It’s a small world after all – at least at the annual Women United Around the World Gala at the Italian Heritage Center in Portland.

“We’re not a melting pot. We’re a mixed salad,” said incoming board member Lana Wichmann, an immigrant from South Africa. “Fashion is a universal language that crosses the language barrier. No one needs to explain. We’re all proud of where we came from.”

The ninth annual multi-ethnic dinner and international fashion show March 3 raised $5,000 to support industrial sewing classes for immigrant women in the Greater Portland area, helping them find work with bridal shops or manufacturers or go into business for themselves. The evening’s entertainment began with dance performances reflecting cultures from around the world, from Colombia to China to Sudan. Then 30 local women walked the runway. Most were not models but immigrants, proudly sharing traditional clothing from their motherlands, from Burundi to the Philippines.

“It’s amazing how people’s traditional dress can unite different cultures in Maine,” said Alain Nahimana, executive director of Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center.

Following the International Women’s Day 2018 theme of Press for Progress, four local women were honored with Press for Progress Awards at the gala. The honorees were Beth Stickney, co-founder of Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project; Odette Bowman, founding director of A Company of Girls, a nationally recognized after-school program; Magnifique Butera, a Congolese immigrant who founded The Children’s House childcare center in Portland; and Zoe Sahloul, founder and executive director of New England Arab American Organization.

Sahloul commented that each of the nominees is working to bring diverse Mainers together and to encourage women to be role models for their families and communities.

“We all come in different colors, with different religions, representing different communities and political affiliations,” said Sahloul, who escaped civil war in Lebanon. “But we can come together in peace and work with each other in a way that gives back to the community. We all work separately but also in partnership.”

“This is a crucial time for us all,” said Adele Ngoy, a Congolese immigrant who founded Women United Around the World, owns Antoine’s Tailor Shop and volunteers to teach industrial sewing classes. “Women are a force for change.”

“Look around, these women here have endured much, many escaping danger, even death, seeking freedom, arriving with only the clothes on their backs,” said event emcee Tory Ryden. “You are beautiful women, and we are humbled by your strength and resilience.”

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

[email protected]

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