Earlier this month, Angela Okafor made history. She's believed to be the first immigrant and person of color elected to the Bangor City Council. Okafor's journey to elected office has required her to navigate numerous barriers in order to make a living in Maine. And now she's dedicated to supporting other immigrants in an overwhelmingly white area of the state.
Angela Okafor's small shop, called Tropical Tastes and Styles, is a bit hidden, behind a music store along Harlow Street in downtown Bangor.
"We're going to tamper with a little bit of it. We don't have a ton." On a recent afternoon, Okafor is braiding a hair weave for a local woman sitting near the front window. Nearby, Okafor's daughter zooms on a razor scooter through shelves of international food. Racks of clothing line the wall. And near the back is a small law office that Okafor also operates.
While it can be busy, she says it's become a place that immigrants seek out for food - and connection.
"To me this is more than just a business," Okafor says. "Like I said, this is more of a community. If you look over there, you see a collection of winter clothing that I collect. And for me, I grew up struggling. I struggled a lot growing up. So right now I feel privileged. I'm very religious, and I feel blessed."
A shop like this didn't exist in Bangor when Okafor and her husband moved here about a dozen years ago. They grew up in Nigeria, and emigrated to the city on a work visa.
The move was hard, Okafor says. Accents and language barriers made it tough to communicate. And she says as one of few immigrants in a new, very white region of the state, people put up walls that made it tough to feel comfortable.
"Being, especially like me, coming from away, not seeing people like myself," she says. "And you know, people are like, still kind of scoping at you, like, 'Who is that one? Are we even safe around?' You know?"
And just as big of a challenge, says Okafor, was overcoming barriers to work. She had already earned a law degree in her home country. But she says she had to pass the bar exam in New York because of difficulties transferring her credentials in Maine.
And even when she finally did get admitted, Okafor says it was nearly impossible to get her foot in the door. She applied to all kinds of jobs in the legal field, but says she was either told she was overqualified or needed, quote, "Maine experience."
It's a struggle for many immigrants, she says. "Being frustrated is beyond the description. I feel free to talk about this now because I am my own employer. But imagine a lot of other people who go through that, but cannot speak up. And yet we are here, and we are talking about a workforce shortage."
Eventually, fed up with the job search, Okafor launched her own practice, specializing in immigration. She got help from her church, which let her use a spare office.
"So I would go in there and consult. And I can take my papers and go wherever and work. I could work out of the library. I could come here and work on my case, anywhere I could be. There was a time I drove down to Portland, and I consulted in my car. So I was just doing anything I could."
It was a lot of work. But Okafor says she was prepared to do more. While Bangor's immigrant population has grown in recent years, it's still tiny compared to a city like Portland or Boston.
And at one point, Okafor noticed that many immigrants were leaving the Bangor area for other cities because they missed being able to find foods or other goods from their home countries.
"And I'm like, how can I actually do this so that people will stop moving?" she says. "Because I really didn't like that they were moving away. And the thoughts came: What if I can get food? Because food is a big thing."
"So we have tons of things. This is from Asia, Phillipines," Okafor says, pointing to the results of her decision to do something about the issue three years ago.
Okafor opened Tropical Tastes, carrying foods from across the world. And as demand for certain goods and services has expanded, so has her business. She even taught herself hair weaving and African braiding after hearing that some local women were driving hours for those services.
Regular customer Emmanuel Asare says the shop has helped him feel more comfortable in a city where he often felt out of place. Asare moved to Bangor about three years ago.
"I felt like I was somewhere different, because of color," Asare says. "You wouldn't see a whole lot of black people around."
But Asare says when he visits the shop and picks up meat or fufu, a West African dish, he feels more at home. "Sometimes you just want to feel the home things. In the whole of Bangor, this is the only place you will feel like there is a store that you can go in that has what you've been buying way back in Africa, or something like that. Or where you have a lot of African community."
"Sometimes people come in here, initially, they are scared," Okafor says. And Okafor says over time, the shop became more than just a store. It also earned a reputation as a trusted place for immigrants seeking assistance or services - or connections to others in the community.
"They're like, 'Thank you, thank you. That this person connected me or, the other person connected me,'" Okafor says. "Or the community I connected them to is like, 'Oh, thank you.' And it's really very refreshing. And, like I said, it did not cost me a dime. That is the beauty of it."
In her new role as city councilor, Okafor says she hopes to rely on her experience as an immigrant and business owner who spent years navigating a complicated system. Bangor City Council Chair Clare Davitt says that perspective will be important as the city takes up major issues such as transit and housing over the next few years.
"And then to have her knowledge of law, and as a small business owner, that representation matters so much, especially as we are losing workforce and trying to rebuild that," Davitt says.
Okafor says she wants to focus her energies on bolstering that workforce, and on improving public transportation, which she says can make the city more accessible for working families.
Originally published Dec. 2, 2019 at 8:21 a.m. ET.