Catherine Weeks waits as representatives for her and Mike Morris recount ballots Thursday at the Waterville police station. Morris, a Democrat, defeated Weeks, a Republican, by two votes to win the Ward 1 City Council seat. The final tally was 347-345 with one disputed ballot and 28 blanks. Morning Sentinel file photo by Michael G. Seamans

WATERVILLE — Tatum Cormier said she was stunned when Falah Waheeb knocked on her door to ask if she hated him.

Waheeb, who lives diagonally across from Cormier’s house on Mount Pleasant Street in Waterville, had allegedly just been told people hate him by his neighbor, Catherine Weeks, who is a member of the Waterville Planning Board. Weeks had allegedly said she hated him, that everyone in the white, American neighborhood hated him and that he was not welcome there and should go back to the country from which he came.

Waheeb, 54, who fled Iraq with his family to the United States in 2015 to escape violence and killing, says he took the matter seriously and walked around the neighborhood, asking residents if they hated him.

Cormier was especially disheartened because she knew just how kind Waheeb’s family is. After he and his wife and five children moved to the neighborhood in May 2019, they cooked and delivered Cormier’s family a beautiful meal on Ramadan, a Muslim holy holiday observed through fasting, introspection and prayer. The gift to Cormier came as a complete surprise.

“They’re so nice,” she said of Waheeb’s family.

Waheeb, 54, and his wife, Rasmiya Fezaa, 56, filed for a protection from harassment order against Weeks last month because Weeks had been calling the police on them repeatedly, which is corroborated by Waterville Police reports. He said Weeks reported them for parking issues that had no base in truth, noise and the cutting of trees on her property.

Weeks also took video and photos of family members as they came and went from their house, Waheeb says. The protection order request, which details Waheeb and Fezaa’s concerns, says their family is afraid of Weeks.

Weeks, also a member of the city’s charter commission and former chairwoman of the Waterville Republican City Committee, denied Waheeb’s allegations. She said in a telephone interview Friday he had damaged her property and that everything would come out in court.

A hearing on the protection order is scheduled for 2:30 p.m. on Sept. 28 at Waterville District Court.

Dan Salsbury, owner of Grass Eaters Lawn Care & Maintenance, said he will attend the hearing. Salsbury said Monday in a telephone interview that he witnessed Weeks say racist things to Waheeb.

Waheeb hired Salsbury to trim trees branches that were hanging from Weeks’ trees, more than 10 feet over Waheeb’s swimming pool, according to Salsbury. Weeks knew he was trimming the trees but then called police repeatedly after the work started, according to Salsbury.

He said Waheeb tried to talk with Weeks about the situation, saying they were neighbors and should get along, and she said, “I don’t want anything to do with you.”

“She said, ‘You people need to go back where you came from. I don’t want you here.’ She just said he was not welcome, and go back to his own country,” Salsbury said. “She didn’t have any use for them. They shouldn’t be here.”

Salsbury said he told police who responded to the incident exactly what Weeks had said to Waheeb.

Weeks’ cellphone voice mailbox was full Monday and could not accept messages. She did not respond to an email seeking comment.

In the neighborhood Monday, Perry Malcolm, 64, also recalled how Waheeb had come to his house to ask if Malcolm hated him. Shocked by the question, Malcolm said he did not hate Waheeb. Malcolm said he and Waheeb had a friendly relationship prior to that, and had talked about their experiences with the military.

“I fought in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Malcolm said, “so I have no hate.”

AN OUTPOURING OF SUPPORT

Since a story about the Weeks situation was published by the Morning Sentinel, people from throughout central Maine have reached out to Waheeb and Fezaa to say they are sorry for what is reportedly happening to them and to offer support.

At the family’s home Monday, Waheeb produced a pile of letters and cards from well-wishers. Some contained gift cards. A vase of colorful flowers on the coffee table in the living room also was a gift, he said. One letter from a Colby College professor invited the family to dinner when it is safe to do so after the pandemic.

“A lot of great people come to visit,” Waheeb said. “I need to thank all of them. They really show me how Waterville and Maine are full with good people, and humanity.”

Joined by Fezaa, who is in a wheelchair, and one of their daughters, Waheeb, who received his U.S. citizenship this year, said the family was heartened by the attention. He spoke of the family’s frightening time in Iraq, where he worked three jobs for the U.S. Army, including as a translator and operations and training manager for the Oil Protection Force.

Waheeb, who saved many American lives, was shot in the head by militia. His brother also was shot, he said, and Waheeb’s boss and best friend was killed.

