Minnesotans celebrate together at Twin Cities World Refugee Day

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Nicolette, an Iraqi rock band, and Amwaaj, a traditional Arabic music ensemble, were among the new performers to grace the stage at this year’s Twin Cities World Refugee Day, a locally organized festival that celebrates the diverse array of cultures represented by over 100,000 refugees living in Minnesota.

This year was also the first time that the event planning committee and volunteers collected stories from the attendees for the emcee to read aloud throughout the day.

“We’ve just been asking people what their experience as a refugee has been, and what it has been like coming to Minnesota. It’s been interesting to see the commonalities and the variety of experiences,” planning committee member, Alexis Walstad, said.

Walstad estimates around 800 to a 1,000 people came out for the festivities at Minnehaha Park on June 16. Besides the dancers, musicians, and spoken word artists on stage, 46 vendors from community health groups, resettlement agencies, and social service organizations set up tables to educate people about the resources available for them in the area.    

“Refugees are celebrating our lives. We are connecting with other refugees and getting the resources we need. There is beautiful, colorful clothing and dancing. We are sharing food and there is storytelling,” said Shegitu Kebede, co-owner of Flamingo Restaurant in St. Paul.

Kebede reserved an information table at the event as a way to raise awareness about the schools that she is helping to build for refugee camps in her home country of Ethiopia. She shared her table with friend and “Broken Dreams” documentary filmmaker, Fathia Absie. Together, they hope to encourage others in the community to attend their dessert, coffee, tea, and storytelling event at 5:30 pm on June 29 at Flamingo Restaurant.

Next to their table, Hend Al-Mansour, an Arab-American visual artist who studied at Cairo University and the Minneapolis College of Art & Design, was painting a henna tattoo on a woman’s hand.

“I met her [Hend Al-Mansour] a month ago. She’s so creative!” said Carol Lewis, one of the people enjoying the Twin Cities World Refugee Day activities.

Mohamed Ahmed, one of the four event chairs this year, just immigrated to Minnesota from Iraq about a year and a half ago.

“Today, you see here Hmong and Russian dancers. There is the magic of being one family here. I work for this festival to bring people together as one family. I wish all would love each other. Everybody here has this idea to love each other as a family,” he said.

Another 2012 event chair, Fatuma Elmi, came to Minnesota from Somalia 20 years ago. She has worked as an employment counselor at Lutheran Social Services for 17 years. This is Elmi’s third year volunteering for the Twin Cities World Refugee Day celebration.

“Every year I come and invite my clients. This kind of thing is always welcoming. It’s a good way to know your neighbor, and shows a united community. This is the most welcoming time of the year,” she said, “Minnesota Nice is not just a phrase. Minnesota is a welcoming, vibrant state. There is every kind of food here today. I love Minnesota. It is inclusive, and a sharing community.”

Many of the food vendors also came from refugee or immigrant backgrounds. Hoa Bien Vietnamese Restaurant, Asase Yaa, and Jubba Grill were all dishing up African and Asian cuisine. Sipra Jha, Executive Manager of Asian Women United of Minnesota, a nonprofit aimed at ending domestic violence through awareness and education, sat in a tent that offered face painting for the kids.

“This is an education tent talking about refugees and the immigration story through face painting and storytelling. There are Vietnamese, Laotian, and Korean stories represented here,” she said.

For Angelina Nguyen, an E-Democracy.org summer outreach intern, the best part about the day was the dancers. “Plus, the crowd is very diverse–not just in terms of ethnic groups, but generationally too. Some people have been here a long time and others are newer to this country. The groups are intercultural so that’s very good,” she said, “It’s a relaxed atmosphere and it’s constructive because of the resource fair.”

Volunteer and CAPI employee, Eleanore Nelson, loved seeing all the refugee communities enjoying the entertainment and eating food with their families. “This is what Minnesota is all about,” she said, “We’re all here together. We’re all here to enjoy what each of us brings.”

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