LEWISTON — Dressed in sharp suits and colorful flowing diraacs, the men and women of Maine’s small but growing Djiboutian population gathered Friday to celebrate the 41st anniversary of their homeland’s independence from France.

The ballroom at the Ramada Inn filled slowly through the night as families arrived and people of all ages took to the dance floor, enjoying a live performance by Dahir Youssouf, a Djiboutian singer who traveled from his home in the Netherlands for the special event.

By 11 p.m. there were a few hundred people at the party, which included a buffet of dishes common to the Horn of Africa, lacing the air with the scent of caramelized onion. Revelers dug into steaming pans of doro wat, a spicy chicken stew, and beef cooked with berbere, an Ethopian-style chili powder, all served with rolled flatbreads, rice pilafs and a variety of salads.

The ballroom sparkled with special lighting, and Djiboutian and U.S. flags were displayed everywhere, recognizing both their homeland and new home. Speakers shared stories about what it was like to live under French rule and what their hopes are for Djiboutians living in Maine.

The night celebrated a melding of cultures as much as Djibouti’s independence, helping young and old stay connected to their heritage as they embrace a new way of life.

“We want to remember our culture and history, especially for the kids born here who know nothing of where we come from,” said Hassan Amarkak, 50, a medical transport driver who came to the United States in 1989 and moved to Maine in 2003.

Djibouti is a tiny country, about one-quarter the size of Maine, that sits on the Gulf of Aden, near the mouth of the Red Sea. It’s surrounded on the Horn of Africa by Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia, and is across the sea from Saudi Arabia and Yemen. It’s a largely Muslim, multi-ethnic nation where education is a government priority and most of its 942,333 people speak several languages, including French, Somali, Arabic and Afar.

Lewiston-Auburn’s Djiboutian population has bloomed in the last few years, attracted by the remnants of the area’s French-speaking heritage, which was brought here in the late 1800s and early 1900s by French-Canadian immigrants who worked in now-closed fabric mills and shoe shops.

‘LANGUAGE IS A TREASURE’

Community leaders could provide no formal count, but they said there are about 500 Djiboutians in Lewiston-Auburn, with more living in the Portland area, including some who attended Friday’s celebration. They’re among more than 12,500 immigrants from seven east African countries, including Somalia, who live in Maine.

Farah Djireh, 35, formerly a prison administrator in Djibouti, came to Lewiston in 2016 seeking asylum as an activist against what he described as Djibouti’s totalitarian regime. Married with twin boys and another on the way, he now works for the Hahnel Bros. construction company.

As Djireh strives to learn English, adding to the four languages he spoke before coming to Maine, he also meets with a group of locals who gather regularly to speak French and preserve the language.

“Language is a treasure,” Djireh said. “You shouldn’t lose it.”

Formerly known as French Somaliland, Djibouti ended 83 years of colonial rule in a referendum that launched the independent country on June 27, 1977.

Because of its strategic location, Djibouti is a key U.S. partner in security, regional stability and humanitarian efforts across the region, according to the State Department. It hosts the only enduring U.S. military presence in Africa and a USAID food warehouse for rapid response to crises in Africa and Asia.

With a largely service-sector economy, the country struggles because of rapid population growth, high unemployment, food, electricity and water shortages, and governance challenges, according to the State Department.

The Djiboutian population in Maine has grown as political and economic problems in the country have intensified, partygoers said.

Djibouti is a republic ruled by a powerful president who has been in office since 1999 and is not subject to term limits, according to Freedom House, a global monitor of political freedom and human rights. President Ismail Omar Guelleh was re-elected to a fourth term in April 2016, in a poll that was boycotted by some opposition parties.

And while Djibouti technically has a multi-party political system, the ruling Union for a Presidential Majority – or UMP – has seized all state power, according to its Freedom in the World profile. The opposition’s ability to operate is severely constrained, and journalists and activists critical of Guelleh or the UMP are regularly harassed or arrested. Freedoms of assembly, speech and association are restricted.

“Politics there are not good,” Djireh said, explaining that many Djiboutians suffer, while those who work for the government live well, along with their family members and friends.

Djiboutians living in Maine have found work in construction and transportation, and at companies such as L.L. Bean, partygoers said. And they have found safety and a place to build a new community, which by all accounts Friday is joyful and open-minded.

‘A PERSONAL CHOICE’

While most of the women dressed in brightly colored fabrics, including eye-catching turbans and head scarves, some wore their hair down and in Western hairstyles.

“It’s a personal choice,” said Idel Kalib, 21, a 2015 graduate of Edward Little High School in Auburn who was born in Georgia and is a biology major at Stonehill College in Easton, Massachusetts.

Sipping soda or bottled water – alcohol wasn’t served because Muslims believe it is forbidden – the partygoers danced to electronic music paired with new and traditional songs.

People were greeted with smiles and hugs, including those from other backgrounds and cultures. Occasionally, women would ululate, a high-pitch sound made by rapid tongue movement. The party didn’t break up until 1:30 a.m.

“Djiboutians like to have a good time,” Amarkak said.

Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: KelleyBouchard

filed under: