COLUMBIA — Piles of home-cooked meals quickly disappeared outside of Broadway Christian Church on Saturday afternoon, their tantalizing smells evaporating as families from nations worldwide came together to celebrate their former refugee status.
World Refugee Day, a celebration to promote awareness of refugees worldwide, occurs every year on June 20. The early festivities included a cultural potluck, as well as a puppet show and various arts and crafts activities for kids. Children of all ages clustered around a table, picking up pots and paper to paint on.
One boy, 11-year-old Aimable Ngwakana, held a long white sheet down with his thumb to keep the wind from carrying it away. Although visually impaired, Aimable can still distinguish the colors he uses. His long, angular strokes filled the page with his favorite colors, blue and yellow.
Aimable’s family initially fled the conflict in Rwanda, moving to the Democratic Republic of Congo. His brother, Muhire, and his father, Leonard, also suffer from visual impairment. Leonard Ngwakana, 43, speaks little English, but fellow refugee Venant Nduwayo translated for him.
Leonard Ngwakana and his family found little refuge in the Democratic Republic of Congo, another war-ravaged country. His family, including his wife and five children, relocated to the United States nearly a year ago.
Upon their arrival, Leonard Ngwakana underwent surgery for a heart condition, a problem that had begun in his homeland. Although he still takes medication, his health has improved considerably, and he says he is happy to be in America, a place where the problems he faced in Africa no longer trouble him.
Venant Nduwayo, 23, faced similar struggles. Born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nduwayo lived there until the age of 9 before fleeing to the refugee camps in Tanzania. Life in Tanzania was far different from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where residents had only themselves to depend on for food and shelter.
In contrast, Tanzanian refugees relied on the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. Residents of the camp were not allowed to leave without permission; traveling anywhere required papers detailing the location and reason for their departure. The Tanzanian government struggled with the large number of refugees staying in the country, and the UNHCR stepped in and helped relocate many of them.
In September of 2007, Nduwayo and his family were able to move to the United States. Nduwayo wants to follow in his father’s footsteps and learn carpentry. He is applying to Job Corps, and hopes to land a spot in Kentucky to explore construction, cement masonry and plumbing. He also wants to get a GED certificate, which he was unable to attain earlier because of age restrictions and complications with his citizenship.
Although he will miss his family, Nduwayo looks forward to his time with Job Corps. He is motivated to find work he enjoys and build a future for himself in America.
For younger refugees, the transition into a new life can be an easier process.
Sisters Triphonie Hafashimana, 15, Evangeline Irafasha, 12, and Rahabu Ombamungu, 11, are currently enrolled in public school in Columbia.
Their parents were originally from Burundi but had to flee to the Democratic Republic of Congo because of the ethnic-based civil war in Burundi during the 1990s. The family moved again to a refugee camp in Tanzania, where they lived before they traveled to the United States in September 2007.
The plane ride was scary for Evangeline because she said she didn’t know what was holding it up in the sky.
After landing in Kansas City, the family made their way to Columbia and have settled in; the girls have big hopes for the future.
Triphonie has an interest in physics and said it is her favorite science class. Her ultimate goal, though, is to be an actress. She wants to move to Hollywood and become a movie star.
The sisters are energetic, talkative and funny. Sarcastic comments pepper every conversation they have, and a striking maturity emanates from them.
The overall theme of the festival was the celebration of new life and new opportunities. With the community’s help, the transition for refugees from around the world has been made easier in Columbia. As Burmese men and women helped pack away the food, and African children assisted the organizers with putting away the puppet show stage, the day ended with the same energy with which it began.
Nancy Roe, a frequent volunteer with refugees in Columbia, thinks it is important for the community to get a diverse view of the world. It's equally significant to get a sense of the trauma people have endured, Roe said.
“They come from a rich culture,” Roe said. “We have a lot to learn from them.”