Waheeb showed a reporter photos of himself working with American soldiers in Iraq. He also showed pictures of his brother, wounded by militia.

“They destroyed my house,” he said. “They stole my money.”

He was able to bring two daughters, who are now in college, and three sons, two in high school and one in junior high school, to the United States in 2015. They lived in North Carolina for one year, before moving to Portland in 2016 and Waterville in May 2019. Three of the couple’s daughters are still in Iraq.

Waheeb said he believes neighbors should be kind to one another.

“We, all together, have to be respected as humans, as neighbors, as American people,” he said.

State Rep. Colleen Madigan, a Democrat who represents part of Waterville and part of Oakland, and state Rep. Bruce White, a Democrat who represents part of Waterville, visited Waheeb and his family Friday night with White’s wife, Doreen. They visited again Sunday with former Waterville City Councilor Dana Bushee, a teacher, and City Councilor Flavia Oliveira, D-Ward 2.

Madigan said Monday that while they were there, neighbors arrived to join them in showing support for the family.

A social worker, Madigan said the largest group of recent Iraqi immigrants came to the central Maine area because they had worked with American companies or U.S. forces in Iraq, and their lives were at risk in that country because they helped Americans.

“I’ve worked with some Iraqi immigrants, as a social worker,” Madigan said. “We should absolutely be grateful to them. They’re coming here, war-torn and many having experienced trauma and loss. I just think we should do everything we can to support them.”

She cited Capital Area New Mainers Project as an entity that has been reaching out to Iraqi  immigrants, raising awareness and offering to help them learn English.

White said Monday he and the others congratulated Waheeb on his recent U.S. citizenship.

“We also thanked him for his service for the American troops in Iraq,” White said. “Falah was very gracious and he shared tea with us. My maternal grandparents were immigrants from the Middle East to Waterville. We want Waterville to be known as a welcoming community. I have worked hard all my life to build respectful relationships, and I will continue to do what I can to make Waterville a place that people want to call home.”

Bushee said she visited Sunday because she wanted them to feel supported.

Bushee put out the word on Facebook that she was going to take a gift basket to the family and if anyone wanted to donate, they were welcome to do so.

“Within 24 hours, I received about $300 in cash and gifts for the family,” she said. “It was heartwarming. I decided we needed to order signs to show our support, too. So far, about 30 of them have gone up around Waterville that say ‘All are Welcome Here,’ and ‘Waterville Welcomes You,’ with the #believeinWaterville hashtag.”

More people are requesting signs on the “Believe in Waterville” Facebook page, according to Bushee.

“So many residents want Falah and his family to know that they were welcome in Waterville,” Bushee said. “Courage is stronger in numbers and they have our support. Meeting Falah on Sunday and sharing tea in his front yard with other residents was life changing. A good reminder for all of us that Waterville is stronger when we come together. I’ll never forget it.”

CITY OFFICIALS RESPOND

Contacted Monday for comment, City Manager Michael Roy said Weeks’ name had been removed from the list of possible candidates to serve on the city manager search committee that the City Council is scheduled to appoint Tuesday night.

Councilor Mike Morris, D-Ward 1, who serves on a council subcommittee, confirmed he and Mayor Nick Isgro, also a subcommittee member, talked about the matter and decided it would be best if Weeks did not serve on the panel. A lot of work had gone into the process since February, and they wanted the panel to focus on finding the best candidate for the position, according to Morris.

Catherine Weeks Morning Sentinel file photo

“We want to make sure that this process is done in a way that is not marred by anything else,” Morris said. “We’re trying to depoliticize this. Her name was the name for submission. We told her at this point, it’s not in the best interest of the task force, so we were not going to assign her to that post. She definitely understood the position we were in.”

James LaLiberty, co-chairman of the charter commission on which Weeks served, said Weeks had told him she had a problem with her neighbors. He recalled asking her what that problem was.

“She said that the problem was that they were Muslims and did not offer any other reason,” LaLiberty said.

Planning Board Chairman Paul Lussier said he does not know Weeks’ neighbors, but has known her for many years. He said they attend the same church and he could not believe she would say or do such things.

But Rien Finch, a charter commission member, said he hoped Isgro demands Weeks resign from the Planning Board or that Weeks resigns voluntarily.

City Council Chairman Erik Thomas said with the court hearing coming up, it is too soon to discuss Weeks’ position on the Planning Board.

“I don’t know anything about the situation,” he said. “I haven’t talked to either of them (Weeks and Waheeb) about it, but I think until more information comes out, it’s too premature to be having those discussions.”

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