Chasing the American Dream one beef kebab at a time
By Heather Graves
GREEN BAY – Growing up in Aneho, a small city in Togo, West Africa, 26-year-old Talahatou Soulemane never imagined he’d end up living in the United States, let alone working toward becoming an American citizen.
At just 19 years old, Soulemane left his home and traveled more than 5,700 miles, embarking on a journey that would eventually lead him to Green Bay.
Though growing up a Green Bay Packers fan, Soulemane said he didn’t actually know where Green Bay was until he made the decision to move here.
“I like Green Bay because I was a Packers fan since Africa,” he said. “I never knew the Packers were in Green Bay until I Googled about Green Bay when I was coming here.”
Speaking little English when he arrived in Chicago seven years ago, Soulemane enrolled in English as a Second Language (ESL) classes.
“It took me time, like, five years to start understanding what people from here were saying,” he said. “Sometimes I wanted to talk, but I just kept (quiet) because I didn’t know what to say.”
Soulemane credits the support he received from friends and his ESL teacher for his success.
“Everyone around me and my teacher helped me,” he said. “Now, I can speak properly and understand what people are saying. I’m so grateful to them.”
Soulemane now speaks five languages – French, Hausa, Ewe, Zerma and English.
After being laid off from his job at a furniture manufacturing company in Chicago, a suggestion from a friend who recently moved to Green Bay prompted his move to the area nearly two years ago.
“The company that I was working for in Illinois laid off a lot of their employees, including me,” he said. “My friend posted a picture on Facebook and the location on the picture said Green Bay, Wisconsin. I contacted him and he told me to come. There’s a lot of work around here and a lot of opportunities. I didn’t hesitate, and said ‘Let’s give it a try.’”
Without a place to stay or employment, Soulemane made the move to Green Bay.
He found a place to live and a job at a meatpacking plant within days.
In addition, he now works as an Uber Eats and DoorDash driver.
Now here, he said Titletown is the perfect fit for him.
“People are friendly,” Soulemane said. “I have a lot of people here in Green Bay. People treat you like a family.”
His love of food
Cooking is in Soulemane’s blood.
Both his father and grandmother own restaurants back in Africa.
“I grew up in the kitchen seeing my family cooking every day,” he said. “So when I came here, in the U.S. I cooked for my friends, and all the time they told me to open a restaurant.”
It was the support from his friends that prompted him to share his talents with the community and start selling his African-inspired food at the Military Avenue Farmers Market.
“A lot of people like my food, especially my beef kebab,” Soulemane said. “People love it, so I decided to try.”
A friend helped him get a license and connected him with those in charge of the Military Avenue Farmers Market.
Now, from 2-7 p.m. every Thursday, he sets up shop and shares his African dishes with the patrons of the market.
He said the beef kebabs are a hit.
Soulemane said he hopes to one day open an African restaurant in Green Bay.
Soulemane is currently here on a green card but is actively working toward becoming an American citizen.
“Right now, I’m practicing for the test,” he said. “I’m planning for the appointment in September.”
Once his citizenship is approved, Soulemane hopes to help some family members realize their own American Dream and come to the U.S.
“I will see with my naturalization if I can help them by bringing some of them here,” he said.
Since arriving in America, Soulemane said there is much he’s had to adapt to.
“First of all, it’s the weather,” he said. “In Africa, we only have one season – summer. It’s always nice. That was the first major change, the cold. I’m still not used to it.”
Even though he spent years in Chicago before coming to Green Bay in December 2019, Soulemane never experienced fireworks until this past Fourth of July.
“I had never seen fireworks in my entire life before, even back in Illinois,” he said. “I recorded a video and sent it to my family. It was my best day in Green Bay. It meant so much to me because I had never seen something beautiful and amazing like that. My mom liked it, too. I can’t explain how much that meant to me.”