Nakaa Nassir of the Capital Area New Mainers Project hangs up a banner Wednesday inside the new Hallowell Multicultural Center at 20 Union St. Volunteers worked throughout the summer to repurpose the former Episcopal Church sanctuary into a space where people can share and learn about different cultures. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

HALLOWELL — Tables loaded with food from over 14 different cultures lined the Hallowell Multicultural Center as taiko drumming and music from the Pineland Suzuki School filled the room during Old Hallowell Day last month.

The International Kids Festival was the first cultural celebration and gathering at the newly established facility, which was formerly the sanctuary of the Episcopal Church at 20 Union St.

When the church closed its doors last June, its leaders gifted the building to the Capital Area New Mainers Project to repurpose into a home for a refugee family.

Now, an Iraqi and Syrian family, each consisting of nine people, live on the church property, with one family in the fellowship hall and the other in the parsonage.

And since the beginning of this summer, volunteers have been working to repurpose the former church sanctuary into the new multicultural center.

The organization’s executive director, Chris Myers Asch, said the bulk of the work was done by property manager Efrain Ferrusca, a Mexican immigrant who manages all properties in the group’s Better Housing Program, and Hussein Albraihi, an Iraqi immigrant Ferrusca hired to help with much of the work.


Asch said they also had a great deal of volunteer help in setting up the multicultural center.

“Last fall we did a big workday with students from Colby, through the Center for Small Town Jewish Life,” said Asch. “We had a couple volunteers who helped organize the workday, they came and really did a lot of the hard, early work. We had to clear out lots and lots of stuff.”

Asch said volunteers also helped with painting and yard work throughout the property.

The flags of various nations line the interior of the recently opened Hallowell Multicultural Center on Union Street. Leaders of the former Episcopal Church gifted the sanctuary to the Capital Area New Mainers Project after it closed last June. Other buildings on the old church property now house two Iraqi and Syrian families. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

“But really, the bulk of the work was done by Efrain and Hussein,” he said, “getting rid of the pews, putting in the new floor, doing the painting and doing a lot of electrical work.”

Nakaa Nassir, who works with the Capital Area New Mainers Project as an interpreter and helps Arabic-speaking immigrants develop and learn English skills, was present at the inaugural event representing her home country of Iraq.

One of the foods Nassir offered was biryani, a dish consisting of rice and meats mixed together with spices.


“People loved it,” she said. “I was so happy, because we saw everyone smile and laugh.”

The former Episcopal Church at 20 Union St. in Hallowell now houses the Hallowell Multicultural Center. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Asch said the International Kids Festival set an excellent example for what the multicultural center has to offer.

“The idea behind the festival, and really the idea behind the multicultural center, is for this to be a place where people can come to learn and share about different cultures,” he said. “I think central Maine is more diverse than it gets credit for, and we want to showcase that diversity and celebrate that diversity.”

Asch and Nassir said renovation is roughly 90% complete. Future work includes replacing the arched windows to provide more ventilation to prevent the sanctuary from getting too hot.

The organization also received a $25,000 Community Development Block Grant that it applied for through the city. Asch said this money will be used for facade renovation on the outside of the building.

In the future, he said he’d like to see myriad community and cultural events hosted at the center.

“We have many folks from Arabic countries, so we always celebrate Eid with our community, but also there’s a South Asian community. We celebrate Diwali, we can celebrate Jewish holidays here,” he said. “We want this to be a community space that’s open to everyone, so if there are groups in Hallowell that want to host an event we certainly want it open to them as well.”

Nakaa Nassir, left, and Chris Myers Asch of the Capital Area New Mainers Project stand Wednesday inside the recently opened Hallowell Multicultural Center. Nassir, who works as a translator and helps Arabic-speaking immigrants learn English, said Asch has helped immigrant and refugee communities feel welcome in central Maine during his tenure as the organization’s executive director. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Whatever the future may hold for the multicultural center or the Capital Area New Mainers Project, Nassir said the central Maine immigrant and refugee communities are in good hands with Asch’s leadership and dedication.

“I am so satisfied about everything he does,” she said. “He tries so hard to make us feel satisfied here. Not just ‘we are immigrants’ or ‘we came from different countries.’ He helped us and he is helping us with a lot of different things.”

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