COLUMBIA — The spotlight on Sifa Bihomora lit the stage, illuminating a sign behind the singer that read, “The time is always right to do what is right.”
Bihomora, 19, performed a blend of soul and jazz music in front of the packed audience at Cafe Berlin on Tuesday night as a part of the Refugee Community Showcase, which aimed to raise money to help resettle new refugees in the mid-Missouri area. Tuesday was World Refugee Day, part of a United Nations effort to commemorate the strength of refugees worldwide.
In a night filled with storytelling, spoken word and live music, the Columbia community gathered to recognize both the strife and success of local refugees. Bihomora hoped the event would be informative but also encourage folks to empathize with the refugee community.
“Nobody wakes up and says, ‘I’m going to be in this predicament,’” Bihamora said. “It could be you. It could be your cousin.”
Bihomara is the daughter of two Rwandan refugees. The majority of her family was killed in the 1994 Rwandan Genocide. Bihomara’s grandmother and six of her aunts and uncles were killed in the 100-day slaughter.
Bihomara recalled hearing about a conversation between her two aunts, one who survived and one who was murdered.
“My aunt told her, ‘You have to get out of there. It’s going to be bad,’” Bihomara said. “She responded with ‘That’s not going to happen.” The aunt who remained in Rwanda died in the massacres.
Her family’s tragedy, though, has helped her develop a tenacious attitude toward music, Bihomara said.
“I cannot quit after knowing what they have gone through,” Bihomara said.
This was the first year of the showcase, which was organized by Cafe Berlin and Refugee and Immigration Services, which operates under the Catholic Charities of Central and Northern Missouri. Refugee services provides incoming refugees their first shelter and other necessities to get their feet on the ground in the U.S. It resettles an average of 137 refugees a year in the area, but last year the organization helped almost a hundred more than average, volunteer coordinator Alex Ringling said.
In 2016, the United States admitted 84,995 refugees — the most since 1999 — with the highest numbers coming from the Democratic Republic of Congo, according to the Pew Research Center.
Audience members were encouraged to make a donation at the door, which would go toward resettling refugees in the mid-Missouri area. Performers took to the stage with messages of strife, fighting for freedom and empowerment through personal experiences, as well as Middle Eastern tales. Justice McGhee, a spoken word artist, evoked an audience response with lines of emotional poetry.
“Raise your fist in freedom,” McGhee said. “Let us speak in colors.”
Audience members answered his performance with their fists held in the air.
The purpose of the showcase was also to connect outside communities with the refugee and immigrant populations and welcome those who want to show their support, volunteer Lillian Edwards said.
“It’s not just this binary between refugees and non-refugees,” Edwards said. “There’s not this extreme divide that separates us. We are a community.”
After seeing the event on Facebook, Michael Yenzer decided to attend. Yenzer, who has lived in Columbia for six years, said he was unaware of how large the refugee community in Columbia is.
"Western civilization has kind of created some of the plight of refugees," Yenzer said. "These are humans, just like we are. We need to care for them."
The event fell during Ramadan, a holy month for Muslims commemorating the first revelation of the Quran to Muhammad. The 30 days are marked by fasting from dawn until sunset. The performances were scheduled to end just as the sun went down, so that practicing Muslims could break fast.
As the acts concluded, volunteers set up a buffet catered by the Olive Branch Cafe, a local restaurant owned by a family from Jordan.
Illuminated by the sunset, the people gathered for one of the most unifying acts of all: having a meal.
Supervising editor John Sadler.