LEWISTON — Elise Zankou was spooning out a steaming plate ama when somebody asked how she has enjoyed living in Lewiston the past 16 years.

Zankou stopped, one hand still holding the lid of a pan, as an expression of exaltation spread across her face. She found herself momentarily speechless.

She answered the question at last by talking about her three children — the medical assistant, the pharmacist, the class president … Almost everyone she knows from the West African country of Togo is happy and healthy since moving to the United States, she said. They have careers and families and safe places to sleep at night.

“It’s been wonderful,” Zankou said.

Similar stories could be heard up and down Simard-Payne Memorial Park on Friday night as World Refugee Day got underway with more than a dozen countries represented. It was diversity on display, with food, dance and song from across the globe as Lewiston’s immigrant populations gathered to share their cultures.

How much diversity? Museum L-A Executive Director Rachel Desgrosseilliers, who set up a world map near the park entrance, had the best bead on that. She asked all who arrived to stick a pin in the part showing the country from which they hailed. Within an hour, the map was dotted with pins representing a swath of countries: Angolia, Somalia, Rwanda, Chad, India, Iraq, Ukraine, Turkey, England, Germany, Norway and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

And of course, there were pins in the U.S. and Canada.

“It’s a much bigger dispersement of pins than it used to be,” Desgrosseilliers said. “They’re all over the place.”

Five or six years ago, when she set up a similar pin map, almost all of the pins were concentrated in either Somalia or Quebec. In Lewiston at the time, the rest of the world went largely unrepresented. But a recent wave of immigration brought thousands to Lewiston from all over the globe and Desgrosseilliers, for one, is happy to see it.

“We’re making history here,” she said. “We are a community of immigrants. People tend to forget that.”

Also represented Friday were the French Canadians, Irish, Germans, Scotts and Chinese, who helped build the Lewiston that sprawled around the gathering.

Sitting on the grass and taking it in was 59-year-old Stephen Dunham, a man who is personally interested in seeing people of all cultures peacefully co-habitate here.

“I just arrived in Lewiston and I really want to make it my home,” said Dunham, who has been staying at one of the city homeless shelters while settling in. “I love it here. This diversity is exactly what we need.”

Dunham spent most of his years traveling around the country, he said, where he encountered people from all over the world. The notion that people of different cultures can’t get along, he said, is pure bunk, a falsehood promulgated by the media.

“Most people are decent,” Dunham said. “In my travels, I’ve found that maybe 5 percent of people suck, but those are the ones who get all the news, all the publicity.”

A cook and a baker by trade, Dunham said he was most looking forward to sampling foods from around the world.

That was a plan Jimmy Simones could get behind – mere minutes after the food tents were open for business, Simones had himself a plate of baba ghanoush, an eggplant-based dish popular in Chad.

“It’s sort of like a hummus,” Simones said. “It’s awesome.”

Zankou’s ama was getting solid reviews, too. Made of spinach, beef, garlic and ginger, the fragrant dish drew long lines of the curious and hungry.

“It’s really good,” said Katrina Ringrose, one of the first to sample the ama. “It definitely has a different taste.”

And as an ultimate sign of excellent, Ringrose’s 7-year-old daughter, Evelyn, not only tried the exotic ama, she finished every last bite.

“It’s great,” Evelyn said. “Tastes like beef.”

Performances, games and music went on into the night as part of World Refugee Day festivities. The Lewiston High School soccer team was awarded a Promise of Hope award as was Fatuma Hussein, director of Immigrant Resource Center of Maine and chair of World Refugee Day planning.

Mostly it was mingling, sharing and learning, but there was plenty of time for appreciation, as well.

“I love it here,” said Elizabetha Sena, who came to the U.S. from Togo. “It’s such a good country — and such a good city.”

Mike McGraw, who coached the Lewiston High School soccer team to its first Class A state title, looked across the stage as he accepted the award on behalf of the team. There, men and women stood holding flags from their native countries and the stage was ablaze with an array of colors.

“You guys look beautiful,” McGraw said. “This is how it’s supposed to be.”


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