Growing up in Tehran, Arshia Amirhakimi had a sketchbook filled with pencil drawings of everyday objects, such as soda cans and salt and pepper shakers. All she had was natural talent and a love of art -- no formal training. So it came as something of a surprise to her family when she submitted her sketchbook to one of Iran's most prestigious art schools and was admitted -- into an accelerated class, no less.
Amirhakimi, 30, who moved to the United States in 2001, is now a professional artist. Her tools: an easel strategically propped in the dining room of her Reston townhouse -- safe from the hands of her curious 2-year-old son -- and a box of 100 colored pencils.
Like her tools, Amirhakimi's subjects have evolved. Today, she draws women wearing colorful head scarves, villagers in costume and ornate mosque doors. The vibrant people and places in her drawings evoke memories of her homeland -- and often misunderstood aspects of Iranian culture.
"Some people have the wrong impression about my country," said Amirhakimi, whose work will be featured next Sunday at the Bluemont Multicultural Festival, which is aimed at raising awareness of Loudoun County's growing diversity.
The event, co-sponsored by the Bluemont Concert Series and the Loudoun Human Services Network's Diversity Group, will feature art, food, music and dance from various cultures.
"We have a very different community now than we had 20 years ago," said festival co-director Catherine Motivans, who grew up in India and Nigeria, where her father worked for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). "This is about taking the focus away from [ideas that] 'all Latinos are in gangs' and 'these people need to learn English.' "
Although the county remains predominantly white -- about 83 percent -- particularly in comparison with neighboring Fairfax County and the District, many immigrants are attracted to the large number of government and telecommunications jobs in Loudoun, said Clark Draper, a county demographer. Housing prices in Loudoun are still lower than in some of the closer-in suburbs, he noted.
The influx isn't likely to stop anytime soon. Loudoun is the third fastest growing county in the nation and was the sixth fastest in terms of job creation last year.
The county's 247,000 residents include people from more than 100 countries. According to county government statistics, 7 percent of the population is Hispanic, which includes immigrants from El Salvador, Peru and elsewhere in Central and South America, and Asians make up 5 percent. The Hispanic population has grown 368 percent since 1990 and the Asian population 337 percent, the data show.
The Diversity Group promotes awareness about Loudoun's minorities through educational events. It hosted a panel discussion in April, for example, called "African Voices: Personal Stories and Cultural Differences" that featured immigrants from Nigeria, Cameroon and the Republic of the Congo.
Participants at next Sunday's festival will represent a range of cultures: There will be an Irish tartan weaver, an Argentinean salsa maker, a Chinese folk dance troupe and representatives of the Bahai faith who are building a worship center on Route 7 in eastern Loudoun. Food will be provided by La Chocita, a traditional Central and South American restaurant in Leesburg.
About one-third of the vendors will be from outside Loudoun.
"We decided we wouldn't limit ourselves to just Loudoun; . . . it would be okay if they lived in the general D.C. metro area," Motivans said. "They may live there and work here. We mix with different cultures each day in the places that we live and the cities that we work. We tried to target people from Loudoun, but then other people were excited to help us promote the event."
The popularity and increasing number of ethnic restaurants, such as La Chocita, are an indication of the county's diversification, said festival co-director Laura Valle.
Diversity is also evident in the public school system, where students speak more than 77 languages, including Spanish, Tagalog and Farsi. To better serve non-native English speakers, the school system recently opened a parents liaison office that hires foreign language speakers as go-betweens for parents and school officials.
Public schools have also made a point of being sensitive to diverse religions, accommodating students who observe such holidays as Ramadan. School officials have also set up cultural nights, where children and their families can learn about different cultures through food and discussion, said Wayde Byard, public information officer for Loudoun public schools.
The county government has hired bilingual employees and interpreters and offers Spanish language courses to its workers.
The increasing number of children from immigrant families in the county's youth soccer leagues is also indicative of changing demographics.
"It makes sense," Valle said. "[Soccer] is the most popular sport worldwide."
The leagues have recently stepped up efforts to recruit immigrants, many of whom are already avid fans and good players. But language barriers often get in the way.
"As we continue with this fast growth, we want to make people feel like a community," said Peter Dunning, executive director of the Bluemont Concert Series. "[The festival] is an opportunity to open up some avenues of communication."
The Bluemont Multicultural Festival begins at 6 p.m. next Sunday at Freedom Park at the corner of Evergreen Mill Road and Tolbert Lane in Leesburg. $5; $4 for Bluemont Friends and seniors; $2 for children 12 and younger. 703-737-8977 or 703-777-6306.