LEWISTON – The city’s Multi-Purpose Center seemed to be transformed into a colorful, joyous, distance place Saturday night as the fifth annual Somali-American independence festival was celebrated.
Festival coordinator Omar Ahmed explained the festival is held every year to celebrate Somali’s July 1 independence from Italy and the United Kingdom, and the U.S.’ July 4 independence.
The festival encourages “the two communities to come together so that we can have the best of time,” Ahmed said as African music played in the background. The two communities are immigrants and nonimmigrants.
The event also appreciates diversity, and this year is celebrating Lewiston winning the All-American City award. “It’s very happy, very fun,” Ahmed said.
Margaret Main of Lisbon Falls, who was sitting in the bleachers waiting for the entertainment to begin, said this was the first Somali festival she’s attended. She came with her husband, who works for the city of Lewiston. “I just want to learn a little bit of understanding about the culture Somalis have,” she said.
Near to her was Fadumo Tahlil of Portland, who was there to read poetry.
Tahlil said the day was not to worry. Most Somalis have family and friends still in war-torn Somalia who weigh heavy on their minds every day. Saturday was a time to not to think about the suffering, but to celebrate the culture, Tahlil said.
Asked what she likes best about the Somali culture, Tahlil immediately said “the clothing.” In her flowing Somali dresses, scarves and wraps, “I feel more like a woman,” she said with a smile.
Within minutes, four dancers seemed to illustrate her point. The Rwandan dancers moved to the center of the room, two dressed in red, two in white. With smiles and grace, they captured everyone’s attention as they swayed.
Asha Wilson, 3, of Lewiston, laughed as she dashed out and momentarily danced with the woman before running back to her mother.
As in most events, there were speeches and tributes.
Behind the stage was a large American flag and a blue-and-white Somali flag. The “Star-Spangled Banner” was played, then the Somali national anthem was sung. A few boys wore white shirts with the Somali national logo of blue and a white star.
In his speech Ismail Ahmad, who works as a cultural skills trainer, said that in Lewiston, Somalis have for their children “blessed peace,” security, shelter and food. “This we could not guarantee in refugee camps and in our country.” He asked festivalgoers to think of those who could not be there with them.
It’s not easy to journey from Somalia to the United States, but they have done it. “We proudly call Lewiston our home, to the amazement of many,” Ahmad said. They consider Maine their “home sweet home.”
Lewiston Mayor Laurent Gilbert began his remarks by offering a few greetings in the Somali language. His effort made the faces of several light up as they applauded. Gilbert said the addition of Somalis and other immigrants to Lewiston “have added to the fabric of our city. It is with your help we’ve become an All-America City.”
After the speeches, more dancing brought out more smiles.
A group of young girls wearing identical pink-and-black dresses showed off Somali moves. After a group of boys, wearing matching striped shirts, performed a different style of Somali dance.
Meanwhile a young men’s dance group, wearing white shirts that read Somali, were waiting their turn to perform. They came to Lewiston from Connecticut.
Sitting together taking in the celebration was Terry Waite, in typical American clothes, and her young Somali friend, wearing a brightly colored long dress and head scarf.
Waite works at Lewiston High School. She came after being invited by the Somali girl. Admiring her young friend’s outfit, Waite said Somali girls at Lewiston High School always look so feminine.
The festival is sponsored by the African Immigrants Association. Festival coordinator Ahmed was pleased with the attendance.
People were slowly filling the center, and more were walking down Birch Street. Each year more come, Ahmed said.