Jazz singer Viva wanted to perform with the tribal beats of the Burundi drum ensemble Batimbo United ever since she first heard them, and she lived that dream in the final powerful moments of the Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center fundraiser livestreamed Oct. 8.

“For me, as a descendant of the people who were kidnapped and stripped of their languages, religions, culture and memories of home, to share a moment of art and creation with these fantastic musicians who not only remember where they come from but imbue the very soundwaves with the feeling of Central African culture is a profound privilege,” Viva said.

It was the first fundraising event hosted at Aura in downtown Portland since the pandemic arrived in Maine, with 35 people – mostly board members, staff and performers – attending in person. The hybrid fundraiser brought in nearly $31,000 in donations, including a $15,000 match from anonymous donors.

The Power of Welcome marked a turning point for the welcome center since the May 31 death of co-founder and Executive Director Alain Nahimana from complications related to diabetes.

Shima Kabirigi, who has served as the welcome center’s interim executive director since August, said, “I came into this role because I felt deeply in my heart and my DNA that the vision and the mission of the Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center needed to continue.”

The fundraiser showcased the welcome center’s continued commitment to English language acquisition, civic engagement and entrepreneurship. Over the past two years, the center has enrolled 238 people in English literacy programs, registered 238 eligible voters and supported 44 businesses through Immigrant Business Hub programs.

“They’re helping people integrate (into) a new country, a new community and new careers,” said Philemon Dushimire, president of the Burundian Community Association of Maine.

“I appreciate the commitment to developing new opportunities and creating a new narrative for immigrants, showing immigration in a positive light,” said John Ochira, a board member originally from South Sudan. “My language skills have opened up so many opportunities for me that I can see what it can do for others.”

In partnership with eLearning company Voxy, the welcome center is offering an Alain Jean Claude Nahimana Scholarship for Learning English to the first cohort of 50 over the next six months.

Voxy Chief Education Officer Katharine Nielson said, “We’re very excited that through this scholarship, we’ll be able to honor Alain’s memory and his conviction that real-world English training is what makes the difference and that you don’t learn the word you need to get ahead by sitting in a classroom and learning the words for apple and banana and book and airplane.”

The welcome center is also a co-working hub, hosting 18 members including an attorney, a custom shirt printer and a nonprofit that promotes picture books introducing children to immigrant characters.

“It’s a place where you can find people you can relate to,” said Adele Ngoy, who trains other new Mainers to be professional stitchers through her nonprofit Women United Around the World, which rents space at the welcome center. “It feels like home.”

Welcome center supporter Reza Jalili coined the term “New Mainers” when he co-authored a book by that title in 2009.

“When I came to Maine as a refugee in 1985, there weren’t many services or programs and it was really hard to integrate,” Jalili said. “Now we have Iraqis, Syrians, French-speaking Africans and many other groups, and I’m thrilled to see all these nonprofits and programs now to help immigrants integrate and become part of the vibrant community we have in Portland.”

A recording of The Power of Welcome is available on the Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center Facebook page.

Amy Paradysz is a freelance writer and photographer based in Scarborough. She can be reached at [email protected]

 


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