International Festival builds bridges, business

Residents and vendors from the many corners and cultures of Baltimore descended on the campus of Polytechnic Institute/Western High this weekend for the annual Baltimore International Festival.

"I just believe that people need to meet other people," said Maritza Smith, who traveled from Anne Arundel County to spread a blanket, sit under an umbrella and listen to ethnic bands perform. "It shows that, believe it or not, while we're all different, we all have something in common. Too many people don't know that."

Other attendees said the festival demonstrated the city's commitment to embracing its ever-expanding international population.

"It's a great way to show that at least the city recognizes that we're here," said Ousmane Kouyate, a native of the Republic of Mali in western Africa, as his family sipped fresh-squeezed lemonade and ate a Thai lunch.

Kouyate took his family to the festival in hopes of seeing a soccer — or football, as it known internationally — tournament, where Mali was represented. He said it's a little-known secret that there is a relatively large population from Mali in Baltimore. "But we're here," he said. "And it's good to connect."

Food vendors dished up offering everything from Southern-style soul food to African delicacies.

For Maxine Allwood, owner of the catering service Maxine's International Cuisine, the festival was an opportunity to show pride in her heritage. As Allwood, who caters Jamaican food, served up oxtails — a local favorite, she said — the food represented "my story, my heritage, my life."

She said the festival was also great exposure for her business, which she's owned for seven years.

"It really puts us out there," Allwood said.

Bessey Olangela served up Nigerian cuisine from her restaurant, Olangela's on Greenmount Avenue, before becoming a food vendor at the International festival.

"Some people don't want to diversify," Olangela said, as she scooped spoons of Nigerian rice and chicken, cabbage, fried plantains and fish for patrons. "But, it's just like when I came to America, I said, 'I'm going to be here for a long time, so I have to try it, I have to adjust.' "

Others who attended the festival said the event was also a learning experience for immigrants who may have trouble adapting.

Iwona Osagie, an Anne Arundel County resident and native of Poland, said she brought her 16-year-old son to the festival on Saturday to show him that diversity is positive, despite some negative experiences he may confront in school.

"I wanted him to see that it's important to know other cultures," Osagie said. "The kids are sometimes ashamed because they feel singled out."

Osagie said that she wanted her son to also see that other countries are just as celebrated as the United States. "The misconception here is that this is the best place, this is paradise," she said. "And not everyone can travel other places, so it's nice to see the world represented here."

Kevin Onyonn hopes to add another taste of international life to Baltimore next year. Onyonn, a native Kenyan, is currently looking at sites for a restaurant, which he said would fill a void of East African restaurants downtown. His flagship restaurant is in Beltsville.

Onyonn made his vendor experience a family affair, opting to prop up chairs for he and his three children to enjoy music, and food from other cultures. The family also watched teams representing African countries compete, which he called, "a rare experience" for his young children.

"It's not very often that we get to see this, to do this," Onyonn said. "We couldn't do this anywhere else. I want to get them grounded in what their culture is all about."