Far from home, but not without hope

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All that’s left of Phuoc Tran’s life in Vietnam fits inside a small red box. Among its contents are the shirt she wore on her five-day ocean voyage from Saigon to Malaysia and a handkerchief she was embroidering when she suddenly left home.

“I’m never going to finish it,” Tran said. “I keep it this way as a reminder.”

Tran used these objects in her storytelling performance at the Twin Cities’ first community-wide World Refugee Day celebration June 20 at the Brian Coyle Community Center in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood.

This is the first year the Twin Cities have participated in the international day of remembrance, originally established by the United Nations in 2000.

Tran, who is now a librarian at University and Hennepin County Libraries, was one of many performers at the event.

Throughout the afternoon, performers from Somalia, Laos, Sierra Leone and other countries shared their cultures through music, dance and storytelling on three stages.

Tran’s daughter, Thuy Nguyen-Tran, was among those performers. The biochemistry sophomore performed with her Vietnamese dance group. She said her parents, who both fled violence in Vietnam to pursue education in the United States, inspire her with their sacrifices and hard work.

“My parents’ stories are something you read in history books. It’s hard to wrap my mind around it,” Nguyen-Tran said. “But it motivates me.”

The event also featured a speaker series.

East African girls in sparkly hijabs danced on folding chairs to the music of Burmese performers. As the music died down keynote speaker Hugh Parmer took the stage.

As president of the American Refugee Committee, a Minneapolis-based international refugee aid organization, he stressed the importance of refugee aid.

“If you go to any refugee camp around the world and you ask people, ‘what is your greatest desire?’ they don’t say, ‘I want to come to America,’ … they say, ‘I want to go home,’ ” Parmer said. “And so that’s what we try to help them do.”

The committee estimates there are 21 million internally displaced people – people who flee home but don’t cross international borders – and 12 million refugees worldwide.

But many of these people never get to return home.

For refugees trying to make a new life in the Twin Cities, the event included a resource fair.

Amano Dube works for Pillsbury United Communities, a Minneapolis social aid organization. He helped coordinate the resource fair, which included information on housing, health, jobs, education and legal advice for immigrants and refugees.

As a refugee from East Africa, Dube gave up agriculture studies to work in social service.

“I really believe in helping people in transition,” he said, adding that Minnesota “is one of the best places in terms of providing for refugees’ basic needs.”

After his address, Parmer commended the Twin Cities for being “close to the top of the list” of U.S. cities showing concern about refugee issues.

Conversely, those issues remain in the periphery of mainstream America’s vision, he said.

“Americans generally … don’t have enough information about the plight of refugees,” Parmer said. “I do believe that when Americans are confronted with the problems that refugees have around the world, we’re a very generous people. It’s just that unless there’s some big disaster, a tsunami or something, it’s not something people confront in their day-to-day lives.”

Event coordinators and attendees said they hope that will begin to change as events like World Refugee Day continue to bring refugee issues to light.

Chico Perez, percussionist for New Primitives, a reggae band that played at the event, said refugee issues should matter more to people.

“Love exists no matter what color you are,” Perez said. “If you don’t stand up for all people and all races, eventually you won’t be treated right.”