PORTLAND, Maine — Nearly a decade ago, Rwandan filmmaker Patrick Kiruhura set out to make a documentary about children living on the streets of his nation’s capital, Kigali. In the process he ended up co-founding an international nonprofit dedicated to nurturing those vulnerable children. Now, the Root Foundation helps more than 350 children stay in school and out of trouble. It also helps educate their parents about nutrition, health care and finance.
In search of new challenges, Kiruhura moved to Portland in 2019 and, this week, he’s launching another nonprofit. He wants to help new Mainers integrate with the already-established community through deep cultural exchanges of art, dance and cuisine. Kiruhura finds Maine a welcoming place but wants to help foster more meaningful understanding between various cultures and generations. He wants to transcend polite hospitality and help individuals from the immigrant community realize their full potential as Americans.
“There’s a huge gap, even though we try so hard to be together,” Kiruhuru said. “Relationships depend on how much I know about you and how much you know about me — that’s what brings about trust.”
Kiruhura is starting his new World Roots Cultural Exchange with Portlander Whitley Marshall. The two met when Marshall volunteered at Kiruhura’s original organization in Kigali in 2019. Within a few minutes of meeting, Kiruhura said he was thinking of moving to Portland because he had relatives here. That’s when they realized they knew many of the same people in town.
“I knew his entire family,” said Marshall, who has a long background in central African traditional dance.
Kiruhura said he’s impressed by how much help is available to new immigrants when they arrive in Maine. The same goes for how seamlessly new and established Mainers work and learn together. But he’s hoping his new organization can help create relationships that can stand on their own, outside of work, school and official organizational assistance.
With no common cultural touchstones such as music, dance and food, he said immigrants, including himself, have a hard time understanding the laws and social customs of their new home.
“Culture is identity but there’s no platform that tells people who come here what a Mainer is,” Kiruhura said. “Maine is its people, its institutions, its businesses. To know about them is to be integrated.”
Marshall said understanding Mainers and their culture is the only way for newcomers to really live up to their potential, instead of being bewildered by the system.
“So many people lose their passion for and drive for what brought them to America in the first place,” she said. “If they can learn the system, they can thrive.”
The two have already hosted cultural exchange nights with storytelling, music and dance at the Portland Media Center. That was before the pandemic put an end to in-person gatherings. Still, they hope to keep going and are planning a series of video conversations between old and new Mainers. Eventually, Kiruhura and Marshall want to give their organization a permanent, physical home.
“Our end goal is to create a hub of art and food and dance from various cultures that will all come together and support the immigrant community,” Marshall said. “And we want to draw in more than just the immigrant community.”
Jenny Van West has been working on bringing old and new Mainer communities together via music and her Immigrant Music Connection organization which helps newcomers find instruments to play. Van West has also organized a string of international open mic night at Mayo Street Arts.
Though there’s already a myriad of organizations in southern Maine designed to help immigrants, she said there’s definitely room for more.
“What people from disparate or seemingly disparate backgrounds need to come together, and solve our common community challenges, are common goals. Culture is a fantastic way to accomplish this because it’s fun and soul-satisfying, and it does not require a common language all the time,” Van West said. “During this time of coronavirus and political change, it’s very important for young immigrant visionaries to be supported in laying the groundwork for future success—their own and others.”
Despite the pandemic and the challenges ahead Kiruhura remains optimistic. When asked if he feels like a Mainer yet, he doesn’t hesitate to answer.
“Yes. Absolutely. When I got to Maine, I felt like I was at home,” he said. “Maine is not noisy, it gives you air, you can see the sky. Houses are set apart but there is still space to sit and talk to people. It is built for community.”