The 33-square-mile town of Westport threw out a welcome mat for the world Saturday as it played host to United Nations staff and dignitaries and their families for the 48th annual jUNe Day celebration.
The event, which started in 1965 to commemorate the signing of the United Nations charter on June 26, 1945, drew to Westport about 250 people representing 37 nations, including Myanmar, Kenya, Syria, Mongolia and Cameroon. One man called Westport "a mini United Nations," a notion that resonated for those who crossed the Ruth Steinkraus Cohen Bridge as the flags of nearly 200 nations stood at attention in the strong breeze off the Saugatuck River.
Olivier Munyaneza, who works as an economic affairs officer for the UN, searched the bridge for the flag of Rwanda, his country of origin. When he found it he posed for pictures in front of it with his sons Jake Gwaneza, 6, and James Bagwire, 8.
Munyaneza said he enjoyed his first visit to Westport: "I like the fact that it's quiet and not densely populated and yet it has all the major store brands; and I like this river."
The jUNe Day event began with opening ceremonies at Saugatuck Elementary School before the international visitors headed to Westport's recreational and cultural attractions, such as the Earthplace nature center, Wakeman Town Farm, Compo Beach, Longshore Club and the Westport Historical Society. Activities also included a soccer match between a UN team and the Westport Knights.
"Can we go shopping?" one person asked Jeffrey Ruden as he led one of several walking tours through downtown streets.
During the opening ceremonies at Saugatuck Elementary School, Patricia O'Brien, the under-secretary general for legal affairs and United Nations' legal counsel, said she was struck by the fact that the event was being held in Westport.
"In Ireland (from which she comes) has a Westport as well. I know there are many Westports around the world, but in Ireland our Westport is a very important place." O'Brien said. "Last year Westport, Ireland was voted by the people of Ireland as the best place in Ireland to live so I think there is real synergy between Westport here and Westport there because I've only spent five minutes driving through Westport and already it's somewhere I would like to come and live."
O'Brien read a statement from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in which he said that jUNe Day's activities are more than just a spirited get-together. "They are a valuable opportunity for participants to strengthen bonds of friendship. They are a chance to learn more about each other. And they are a celebration of our diversity."
She also talked about the role of the United Nations. "We feed over 90 million people. We keep the peace with 110,000 peacekeepers around the world ... We deliver humanitarian aid to the toughest places." And she talked about the condition of the world, which O'Brien said is changing dramatically and rapidly. "New economic powers are riding. New threats have emerged -- climate change above all." O'Brien also mentioned the "devastating conflict in Syria," where an estimated 93,000 people have died in just over two years.
In thanking the United Nations Association of Southwestern Connecticut and the International Visitors' Committee, sponsors of jUNe Day, O'Brien said Westport is promoting the fundamental objectives of the United Nations: "The maintenance of international peace and security; the development of friendly relations among nations; and international cooperation and respect for human rights. The UN is grateful to you for championing these values."
Ambassador Joseph Verner Reed, under-secretary general and special advisor to the UN secretary-general, paid tribute to the woman responsible for it all, the late Steinkraus Cohen, the founder of the United Nations Association and jUNe Day. Reed said the annual event's intent is to promote understanding of global issues and promote peace through hospitality.
"It's very nice and the hospitality is very well arranged," said Haoyi Chen, of New York. She is of Chinese descent.
Bashir Al-Okla, an interpreter at the UN who is Syrian, brought his wife Zahra and their three children to jUNe Day for the fourth time. "I am grateful to the Westport community for their hospitality. Westport has become an international town," he said, adding that "For the children, it is fun."
Amelie Guzman, 9, of Fishkill, N.Y., said she enjoyed the visit to Earthplace. "I liked seeing the turtles," she said.
First Selectman Gordon Joseloff, who leaves office at the end of the year, presided over his eighth and last jUNe Day as the town's top official, welcoming the crowd, particularly the first-timers, and invited them back to the town any time.