By Lillian Lema
Food can be thought of as an international language that doesn’t recognize borders or frontiers and has the power to bring people together and create unity. On June 27, Solo Cucina Market in South Portland proved that power through a joyful event co-sponsored with Hope Acts and Stone Coast Fund Services. The event included food tastings and gift cards for those who joined the fun, many of whom were asylum seekers.
“Food allows us to cross cultural boundaries. It’s easy and pleasant,” Bania added. And indeed the market was filled with laughter, conversation, and smiles as both recent immigrants and long-time Mainers browsed the offerings of fresh, organic, local sauces, produce, pastas, meats, and desserts.
According to the Good Shepherd Food Bank, Maine has the highest rate of food insecurity in New England – 13.5 percent of households are plagued by hunger. In recognition of the challenge many immigrants face in feeding their family, a total of $15,000 worth of gift cards were distributed to 94 individuals who attended the event at the market. The 94 individuals represented a total of 336 family members who came from 12 different countries – Afghanistan, Angola, Burundi, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon, Ghana, Guinea Bissau, Nigeria, Rwanda, and Togo.
Martha Stein, Executive Director of Hope Acts, explained that asylum seekers are greatly affected by food insecurity, since federal law prohibits them from even applying for federal work authorization until 150 days after they complete their asylum application. The limited assistance they receive must also cover housing and other expenses, so food needs often go unmet.
“They are reliant on a very tiny amount of assistance, and whatever they can get from food pantries and non-profits, so food insecurity is really high. Then, when they finally do start working, with rent going up so much, they have to pay for that, and other expenses, such as legal help. Most new immigrants have a tough time getting by, especially during this time of high inflation,” Stein said.
Sarah Esengo, who said she thoroughly enjoyed her visit to Solo Cucina Market, is known to many as Mama Sarah. She is a former resident of Hope House, which is a residence for asylum seekers run by Hope Acts, a nonprofit that focuses on providing housing assistance for asylum seekers, and English lessons and other resources to all immigrants. Mama Sarah was famous for her cooking at Hope House, and played mother to all. “I prepared food for everyone,” Mama Sarah said. “I prepared beignets, vegetables, rice, plantains, cassava leafs from Congo, and foofoo.”
Esengo pointed out that the market carries food products that many New Mainers like to use when they cook, adding that the quality and selection of food at the market is good. And she was happy with the human connections she made. “Before this event we didn’t know each other. Now we become one. We get each other’s number and addresses. We are leaving connected from this event,” she said.
Mayor Deqa Dhalac of South Portland, who attended the event, reflected on the importance of bringing the immigrant and mainstream communities together. “I believe in breaking bread together. Food is a language by itself. It’s an international language that brings people together – even though we don’t speak the same languages, we all love food.”
At one point Dhalac noticed someone purchasing mortadella, a food Dhalac wasn’t familiar with. A conversation began that meandered to the topic of historical connections between dishes from different countries. According to Dhalac, these connections strengthen the notion that people are much more similar than they are different. She pointed out that pasta, sauces, and Italian recipes are popular in Somalia – from 1889 to 1960 part of Somalia was colonized by Italy. Baasta iyo Suugo, which translates to ‘pasta with sauce,’ remains a popular dish in Somalia to this day.
The importance of supporting local communities, and welcoming new neighbors, were twin themes of the day. “It’s all about the locals. Supporting our local communities. Our local businesses,” Dhalac said. “A lot of people aren’t aware that the mom and pop shops like this are important. We want to keep them in our community, because they care more about us than bigger chains.”
And indeed the owner of Solo Cucina Market, as well as Stone Coast Fund Services, obviously do care. Stein said that Bania first contacted her about hosting an event in January when she learned about the hard times asylum seekers were having. Fast forward to a couple months later, and the cheerful crowd at the market.
“Hope Acts is happy to facilitate the generous gift from Stone Coast and Solo Cucina,” Stein said.
Mayor Dhalac was enthusiastic.“This event lets the immigrant community know that businesses are saying ‘We are open! We are welcoming you to our space, our business, and our community!’” Dhalac said. “It’s all about relationship building and connecting with people. We can see folks greeting each other, kissing and hugging! And that is what it’s all about,” Dhalac said.
Photos courtesy of Hope Acts