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Somali refugee farmers’ tasty fare is capital hit in Augusta

Kennebec Journal
Saturday August 12, 2017
By Jessica Lowell

The Beyond Borders Farmers Market sells vegetables and sambusas, a savory filled tortilla that is drawing lunch crowds.

Dahabo Hassan and Feysal Mudey sell vegetables Aug. 4 at the Beyond Borders Farmers Market, held Fridays at the arboretum in Augusta. Sambusas are also sold. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

AUGUSTA — It was hot and busy in the kitchen in the administration building at the Viles Arboretum on Friday.

Asli Hassan stood at a counter next to a seated woman. Both were deftly folding quarter sections of tortillas into cones, spooning in filling and folding down and sealing closed the top flap of the tortilla with flour and water.

The savory sambusas – vegetable, meat or fish – were destined to be deep-fried on the stove before being parceled out for the to-go orders placed in advance or for the lunch plates of people like Delaine Nye, who stopped in to the Beyond Borders Farmers Market on Hospital Street for a bite midday.

The sambusas are also more than lunch. They are a tangible link between Mainers in Augusta and new Mainers – in this case, the Somali Bantu immigrants who travel from Lewiston for the market and the lunch.

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“The food is delicious,” Nye said. “I love sambusas. And I want to support the Somali immigrants.”

Every Friday since the start of July, a group of Somali Bantu immigrants, including Hassan and Mohamed Dekow have traveled up from Lewiston to set up their market stalls in the parking lot of the arboretum to sell the vegetables – like beets, radishes, potatoes, carrots and onions – they grow and to make and sell the sambusas that Nye likes so much.

“This is my second or third time for lunch, but I have bought them to put in my freezer to warm up and have later,” she said. “They are nicely seasoned. They have wonderful flavor.”

“Every Friday more and more come,” Dekow said, as he slipped the sambusas in a pot of hot oil and flipped them so they wouldn’t burn. “That tells us we are doing something good for the community.”

Dekow is executive director of Sustainable Livelihoods Relief Organization – which works with Somali immigrants from the Juba Valley of south central Somalia who have settled in the Lewiston area – to give them a means to support themselves with skills they already have. Many were farmers, and they are using those skills in Maine.

Dekow’s organization also works with the Cooperative Development Institute, which promotes developing networks and co-ops to build sustainable local economies. Every year they make a little more progress, he said.

They harvest vegetables from their farm and prepare them for sale. The goal is to bring nothing home from the markets. But more than that, he said, the food they produce, like the sambusas, is the product of a value-added co-op.

Asli Hassan sorts produce Aug. 4 at her stand at the Beyond Borders Farmers Market at the Viles Arboretum in Augusta. Hassan, of Lewiston, raises the vegetables at her family's farm in Lisbon Falls. Staff photo by Andy Molloy
Women prep deep-fried sambusas at the Viles Arboretum kitchen in Augusta for the Beyond Borders Farmers Market. Khadija Hussein, left, Asli Hassan and Farhiya Ibrahim serve the traditional Somali food at the market run by refugees who have resettled in Maine. Staff photo by Andy Molloy

“This is not all that we know how to make,” Dekow said. So they are on the lookout for a commercial kitchen to increase their output and expand their offerings.

Somalis started settling in Portland and Lewiston a decade ago, and they are looking forward to other new Mainers moving in to Bangor and Augusta and doing what they know, and what they know is farming.

“What we need,” Dekow said, “is more market.”

Sammee Quong, a member of the arboretum’s board of directors, credits the arboretum’s director, Mark DesMeules, with pulling together the farmers market, which is open from noon to 4 p.m. on Fridays.

Every week, Quong said, it grows a little more, with more and more people hearing about the lunch and stopping by to check it out.

“It’s definitely growing and we’re excited about that fact,” she said. “We’re also looking for other new Mainers to be involved, maybe someone who makes bread. Mark has also been looking for people who have goats.”

Quong said in the past, a farmers market was held in the building throughout the winter and she hopes this one continues year-round, too.

“I think the community is beginning to know about it and they are passing it on to other people.”

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