opens your eyes…It offers a chance to hear their stories.”  The event concluded with East African refreshments from a local restaurant.  35 community members from diverse age ranges and backgrounds attended this event and got the chance to learn more about Sudanese culture and each other.   

At another event, almost 200 members of the community attended a celebration of Ramadan featuring the picture book Moon Watchers: Shirin’s Ramadan Miracle by Reza Jalai and the novel Out of Nowhere by Iranian Muslim American author Reza Jalali and white American author Maria Padian modeled cross-cultural collaboration by dicussing how Jalali worked with Caucasian American illustrator Anne Sibley O’Brien on depicting a modern American Muslim family and how Padian worked with a Somali Muslim American Shobow Saban depicting Somali American young people.  To draw people into the cross-cultural discussion, the event was held during the city’s popular Art Walk, bringing people through the doors with offers of free henna, the writing of their name in Arabic, a prayer rug exhibit, and a catered Iraqi meal at sundown.  The call to prayer by a young man brought people of all faiths and backgrounds to tears.

This event and the connections it sparked are all part of I’m Your Neighbor’s goal to change the landscape of communities across the country, starting with Portland.  According to Anne Sibley O’Brien, “As the population of Greater Portland grows more and more diverse, all of us who share this city are being given an extraordinary opportunity:  to actually contribute to creating the kind of community we want to become.  My dream is that this project will challenge us to stretch and grow as we explore our commonalities and differences; to discover ourselves in each other, and to make room for all of us to live together as true neighbors.” 

For more information, contact

Kirsten Cappy

Project Manager

I'm Your Neighbor, Portland

A project of the Portland Public Library