As I round the corner of Linden and North 5th Street, it hits me all at once – the smell of barbeque, the echoing bass of music played on loudspeakers, the distant chatter of families, friends and strangers all sparking conversation. On this Sept. 15, the Arts Park’s normally open green grass is lined with colorful vendors and food stands of all flavors, their patrons milling about the scene with family and friends in tow. A stage sits directly beneath the towering Miller Symphony Hall mural, its backdrop forming a kind of mural in and of itself: the DJ’s booth is surrounded by paintings of figures, each of different races and presentations. These artworks mirror the event’s attendees in their diversity, reflecting the African, Indian, Latinx, Middle Eastern and other cultures given a platform to express themselves here. Here, there’s no front to put up, no disguise to arm oneself with. There’s just genuine enjoyment and appreciation of the worldviews and lifestyles of others, a public acknowledgement that white and American need not be the default setting for what is worth celebrating.

“Here” is the first annual International Cultural Festival, an event founded by Michelle Zattoni and hosted by WOMEN Transforming the Valley, Promise Neighborhoods of the Lehigh Valley, Safari Yangu Immigrant Stories, The Rilyc and Allentown Multicultural Center. The event was sponsored by the City of Allentown, Children’s Dental Health, Planned Parenthood Advocates, Tuk Law Offices, Faces International, Valley House Media and Cedar Crest College. Throughout its two days of operation on Sept. 14 and 15, the festival hosted a plethora of performances, such as youth dance crews and international fashion shows, as well as food stands showcasing no less than six different countries’ cuisines and a variety of small community business and nonprofit booths.

One such booth was home to Handy Mandy Crafts, a handmade Indian arts shop run by Falguni and Nirav Shah. The pair and their family all contribute to the wide array of items made available for sale, everything from tea light holders to paper accessories to landscape paintings of forests and waterfalls. Though the Shahs have certainly had their fair share of festival experience – they had just showcased their work at an India Heritage Day event and are planning to do so again at the upcoming Allentown ArtsFest – they insist that having the opportunity to share and educate about their culture never gets old.

Nirav (left) and Falguni Shah showcase their handmade Indian crafts. Arielle Waxman / The Muhlenberg Weekly

“It’s really nice that people are interested to know more, and we try to show stuff which are related to Indian festivals,” said Nirav, “so these [rakhi armbands] are actually used in a festival called Rakshabandan, where sisters tie this band to their brothers and it’s auspicious … This [floating candle holder] is for the festival of lights called Diwali. So we like to tell people more about Indian festivals so that they can try and do it or at least be a part of it or use it for home décor. It’s just fun that people are loving it.”

Beyond the plethora of products for sale, the International Cultural Festival also gave the Allentown community the chance to get up close and personal with some incredible organizations, including Safari Yangu Immigrant Stories, one of the event’s co-sponsors. Safari Yangu, which means “My Journey” in Swahili, is a Columbia University-based immigrant advocacy group lead by President Nick Ogutu and Vice President Nancy Famby.

“We are a platform for the immigrants to just talk about … [and] share their experiences, because sometimes when people come into this country, they are kind of scared. Some people don’t speak the language. The food is completely different … People don’t wear these African clothes in America, right?” Famby said, gesturing to her traditional dress and headband. “And we just empower them and also provide them with resources where they can get assistance, and also with the asylum with refugees. You come to this country, and you are lost, and you just need somewhere where you can call for references … And when people see, you know what, this immigrant came here maybe with one dollar in their pocket or no dollars, and now they are able to change their lives and be professionals and contributing members of the society. That’s what we want to show people: that America is made of immigrants, you know. I am a registered nurse by profession, and I’ve worked as a nurse and employee, and I contribute.”

In fact, according to the Safari Yangu website, Famby has won the Transformational Leadership Award in Nursing, and is the Director of Events and Community Liaison for the Bronx New York chapter of Amnesty International. Ogutu, who has lived in Allentown and went to school with festival founder Michelle Zattoni, is also the president of the same Amnesty International chapter and has won the organization’s Hironaka Award.

“The narrative has been that the immigrants have not contributed to the development of this country, that, you know, they come here with challenges and they just receive, receive, receive, they give nothing back,” said Ogutu. “So we have a YouTube channel where immigrants come and share their stories. And it’s a strength-based story, not just of challenges, but how they came here through challenges, the decisions they made, whether they went to school or are starting a business … and that is not well-covered in the national discourse. And that’s the bridge we are trying to cover here, by telling their stories and also organizing immigrant storytelling forums, where American-born citizens come into the audience and immigrants come and share their stories to improve that interaction … When this festival was coming up, [the founders] approached us and we liked it. We said, ‘This is going to be another platform for minorities and immigrants to come and showcase their talent and what they are able to do.’ That’s why we are participating here.”

Nick Ogutu (left) and Nancy Famby pose in front of the Safari Yangu booth. Arielle Waxman / The Muhlenberg Weekly

Safari Yangu is a prime example of what can happen when marginalized groups leverage their own agency and are in control of their own self-image. Because the stories of immigrants profiled on their website are told, produced and disseminated by fellow immigrants, there is no imposition of the same tired tales upon their journeys, no mold that they’re forced to try and fit into. Like the environment at the International Cultural Festival, they can just be, can share freely and fully without fear of appropriation.

As a Muhlenberg student, this is often one of my biggest fears – how can we as students get involved in the local community without eclipsing the work already being done there? Volunteer Maura O’Reilly ’20 demonstrates a path to do just that.

“I found out about the International Cultural Festival through a classmate in my Devising Community class,” O’Reilly said. “Once … there, I met the coordinators and was given two assignments. One was to walk up and around Hamilton Street and around the PPL Center and tell people about the Festival and invite them to come to Arts Park to check it out. The other assignment was to check in with the various vendors and see … if I could help out in any way … Muhlenberg students should definitely get involved because the Festival was a lot of fun and it’s a chance to get to know more people that we share a city with!”

Muhlenberg is in Allentown. We’re a part of the city, a part of its community, and breaking away from the so-called “Muhlenbubble” is crucial to acknowledging that community’s diverse population and cultures. We’re in it. We are it. We’re in the middle of a city full of complex, beautiful stories, and if we choose to listen, we might just hear something that makes us want to rewrite our own.


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