Refugees in Columbia celebrate their new home, remember their heritage

Saturday, July 20, 2013 | 9:02 p.m. CDT; updated 9:25 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 20, 2013
Refugees from countries around the world gathered Saturday evening at the Broadway Christian Church.

COLUMBIA — Parents from across the world watched their children play soccer, decorate flowerpots and run around a playground. Despite diverse backgrounds, they all gathered to celebrate and reflect on their refugee status.

About 100 community members gathered Saturday evening at the Broadway Christian Church for a World Refugee Day Festival. The Refugee and Immigration Services Catholic Charities and the Adult Learning Center held the event to generate awareness and support for refugee families. This was the agency’s fifth annual celebration. The event included a potluck dinner, a tour of the nearby community garden, sports activities, crafts and live entertainment.

A variety of different countries were represented and many of the attendees spoke in their native language. Refugees from Burma, Iraq, Eritrea, China and other far-flung places shared stories from their pasts and hopes for their futures.

Khalid Mohammed moved from his home county of Iraq nearly four years ago. He currently works as a bus driver for Tiger Line and plans to take the American citizenship test next year. 

"It's a new life with a different style, but it's a good place to raise my kids," Mohammed said at the event.   

World Refugee Day, observed each year on June 20, was established by the United Nations to recognize refugees worldwide who were forced to flee their homes due to persecution, violence or conflict. This year, the World Refugee Day Festival in Columbia was delayed for one month because the Refugee and Immigration Services office manager was unavailable in June, saidKatie Freehling, job developer and analyst for the agency.

“We hold a local celebration to honor refugees and show respect for the sacrifices they’ve made,” said Freehling. “It’s also a chance for the community to connect with refugees living in Columbia.”

Each year, the U.N. announces a goal for World Refugee Day. The 2013 goal was to share refugee stories with the community to generate awareness and support. Several refugee families shared their accounts throughout the event.

“For me, it’s good for us to come together tonight to remember our lives before we were refugees,” said Solomon Hadara, a Refugee and Immigration Services caseworker and former refugee from Eritrea. “It’s important to remember what it means to be a refugee.”

In addition to his work as a caseworker, Hadara is a student at Columbia College, studying computer science and nursing. He spends much of his free time running and playing guitar.

Hadara’s friend, Antoine Moukouabi, a refugee from the Congo, adds that refugees should remember the past, but also have hope for the future.

“In America, everyone is free,” Moukouabi said. “If you work hard, you can do everything you want to do. You can change your life for yourself.”

Clare Melick, an ESL teacher, was invited to the event by her six Burmese students. She has taught hundreds of international students, but admires the hope and determination of her refugee students. As an example, Melick said, two of her refugee students work long night shifts but still take ESL classes, sometimes in their pajamas, after only three hours of sleep.

“They’re struggling,” she said, “but they’re making the best with what they have.”

Supervising editor is Zachary Matson.

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