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From the soccer pitch to the paper mill, Jamaicans find a home in northern Maine

Soccer coach Oniqueky Samuels stands the lawn at the University of Maine at Fort Kent.
Ari Snider
Maine Public
Oniqueky Samuels is the head coach of the men's soccer team, a teacher, and an international academic advisor at UMFK. He says Fort Kent is a good place to raise a family, which has made it an attractive place for him and other Jamaican alumni to settle down.

On a recent Saturday evening at the University of Maine at Fort Kent, Rajay Maragh hastily directed the finishing touches of the third annual Taste of Jamaica celebration, delivering instructions in both English and Jamaican Patois.

Maragh is from Kingston, Jamaica’s capital city, and is also president of the student activities board, which puts on the event. He said this year they prepared to host up to 100 students – of all national backgrounds - for a night of music, games, and food on a grassy corner of campus overlooking the Fish River.

"The important thing for Taste of Jamaica this year was the culture," Maragh said. "So that's why [we have] the lights the music, the tables, the colors, like we wanted them to know this is Jamaica."

Maragh has been the driving force behind Taste of Jamaica since its inception – but he said the fact that he’s even here in Fort Kent is the result of a big misunderstanding. He said he enrolled at UMFK under the impression that he was actually heading to the UMaine system’s flagship school in Orono, a much bigger and more urban university.

"Only to land in Presque Isle, you know, and I realized, okay, check the thing again, and I realized, oh, it's UMFK, there are several UMaine schools," Maragh remembered.

Three people wearing black shirts stand behind a table covered in food dishes.
Ari Snider
Rajay Maragh, center, helps set up for the event. Maragh is the driving force behind Taste of Jamaica.

But as it turned out, the person who drove him from the airport to Fort Kent was also from Jamaica. That was Maragh’s first hint that, unwittingly, he’d stumbled right into a far-flung corner of the Jamaican diaspora.

"And so it was kinda good to know that at least I have a couple Jamaicans," Maragh said. "You know I’m not just the one Jamaican in northern Maine standing here with the moose and the deer."

The University of Maine at Fort Kent is home to around 25 Jamaican students, and that doesn’t count Jamaican coaches, staff, and alumni who’ve settled in the area after graduating. By way of comparison, the much larger UMaine in Orono is home to three international students from Jamaica this year.

While Maragh may have ended up at UMFK by accident, other students are well aware of the school’s island connection before they arrive.

"It’s been a while since I wasn’t around Jamaicans so I was feeling a bit lonely," said Brittney Thompson, a junior studying behavioral science. "So that was the major force for me to come here as well."

Thompson completed an associate’s degree in Texas before enrolling at UMFK, and said being around other students from her country has eased that loneliness.

"Being here with them it feels more like home," she said. "We have our small gatherings and parties, we chill out with each other. We have the same cultural background so we understand each other."

Students eating at picnic tables under strings of tiny Jamaican flags
Ari Snider
The third Taste of Jamaica brought together students of all national backgrounds for food, games, and dancing.

Like many of her peers, Thompson was also drawn to Fort Kent by the school’s soccer program, which has played a significant role in fostering a Jamaican community on campus and beyond. A lot of that is thanks to the work of men’s head coach Oniqueky Samuels.

"I've recruited students here going on probably seven or eight years now, and now they're living in the community," Samuels said.

Samuels came to UMFK as an undergrad in 2007, and said at the time he was one of only a handful of Jamaican students. He now teaches classes and serves as an international academic advisor in addition to coaching soccer.

One of the reasons that he’s decided to settle down here, Samuels said, is that Fort Kent is a good town for his six-year-old son to grow up in.

"The low-key life you know, where you can work and come home early and relax," he said. "And you know, if you have little ones, you can spend time with your little ones and you kind of feel that your little ones are safe."

Over the years, Samuels said he’s seen the Jamaican community grow, both through his own soccer recruiting efforts and through the decisions of many alumni to stick around and take jobs locally, whether at the university, the hospital, or the paper mill in Madawaska.

"That's the beauty of it," Samuels said. "When they stay, they’re all qualified. You know they all have their degrees."

Two students stand on a makeshift wood pallet dancefloor, calling to their friends who are out of the frame.
Ari Snider
Students Cheva Denton, left, and Tarece Lawrence, both from Jamaica, take song requests from their friends.

As night fell, students gathered around picnic tables, tucking into heaping plates of jerk chicken, curry shrimp, and little cornmeal fritters called festivals.

Meanwhile, junior and honorary emcee Cheva Denton got a dance started, eliciting a cheer from the crowd.

With dancehall music blasting and the smell of jerk chicken drifting through the birch and spruce trees, Maragh said even for him it was kind of surprising to see the event take shape.

"If you look at it over there you're just going like, 'This is right here in Fort Kent, Maine?'" he said.

This was probably Maragh’s last Taste of Jamaica – he’s set to graduate at the end of this semester.

By all accounts, though, his stewardship of Taste of Jamaica ended on a high note. When he gave the five-minute notice to wrap up the music and singing, the students with the mic took his words as inspiration for their next freestyle, repeating the words "five minutes" over different beats.

Let's just say, the party may have continued for a bit more than five minutes.

A university student stands on a makeshift dancefloor made of wood pallets, under strings of small Jamaican flags.
Ari Snider
Junior and honorary emcee Cheva Denton looks to his friends as he selects the next song.