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Far from the Bahamas, Saint Leo University’s Bahamian students share a taste of home

Shaken by the devastation and toll of Hurricane Dorian, the Pasco County university’s students shared traditional dishes from home.

ST. LEO — The playful island beats of Rake 'n' Scrape and Junkanoo bounced over the speakers in the crowded Saint Leo University dining hall Tuesday.

While some students waited for their meal-plan dinner, others dressed in Bahamian yellow and light blue brought out pans of dishes, the smell of lime juice and crushed red pepper wafting in the air.

Students formed a long line, eager to grab a plate.

“Everybody is maybe not getting a belly full, but they’re getting a sample of home,” Giana Fernander, a business administration master’s student.

Hundreds of miles away from home, a small community of Bahamian students attend the Catholic university in Pasco County. There are more than 2,200 students on campus, and almost 150 are from the Bahamas.

For many, it’s their first time living outside of the islands. Some said Tuesday that they feel helpless being so far from their families and home country after Hurricane Dorian slammed into the islands of Grand Bahama and the Abaco this month, killing dozens and leaving hundreds missing.

RELATED STORY: Dorian has killed 44 in the Bahamas with hundreds still missing

The university held a vigil and prayer service on Sept. 5 for the hurricane’s victims. Individual counseling was made available to students. And to help the Bahamas, the university set up a relief drive for supplies, said university spokeswoman Mary McCoy.

The goal of Tuesday’s dinner was to give Bahamian students a sense of community after the hurricane and the comforts of home. The university’s dining services and Multicultural and International Services Office worked with the students to provide the Bahamian meal.

Saint Leo University executive chief and interim director of dinning services Justin Bush helps prepare Bahamian meals on Tuesday. The university hosted a dinner to support its Bahamian student population. [PAIGE FRY | Paige Fry]

Fernander, 24, from Nassau, was the student organizer. She worked with the school’s executive chief and interim director of dining services Justin Bush to get the ingredients they needed to make the traditional dishes.

“The university wanted to show that we were in solidarity with them,” Bush said.

RELATED STORY: Long scorned in the Bahamas, Haitians living there fear what comes next after Dorian

The menu included fried chicken wings, peas and rice, macaroni and cheese, potato salad, cracked conch, Johnny cake (a cornmeal flatbread) and a giant cake frosted with the aquamarine, black and gold colors of the Bahamian flag.

Saint Leo University graduate assistant Giana Fernander takes a photo of the Bahamian flag cake at Tuesday's comfort food dinner. Fernander helped organized the dinner to bring the university's Bahamian students together after Hurricane Dorian. [PAIGE FRY | TAMPA BAY TIMES]

Inside the university’s kitchen before Tuesday’s feast, about 20 students wore hairnets and black aprons as they prepared meals they had learned while growing up in the Bahamas. Aaron Smith, 20, of Nassau, showed off his plate of chicken wings, made from a recipe his aunt taught him.

Raygan Nairn, a 17-year-old freshman, came to the dinning hall homesick for her family in Nassau. But they were fortunate, she said. The worst was that an aunt in the Grand Bahamas who had some flooding around her home.

“It’s devastating. I would’ve never thought it would’ve hit the Bahamas,” she said. “I’m just thankful they’re bringing comfort here."

Brianelle Cartwright, a 35-year-old Saint Leo University health care administration sophomore, helps prepare conk for the university's Bahamian dinner Tuesday night. [PAIGE FRY | TAMPA BAY TIMES]

As Nairn got in line, Smith used tongs to serve his chicken wings, just the way his family enjoyed them every Monday.

More than 100 students gathered for Saint Leo’s Bahamian dinner, celebrating their culture, honoring those most affected by Dorian, and giving thanks for for those spared by the hurricane.

The Bahamas will rebuild, Nairn said.

“I don’t want people to think it’s a downfall (of the islands),” she said.