In its second year, the Empower the Immigrant Woman Conference and Trailblazer Gala experienced a surge of growth that inspired and encouraged Maine’s immigrant communities.

“It was beyond my expectations,” said Mufalo Chitam, the event’s founder and primary organizer. “We had overwhelming support, especially with everything that’s happening.”

More than 150 people, including human resources representatives, attended the conference at the University of Southern Maine on March 18 with the theme “bridging employment gaps for our newest Americans.”

The conference was capped off with the Trailblazer Gala at Congregation Bet Ha’am in South Portland. More than 200 people enjoyed a buffet dinner from Babylon Restaurant as they settled into their seats for the Trailblazer Awards.

“This event is a real encouragement to those of us who feel like giving up,” said Persila Carle, an immigrant from Kenya. “It makes us think, ‘If they can make it, I can do it.’ ”

“These women have survived, thrived, nurtured and energized,” said keynote speaker Danielle Conway, dean of the University of Maine School of Law.

Award nominees came from 11 countries around the world, and five women were selected for effecting real change here in Maine, exemplifying a spirit of empowerment, education and inspiration.

Honorees included Fowsia Musse, a refugee from Somalia who works at Healthy Androscoggin and is a member of the Lewiston City Council’s Immigrant and Refugee Integration and Policy Development Working Group; Bakhita Saabino, who has returned to South Sudan repeatedly to help women there through the Boston-based organization My Sister’s Keeper; Parivash Rohani of Iran, a key organizer of Portland’s World Refugee Day and a board member of the environmental group Maine Interfaith Power and Light; Edith Flores of Mexico, who helped found the nonprofit Mano en Mano (Hand in Hand) in Washington County, and Claudette Ndayininahaze of Burundi, a cultural broker at The Opportunity Alliance.

“My heart is filled with joy for this very special moment,” said Ndayininahaze, who co-founded In Her Presence, an organization dedicated to the empowerment of immigrant women and girls in Maine.

“I believe that a place that welcomes immigrants and embraces diversity always flourishes. I’ve seen it with my own eyes,” Flores said. “This recognition reminds me of all the wonderful women I’ve met in my life who have left their marks of inspiration with their stories. I’ve met these women in Mexico, in the blueberry fields in New Jersey and in my work with Mano en Mano.”

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

[email protected]

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