Vastina Nyiraguhirwa, 57, has been passionate about cooking since she owned a farming business with her late husband in the Congo, her home country. She now lives in Rogers Park, a block away from the Howard and Evanston Community Center (HECC), whose food pantry helps meet her family’s needs – and allows Vastina to enjoy her passion once again.
“I love to cook, I cook every day,” she said. “(The food pantry) gives me beans, oranges, and potatoes, which I love. They are foods we eat a lot in my country.”
Vastina and her seven children fled the war in their country in 2008. After living in a refugee camp in Uganda for eight years, they immigrated to Chicago. “It was very hard to come here,” she said. “But I wanted a better life for myself and for my kids.” Shortly after arriving in Chicago, she discovered the HECC, where she has built a community for herself.
The HECC is located in Rogers Park, one of Chicago’s most ethnically and culturally diverse neighborhoods. The people they serve come from 44 different countries and speak 41 languages. Vastina first visited the HECC to enroll in English classes, one of the many services they offer. There, she learned about their weekly food pantry, which she has been visiting regularly ever since.
“This food helps me because I am sick and cannot work, so it’s hard to find the money sometimes to buy food,” she said. “I am very thankful for the food I get here. It’s healthy and good quality.”
As a longtime resident, Vastina has become a well-known figure in her community. She refers recent immigrants and refugees that she meets to the HECC and has become a guide to them over the years. With her knowledge of seven languages, she is able to communicate with recent immigrants and help connect them to resources.
“Everybody knows me here,” she said of the food pantry. “This is my home.”
The HECC, with its roots tracing back to 1967, stands as a testament to the power of community. It was founded as a food pantry in partnership with the Food Depository by parishioners from St. Jerome Roman Catholic Church. It was started in response to the needs of newly arrived immigrants and has been a lifeline for countless people arriving in Rogers Park and Evanston ever since.
Silvina Mammani, director of the food pantry, started working at the HECC in 1994. She appreciates the diverse needs of the community they serve and is grateful to the Food Depository for their intentionality in meeting the needs of their guests. "The Food Depository lets us request food which is great because we get to ask our clients what they like to eat, and we request those foods for them," she said. "People from different cultures have different dietary needs, so it is very helpful for them."
“I am grateful for the Food Depository because I noticed how they were growing according to the needs of the diverse communities, and I appreciate the effort they put into providing food for people.”
Mammani emphasizes the need for food pantries in a time of elevated food prices. “People are here because they are looking for a better way to live – better opportunity for their families. Often times, people tell me that if they didn’t have this food, they wouldn’t be able to afford their medication. Food pantries are a necessity.”
The HECC continues to serve as a beacon of hope for newcomers, offering them not just food but a sense of belonging. “Working here, you have the opportunity to meet new faces every day,” says Mammani. “If you see people entering with a frown on their face and leaving with a smile, that’s the greatest feeling. That’s what has kept me here for 29 years.”
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