Desi Ferber didn’t particularly like indoor rock climbing as a child, but accompanying her family to their Tampa gym meant she could partake in a cherished ritual afterward: feasting on spiced meats, vegetables and spongy injera bread at a local Ethiopian restaurant.
The restaurant of Ferber’s childhood still exists, but her most recent experience relishing one of her favorite cuisines didn’t require a two-hour slog south. Instead, the UF graduate student ventured to downtown Gainesville on Saturday and joined approximately 250 others seeking culinary adventure at the inaugural Think Global, Eat Local International Street Festival.
“It’s so good,” Ferber said of the beef stew, lentils and collard greens she sampled. “It’s really, really good. I really also like the West African (food). It’s all delicious. It’s been a while since I’ve had food this good, so it’s really exciting,”
Presented by the Greater Gainesville International Center (GGIC), the festival re-introduced the nonprofit to the public following a lull in activity since its official 2017 launch.
Six years ago, representatives from the city, county and local colleges agreed the area’s sizeable population of foreign-born community members warranted celebration and support through construction of a building, but disagreements arose about the building’s physical location, said Steve Kalishman, GGIC board chair and the executive director of its parent organization, Sister City Program of Gainesville, Inc.
Now the GGIC is concentrating on providing services and events through the financial support offered by grants, donations and partnerships with local businesses and corporations.
“We have an incredibly large immigrant and international population living in Gainesville and Alachua County, and it really could be better served by more closely connecting it both with each other and with our larger community,” said GGIC president and CEO Lauren Poe, a former mayor of Gainesville. “There’s a lot of untapped potential, economically, culturally, socially.”
Kalishman estimates Gainesville’s population consists of 15% of people born abroad as well as 10,000 foreign students studying at the University of Florida and at Santa Fe College.
“It’s an international city, but nobody knows it,” he said. “So we’re trying to let people know.”
On Saturday, SW 2nd Street between University Avenue and SW 2nd Avenue hosted booths featuring artists, representatives from local outreach organizations and food vendors showcasing seven exotic cuisines, including those from Palestine, Haiti and Greece. Inside How Bazar, an adjacent vintage clothing shop, GGIC board member Ayna Meredova shared her experiences immigrating to the U.S. from Turkmenistan alone at the age of 17.
“Really, what I’m striving for is can we celebrate diversity?” Meredova said to a small group of listeners gathered in a circle. “Can we arrive at a place where the slowest, the quietest voices get to be heard? And what does that look like?”
Patrons purchased the majority of the festival’s food “passport” tickets online by Friday, and only a handful of tickets remained Saturday for early birds.
GGIC board member Jeremi Snook sold his own passport to Ashish Brahnbhatt when Brahnbhatt expressed disappointment after arriving too late.
“I’d much rather that ticket go to somebody who’s going to have a really good experience, and I’ll pick up some food on the way home,” Snook said.
Brahnbhatt shared the passport with his father, Bhupendra Brahnbhatt.
“I’m really curious about Jamaican Chinese,” Ashish Brahnbhatt said. “There is a fusion of Chinese food with Indian food…and that’s really good, so I’m really interested in how Jamaican-Chinese is going to be.”
Ticket demand and positive feedback mean similar GGIC events — including some featuring foreign dance demonstrations – are likely on the horizon, Poe said.
“I think it shows there’s a big desire for more of this, and we’ll start looking for more opportunities,” he said.