Former refugee Adele Ngoy isn’t at all surprised that the international potluck and fashion show night she started in a gymnasium eight years ago has evolved into one of the area’s largest and most joyful fundraising events.

“I knew over time it was going to get bigger and bigger, because I put my heart into it and many women would come together,” said Ngoy, founder of the nonprofit Women United Around the World.

This year, the 400-person International Women’s Fashion Show and Gala on March 4 at the Italian Heritage Center in Portland sold out a day in advance.

“It’s great to have that energy and diversity of all these women in one room,” said board treasurer Dorothy Olaru, an immigrant from Poland.

The gala is the signature fundraiser for Women United Around the World, which helps female immigrants adjust to life here in Maine.

“Our organization’s goal is to give female immigrants the tools to support their families and transform their lives forever,” said board member Aga Asbury, an immigration attorney.

One of the nonprofit’s core programs is an industrial sewing class taught by Ngoy, a longtime designer and seamstress who now owns Antoine’s Tailor Shop in Portland.

“She turned my passion for fashion design into a professional capability,” said sewing student Prisca Niyonzima, an immigrant from Burundi. “It was my hobby since I was very young.”

The sewing classes recently moved to new business Wallace James Clothing Co. on Cove Street in Portland.

“We’re really enjoying having them here,” said owner Kim Ortengren, who modeled one of Ngoy’s dress designs in the fashion show. “We are a full concept-to-stitch production company, so Adele’s students get to see a broad sense of how their work relates on the job.”

“We’ve seen this population change,” said Mufalo Chitham, who emigrated from Zambia 17 years ago. “This event brings women from different cultures together. Being in this venue has brought out more white Americans, which is great because they get to see the cultures.”

Gala entertainment included a variety of international performing arts, collections by local designers, and an international fashion show that can best be described as a pride parade of nations and the beauty of women from every culture.

“The energy in this room is so positive, celebrating everybody’s success, who they are and their heritage,” said Chris Lomake, an English language instructor who came to see one of her students in the fashion show.

“Tonight is all about connection and community,” said volunteer deejay Emma Holder.

“I’m pumped to see culture come to life in fashion and here in Portland,” said volunteer Ivy A. Ferrelli, a clothing designer. “It’s so delightful.”

Amy Paradysz is a freelance writer and photographer from Scarborough. She can be reached at:

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