Latré Sibi arrived in Maine from Gabon over a year ago, leaving the life she knew to start again in state where she didn’t know anyone. Today, she’s filling her home with new friendships and a table handcrafted by furniture maker Chris H. Becksvoort, who himself emigrated from Germany when he was 6.
The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live.
—“Perhaps the World Ends Here” a poem by Joy Harjo, 1951
Latré Sibi peers around the corner, hands perched on hips, as volunteers maneuver the 40-inch cherrywood round table through the doorway and down the narrow hallway to meet her. The volunteers are with Furniture Friends, a nonprofit organization that collects and donates furniture. The room is sparse. Her living room windows cast a cool light throughout the space, further exaggerating its vacancy.
Sibi arrived from Gabon over a year ago and for the first time today fills her modest home with furniture. Jenn McAdoo, executive director of Furniture Friends, stands beside her and excitedly points to the engraving on the underside of the table: Chris H. Becksvoort, New Gloucester ME April 2018. With her characteristic soft tone, McAdoo explains that Becksvoort is a local furniture maker, “a true craftsman,” she says. Becksvoort has been making furniture since he was just 12 years old. He uses native, sustainably harvested wood and only the finest hardware available. He designs, constructs, sands and finishes each piece himself.
“The handmade pieces really stand out for me,” McAdoo says. Over the past four years, three local woodworkers have crafted pieces for Furniture Friends, “and for people they’ll never meet,” McAdoo continues. “They’re sharing their craft, investing significant time and talent to create something beautiful and functional for the sheer joy of giving it away.”
Furniture Friends’ clients all share the fact that they’re economically disadvantaged. They represent individuals who are homeless, those living with physical and developmental disabilities, individuals struggling with substance use disorder, veterans, newly arriving immigrants and survivors of intimate partner violence. Furniture Friends works with over 130 social service providers. In 2017, they served 551 households, nearly 1,400 clients and about half of whom were children, a 30 percent increase from 2016. Over 200 volunteers donated over 3,400 hours of service and 600 individuals donated furniture. And their waitlist is ever growing.
Sibi ponders who her first dinner guests will be. She didn’t know anyone when she first arrived. When leaving Gabon, she had little time to plan. She offered abrupt goodbyes to family and friends, left her career as an accountant and boarded a plane to Maine. She spent her first nights at Oxford Street Shelter. She remembers fearfully lying awake burrowed beneath blankets, peering out only occasionally to check her surroundings. “There were two older women there who took care of me though,” she recalls. They were homeless themselves and she never learned their stories as her English was too broken, but she trusted them, she tells me, “they watched out for me.”
Sibi’s invite list is as eclectic as it is inclusive. In her short time here, she’s become well woven into Portland’s vibrant social fabric. Those on her list include fellow salsa and kizomba dancers, the older women she sings with in her church choir, her many friends from Portland Adult Education and the women she’s met through the local non-profit In Her Presence. IHP was founded by and for newly arriving immigrant women to help them orient, get their footing and find their voices. “When a woman moves to a new place, she has to start everything over. It can feel like swimming without direction,” co-founder Claudette Ndayininahaze explains. “IHP creates a platform where these women can recreate a new sense of life, confidence and leadership.” Sibi was just awarded their “Woman of the Year.”
“Perhaps I’ll make La Suculente!” Sibi exclaims. In addition to work as an accountant, Sibi also ran a successful restaurant in Gabon. La Suculente was her creation and the most popular item on the menu—roasted pork cutlet, mixed vegetables and a lemon, orange, ginger sauce with freshly ground fleur de lorie, chilli peppers and berbere spice. “I cook each vegetable separate. Then I roast everything together. It was…..well, succulent!” she says, bringing her fingers to her lips to kiss the air. “And for dessert, we’ll have Sibi’s special flan.”
Sibi feels the absence of her family daily. Their celebration of Gabonese Independence Day would last three days or more. Each province featured a slightly different menu. Her family roasted banana leaf pockets over open fire. The fillings might include poisson salée (salted fish) with palm oil, bitter greens and nyembwe (palm nut sauce), served alongside other smoked meats, parfum rice or sweet plantain bananas. They’d offer wine and thanks to their ancestors and celebrate through traditional song, dance, and drumming.
Just one week prior in New Gloucester, Chris Becksvoort leans onto the table that now stands in Becksvoort’s home. His woodshop is humble in size, but replete with woodworking tools skillfully organized. It smells of woodchips and pine. “We always ate together as a family,” he says, recounting spaghetti Wednesdays and Sunday morning woodstove pancakes. “Eating together creates a special bonding that’s important, I feel.” He and his wife, now a retired librarian, raised two children here in Maine. They ate at a 48-inch round table not too dissimilar from the one he now gives to Sibi. “Shakers, with their 20-foot tables, they all ate together too, as whole communities,” he shares.
Though Becksvoort himself is not Shaker, there’s much he admires about their simple living, work ethic and pacifist ideologies. He has repaired and built Shaker furniture for years and continues to be the primary repairman for the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village. Function always supersedes ornateness and embellishment in Shaker design, he says. Charles Dickens called the furniture “severe” for its simplicity and sharp edges, but it’s precisely this that gives it a modern appeal. The incredible diligence, attentiveness, and expertise commonly attributed to Shaker work is prevalent throughout Chris’ work as well.
Becksvoort spreads an old European map across the table and points to the Becksvoort farm, just two kilometers from the Dutch border where he can trace his own roots to 1604. His family emigrated from Germany when he was just 6. His father ran a woodworking and remodeling business just outside Washington D.C. “It was work work work, do whatever it takes.” Though Becksvoort can now reflect on the joy he feels joining two pieces of wood or conjuring a new design, this is not how he felt as a 12-year-old immigrant boy. “All that’s going on, the politics, it’s just dragging me down. We can’t go back in time. We have to keep moving forward.”
Many of the clients Furniture Friends serve are newly arriving immigrants. It’s not uncommon they arrive with only a suitcase and their traveling clothes, particularly those who are seeking asylum. Fleeing war-torn countries, religious persecution or other austere and immediate threats, there’s often little time to prepare. Bags may contain just a handful of clothes and a few photographs.
“My table is perfect,” Sibi says. “I think I will keep it all my life here.” Sibi enjoys living in Portland. The cobblestone streets remind her of Rennes, France, where she’d sometimes visit on holiday. She finds Maine people to be kind, gracious and welcoming. Sibi continues her adult education courses, her many hobbies and volunteers to help others beginning new lives here. “I don’t have a choice but to succeed.”
Meg Webster works at UNE’s School of Social Work, where she coordinates media and recruitment projects. As a freelance media artist, she’s produced a variety of multicultural advocacy shorts, exhibited in galleries and periodically writes multicultural narrative pieces for Maine publications.