Lawrenceville festival celebrates immigrant stories, food and culture

A young festivalgoer holds up the Moroccan flag during the flag parade at the "Around the World in the DTL" in Lawrenceville, Ga. September 9, 2022. (Kendra A. Ransum/Fresh Take Georgia)

Credit: Kendra A. Ransum/Fresh Take Georgia

Credit: Kendra A. Ransum/Fresh Take Georgia

A young festivalgoer holds up the Moroccan flag during the flag parade at the "Around the World in the DTL" in Lawrenceville, Ga. September 9, 2022. (Kendra A. Ransum/Fresh Take Georgia)

This story was originally published by Fresh Take Georgia.

Rows of colorful tents and food trucks lined the Lawrenceville Lawn and the air was filled with rich cooking smells and songs in many languages as the city celebrated its second annual Around the World in the DTL festival last weekend.

The event, modeled on night markets from around the world, attracted thousands of people who came to shop, eat and watch performances representing Georgia’s many immigrant communities.

For Sofia Le, owner of Chè Quán Cô Sáu, the festival is an opportunity to introduce traditional Vietnamese desserts, which are lesser known to the public than the savory soups and noodles that have become popular at many Vietnamese restaurants.

“We want to introduce this type of dessert to everyone and, at the same time, we want people to come here and think about their childhood and remember Vietnam,” she said.

Sofia Le (left), owner of Chè (Quán Cô Sáu), poses with her best friend, Cam Le in front of their tent in Lawrenceville, Georgia, Sept. 10, 2022. Sofia does not have her own shop, but night markets like “Around in the World in the DTL” allow her to gain experience in having a business. (Kendra A. Ransum/Fresh Take Georgia)

Credit: Kendra A. Ransum/Fresh Take Georgia

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Credit: Kendra A. Ransum/Fresh Take Georgia

Part of what motivates Le to share authentic Vietnamese dessert comes from her own immigration experience, she said.

Le was born in Dầu Tiếng, a rural township in southern Vietnam, and moved to the United States in 1995, when she was 13. Her family’s immigration was facilitated by her father’s military service during the war, which is estimated to have killed as many as 3 million people, many of them civilians.

Despite her initial struggles with moving to a new country and learning English, Le said she found the U.S. to be a land of opportunity. She views her participation in the festival as a chance to help fellow immigrants relive happy memories from their homeland through food.

“They’re homesick and they miss the food, the environment, the culture and the taste,” Le said. “When you eat something you’re so used to when you were little, it brings back a lot of good memories.”

All of the vendors were small businesses local to the metro Atlanta area. Many, like Le, don’t have a brick-and-mortar establishment and operate solely out of food trucks or popup tents.

“We’re trying to elevate these underrepresented groups while also supporting small businesses because all our vendors are small businesses,” said Jeff Kuo, president of the Atlanta International Night Market, which holds regular events throughout the metro area and organized the festival with the city of Lawrenceville.

A stilt walker leads a parade of flag-bearers for the opening of “Around the World in the DTL” in Lawrenceville, Ga. September 9, 2022. Volunteers from the audience held up flags of several countries from all over the world. (Kendra A. Ransum/Fresh Take Georgia)

Credit: Kendra A. Ransum/Fresh Take Georgia

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Credit: Kendra A. Ransum/Fresh Take Georgia

“We help them start up,” he said of the small vendors. “We provide a lot of coaching, a lot of training, a lot of administrative functions and so we allow them to build their businesses.”

Aside from vendors, the festival also featured dance and music performances drawing on cultures from around the world.

Dawn Mahealani Douglas of Mahealani’s Polynesian Entertainment said she uses dance to express her heritage and share her culture with others.

“There aren’t many Polynesians in this part of the country, and my group is likely the only authentic group in Georgia,” Douglas said. “We like for people to see an authentic presentation, learn and have fun!”

Dawn Mahealani Douglas, owner of Mahealani’s Polynesian Entertainment, demonstrates Polynesian dance moves as audience members follow along in Lawrenceville, Ga. September 9, 2022. Douglas said that in Polynesia, performers let people watch their dances before inviting them to join in. (Kendra A. Ransum/Fresh Take Georgia)

Credit: Kendra A. Ransum/Fresh Take Georgia

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Credit: Kendra A. Ransum/Fresh Take Georgia

Douglas demonstrated several Polynesian dances, including a traditional drum dance called ōte’a. To wrap up her performance, she invited several members from the audience to join her in the dance.

Visitors wandered the grounds sampling different cuisines and taking in the entertainment, despite sporadic showers.

“I grew up around here, and I feel like this is a celebration of what our community is,” said Olivia Varnston, an operations manager at a nonprofit. “This is who we are. I’m very happy this is happening.”


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