In the heart of downtown Gainesville, the sweet aroma of Afro-fusion dishes and layered rhythms of a Japanese drumming ensemble filled the air. A crowd of festival goers quickly emerged, eager to immerse themselves in the multicultural celebration of unity.
The Greater Gainesville International Center hosted its annual Welcoming Week International Festival at Bo Diddley Plaza Sept. 2.
The festival was the kick-off event for Welcoming Week, a weeklong campaign dedicated to bringing together community members from diverse backgrounds, launched by the nonprofit Welcoming America in 2012.
Behind this event is former mayor Lauren Poe, 52, who served as the Gainesville mayor from 2016 to 2023 and is now the executive director of the Greater Gainesville International Center.
His time as an elected official influenced his perspective on how the city does and doesn’t serve our international community, he said.
Poe, along with Steven Kalishman, created the organization in 2023 to connect Gainesville’s diverse community through culture, education and economic empowerment.
The non-profit builds off previously established organizations such as UF’s International Center and Gainesville’s Sister City program.
Kalishman, 69, is the Board Chair of the organization as well as the director of Gainesville’s Sister City program. He has been working with the Sister City program since 1982 and is passionate about expanding Gainesville’s international reach.
This program builds a permanent relationship between Gainesville and a foreign city. Gainesville has a diverse list of 10 sister cities, including Novorossiysk, Russia; Jacmel, Haiti and Matagalpa, Nicaragua.
Kalishman hopes that the organizations he’s involved in can put Gainesville on the map as a globally recognized destination for business, education, culture and innovation.
“We have all these international neighbors, but they’re all in their own groups doing things by themselves,” Kalishman said. “We’re trying to bring everybody together and to show how exciting it is to have these wonderful people here that have great stories and great histories.”
Residents and organizations gathered together to promote the importance of cultural appreciation.
The Indian Culture Education Center placed its setup near the stage, encouraging attendees to stop by and learn more about its initiatives.
Raj Phosle, a 51-year-old Gainesville resident and member of the ICEC since 2005, wanted to showcase Indian culture and all of its wonderful things, she said.
The festival also provided an outlet for many forms of colorful and artistic expression.
Gainesville resident MaryCruz Ruiz sold vivid paintings, prints and stickers at the event. The 23-year-old artist started her small business, “Creaciones de MaryCruz” in the past year but has been making art for as long as she can remember.
Although born in Florida, Ruiz’s family is originally from Mexico. She came to Gainesville to work in agriculture and has found a sense of community here, she said.
“It really feels like an act of service to create for my family or my ancestors who struggled too much to be able to have this opportunity,” Ruiz said.
Food also attracted large crowds at the festival with a variety of exotic dishes served to long lines of hungry guests.
Aisse Kane, a 45-year-old business owner, runs the catering company, Flavorful, alongside her 38-year-old partner, Awa Kaba.
Both women, originally from West Africa, met in Gainesville and combined their mutual passion for cooking to create Flavorful, an Afro-fusion cuisine.
“It’s amazing to see all those types of cultures and small business owners from different heritages,” Kane said.
Although previously working at other international festivals, the women served their cuisine at Welcoming Week for the first time.
“This is an amazing event and definitely something that we need more for Gainesville,” Kane said.
While Welcoming Week proudly showcased the intricate variety and beauty of culture, it also served as a reminder to residents and beyond of the ongoing battle to combat disparity across the world.
“What affects any country anywhere else, affects us right here,” said Jacob U’Mofe Gordon, a former professor of African and American Studies at the University of Kansas and the president of Gainesville's United Nations chapter.
Other organizations like the Human Rights Coalition of Alachua County and the Rural Women’s Health Project also advocated and promoted their services at the event.
“I always tell people to think globally and act locally,” Gordon said.
More events are scheduled in the upcoming days to continue commemorating Welcoming Week.
Nicole Beltran is a second-year journalism and economics major, and she's the caimán desk editor this semester. In her free time, she enjoys reading, journaling, and watching musicals.
Bonny Matejowsky is a third-year journalism major and a Fall 2023 Avenue Reporter. When she’s not writing, you can find her thrifting or watching Twin Peaks.