Ethnic markets emerge

Those of us coming to UVM from larger cities often gripe about the whitewashed environment that is Vermont. This seeming lack of diversity is one of the school’s major drawbacks for many prospective and current students. However, if we tread only slightly off the beaten path, we can experience the wealth of culture that Burlington has to offer. Off Williston Road, in a tucked away strip mall, lives Gagnan Indian Grocery Store.The door opens to a mix of curry and cumin, with shelves of chili powder and turmeric, and large sacks of Basmati rice on display. The TV is spouting classic soap opera drama, while in the background hangs colorful bangles, bindis and two prints of Sikh gurus.A collection of Bollywood films is displayed for rental. The owner, Kulgit Kaur, has lived in Burlington for 22 years and is in her seventh year of business. “It took three years to adjust to the cold,” Kaur admitted, but now she feels “at home.” A native of the Punjab region in Northern India, she sells a mix of Pakistani and Indian spices and goods to a mixed clientele of American, Indian, and Nepalese students. When asked if the Indian population was large in Burlington, Kaur said it “wasn’t very large, but big enough to keep our market going.” Kaur and her husband also own the Burlington staple restaurant, India House. The market began because “everyone was asking where they could buy the groceries.” Kaur is one of many owners of ethnic markets in the Burlington area-a sprouting business model that welcomes and caters to the increasing number of immigrants and refugees in the Burlington area. Kaur began her store a year after the recorded population of foreign-born residents in Burlington, according to the 2000 U.S. Census, was about 8.1 percent of the population. Since 2000, immigrant populations have further grown and, consequently, so have the number of ethnic markets. Charles Narh and his partner Pat Bannerman opened the Mawuhi African Market on North Winooski Street three years ago. When asked why he chose to set up in Burlington, Charles said “Vermont is very quiet and cool … [there is] no traffic.” He continued, “[In Burlington] we live in a community where people work together. In Chicago, where I lived before, when you greet someone, they did not answer. Here, they answer. This brings you closer to people around you, and this is good.” Among these narratives, there is consistent praise for Burlington. Despite its 92.3 percent white population (2000 U.S. Census), Nash, a native of Ghana, says that “I feel more at home here than in any other place.” The store contains a mix of products that are both traditional of African and contemporary American culture – ranging from T-shirts of Obama, to hair wigs and weaves, to African staples such as sorghum, cornmeal and daddawa, a black fermented paste made from flat beans of a locust tree. Inside, the aroma is a piquant mix of salty dried fish and plantains – a suggestive melding of the store’s dualistic items. “Our target market is Africans, Asians, and Latinos” says Nash. “Of course we are in the minority, so we built a market around them,” he added. Nash also noted that Burlington has a large population of “African refugees, Somalians, Guineans, Sudanese, few from Niger, Burundi, and the Congo.” When asked about sales, Nash responded, “Sales are fine. Most of the refugees use their EBT cards, and we accept food stamps. We accept money gram orders, cash, and checks.” Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) is an electronic system that allows a recipient to authorize transfer of their government benefits from a federal account to a retailer account to pay for products received. The Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program (VRRP) is a 501(c) 3 organization, which is a field office of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants in Washington, D.C. that administers EBTs in Burlington. According to its web site, VRRP has helped over 4,200 refugees settle into the Burlington and larger Vermont areas since 1989. Waell Murray, a native Palestinian who has lived in Burlington since 2003, is the owner of Global Market on North Winooski Avenue – a store that caters to the growing Bosnian community. He says he is one of the sole “halal food preparers in the state of Vermont,” referring to food prescribed by the Quran as permissible according to Islamic law. He also showed off the Middle Eastern yogurt that he and his community eat before sunrise as they fast for the month of Ramadan. Continuing onto North Street, Nhat Long Market is a few blocks further from the African Market. Inside is a vast survey of oriental foods, including sushi and rice vinegars, noodles, ginger and jasmine teas, and over six varieties of fish sauce. The owner, a native of Vietnam, spoke timidly, hesitant to divulge details of her store and personal history. She acknowledged that she fears the jealousy and vengeance of future readers after her “Winooski restaurant was burned down.” Despite her anxiety, she shared that she was a single mother of three, and wanted her children to enjoy Burlington as much as possible. The variety of ethnic markets in Burlington cues both a growing immigrant population and the resounding need for immigrant residents to reacquaint themselves with the roots of their ethnic traditions and foods, despite a changing landscape. As students, we also assume a new residence and are aware of the pangs and frustrations of assimilating into a different setting and perhaps culture. That’s why it is important, as Nash says, “to be part of peoples’ lives and collectively make them better.” He, as well as all of the owners, invites students to participate and indulge in the growing global village of Burlington. Find your roots within the city’s developing cultural plurality, and over a shared meal get to know thy neighbor!