Born in Puerto Rico and raised in New York, Lillian El Hani has a distinctive accent, one that is easily recognizable to those who have spent time on the island, or in the Empire State.
But those who meet her in person usually have a completely different initial impression due to her hijab, a traditional headdress worn by Muslim women.
“When people see me dressed up like a Muslim, they think I’m a Middle Easterner,” says Ms. El Hani, who has lived in North Carolina for 13 years, first in Concord and now in Harrisburg. “They think that all Middle Easterners are Muslims.
“When people see me without my Muslim attire, and they hear my voice, they immediately know that I’m Puerto Rican,” she continued. “And that I’m from New York.”
A desire to educate others about many common cultural and religious misconceptions is what drove Ms. El Hani to get involved in diversity initiatives sponsored by her employer, Wells Fargo, where she works as a finance and accounting senior analyst.
That connection would inevitably lead her to cross paths with a likeminded coworker and neighbor, Jitendra “Jeet” Hiremath, and later agree to help him and a team of volunteers organize the inaugural Harrisburg MultiCultural Festival set for this Saturday, September 14, at Harrisburg Park.
And Ms. El Hani isn’t alone. Dozens of other neighbors, representing varying and distinctive cultures from across the world, have followed suit, and are also volunteering their time and talent to put on a festival that is designed to both educate and entertain.
All Systems Go
Running from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., the festival will be a celebration of culture and community, according to organizers. Twenty countries will be represented at the event, which will feature traditional musical performances, cultural dances, educational booths, and a variety of cuisines, the latter courtesy of local food truck vendors.
There is no charge to attend the festival, and all are invited.
The Hickory Ridge High School Legacy Singers will kick off things with their rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and Mayor Steve Sciascia will oversee the ceremonial lamp lighting. Attendees can then take in a variety of performances, from the singing of “Resham Firiri,” a Nepali folk song, and “Ingonyama,” a South African folk song, to routines highlighting Indian classical fusion and Mexican Mayan dances.
Of the 20 countries represented, more than a dozen will be putting on performances, and nearly all will feature educational booths that provide visitors with an insider’s view of what makes each country unique. Presenters will be performing on unique instruments, and wearing outfits that best represent their heritage. The booths will offer informative snapshots of the countries represented at the festival, a list that includes Chile, Laos, Brazil, India, and Ireland, among others.
Arvind Saluja Rajpal, a middle school science teacher from Harrisburg, is leading the festival’s performance team, which relies upon dozens of volunteers – including many Hickory Ridge middle and high school students – who have been practicing for months and are now fine-tuning their routines.
Lending Their Talent
Like Ms. El Hani, Ms. Rajpal jumped at the opportunity to help Mr. Hiremath put on the multi-cultural festival, offering her time and musical expertise. She earned her Visharad degree in Indian Classical Music from Gandharva University in Mumbai, India, and loves sharing her passion for music with children and adults.
Ms. Rajpal thinks the festival will help build bridges and eliminate misunderstandings by exposing neighbors to different cultures and traditions. She notes that a traditional Vietnamese dance was recently added to the festival schedule, underscoring the diversity that will be on display Saturday.
“As a teacher working in the public school system for 20 years, I believe it is important to expose our future generation to various cultures in order to broaden their horizons and create an environment that promotes peach and harmony,” Ms. Rajpal says. “This festival will act as a catalyst to further this initiative.”
Her desire to spread understanding of our cultural differences is also a personal one. She and her family, which includes her son Amar, a sophomore at Hickory Ridge High School, are Sikhs, a group that is often mistaken for Muslims. She notes that her husband and son, the latter of whom will be playing a traditional Indian drum during the festival, always wear turbans.
“Most people who wear turbans are from India, and not from the Middle East,” says Ms. Rajpal, adding that Amar is the only student attending Cabarrus County schools wearing a turban. “That’s a huge misconception. Nobody recognizes that Sikhs are from India.”
A Common Theme
As with Ms. El Hani and Ms. Rajpal, Karen Andrade-Foreman immediately signed up after learning about the festival plans. The elementary school teacher, who was born in Puerto Rico, is overseeing the volunteer teams, including the middle and high school students.
She explained that students from her school, Carl A. Furr Elementary School in Concord, will be manning three booths at the fair, and representing seven countries: Cuba, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Columbia, Chile, Spain, and Puerto Rico.
“We’re a military family, and we embrace diversity,” said Ms. Andrade-Foreman, whose husband, Omar, served in the Army for almost 24 years prior to retiring. “It is one of the things that drove me to the festival.”
Like her fellow volunteers, Ms. Andrade-Foreman says that immersing oneself to different cultures is the best way to learn about them. To that end, she and others think that most adults should be following the example set by their children, especially those who are volunteering on Saturday.
“How our attire can create misconceptions about people, because they don’t know the differences, is one of the things we hope to educate the community about,” Ms. Rajpal says. “I think that events like this can help people be more aware of our different cultures.”
The Details – Harrisburg Multicultural Festival
- Saturday, September 14
- 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
- Harrisburg Park
- Admission is free
- Hosted by the Harrisburg Arts, Culture and Heritage Committee