On June 20, the sixth anniversary of United Nation’s World Refugee Day, more than 75 countries across the globe held events honoring the world’s more than 20 million refugees. The Twin Cities held their third consecutive and first community-wide event at the Brian Coyle Community Center in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, to highlight Minnesota’s longstanding commitment to refugees and to celebrate the state’s newfound diversity and cultural enrichment.
World Refugee Day was established on December 4, 2000 by the United Nations General Assembly to coincide with Africa Refugee Day. This year’s theme was “To Feel at Home.” Despite the continued international tensions, the dominant tone of the event was positive and hopeful.
Despite being in the homogeneous Midwest, the state of Minnesota knows a thing or two about refugees. An estimated 70,000 refugees from 30 countries currently reside in Minnesota. Only California is home to more refugees.
Minnesota is home to the world’s largest urban Hmong population and the largest Somali population within the United States. TC Refugee Day organizers hope to hold the 2008 event in a predominantly Southeast Asian neighborhood.
TC Refugee Day was a festive celebration that fell somewhere between the Minnesota State Fair and the Festival of Nations. Over ninety volunteers helped make the event a success. Throughout its seven-hour course, more than 1,000 dynamic people funneled through the two stages and resource area to watch dozens of cultural entertainers amid whiffs of world cuisine.
Dancers performed in the traditional styles of their far-flung home countries, from Korea to Somalia to Vietnam, Laos and Russia. African and Asian singers and musicians also performed. Indoors, Vietnamese and Spanish storytelling drew the small children in from the park wading pool and the ice cream truck parked out front. Tibetan musician Tenzin Ngawang, an international performer who has played for the Dali Lama, said that he plays his songs as a way to promote peace and prosperity.
“The fact that we had such a great turnout and wonderful support tells us that World Refugee Day should not be a celebration that gets forgotten,” said Becky Burand, the event’s media coordinator. “Millions of refugees around the world, and the thousands in our own area, deserve our support every day.”
More than 60 organizations offered information on education, employment, housing, health and legal immigration services, often in four or more languages. One could find advice on how to get a green card, stay hydrated in the summer heat, find a job, get immunized for Hepatitis B, or where to go for support after being tortured.
One day before the June 20 event, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, released the 2006 annual report which reported the first increase in refugees worldwide since 2002. The increase is mainly due to the Iraq war and the ensuing humanitarian crises.
Leading refugee groups worldwide include displaced Afghans (2.1 million), Iraqis (1.5 million), Sudanese (686,000), Somalis (460,000), various ethnic groups of Burundi (400,000), and the Democratic Republic of Congo (400,000). These UNHCR figures do not include the Middle East, which when combined bring the total to over 14 million refugees worldwide.
The evening’s keynote speaker was Hugh Parmer, President of the American Refugee Committee (ARC), a Minnesota-based humanitarian aid agency that operates relief operations in twelve countries around the world.
“A lot of you are immigrants and a lot of you are refugees,” said Parmer. “You have joined us as Americans.”
Palmer noted that on a wall at ARC headquarters, there is a quote by the ancient Greek tragedian Euripides: “There is no greater sorrow on earth than the loss of one’s native land.” Differentiating between immigrants and refugees, Parmer added, “When you ask a refugee at a refugee camp what it is they want most, they don’t respond, ‘To go to the U.S.,’ but rather, they want to go home.”
However, ARC has “seen an undeniable sense of hope in the people we work with around the world.” Even in the disrepair of refugee camps, he says, there is hope. “And back here, in the Twin Cities,” concluded Parmer, “there is also hope.”
Legal Aid Attorney Peggy Russell said that after 9/11, background checks on refugees grew more extensive. The increased bureaucracy added to delays, with the similarities between many Middle Eastern names making it more difficult to sort out suspicious persons from innocent victims.
Furthermore, the Material Support provisions of the Patriot Act and Real ID Act – which states that if people that had given money, resources, concealment or material support to terrorists, even coerced support under duress or fear for their lives, are in violation of U.S. law and are therefore disqualified from entering the U.S. as a refugee.
Prior to performing, a speaker for the Karen Community of Minnesota Dancers (the Karen are an ethnic group from Burma) reminded the audience that the handful of refugees here are the few survivors, and therefore only represent a fraction of total victims. “The rest died,” he said, and called for “no more refugees in the world.”
Speaking on behalf of Rep. Keith Ellison, Octavio Ruiz related how Minnesota was where he first saw snow twenty years ago. Having emigrated from Mexico, it wasn’t until very recently that he felt able to call Minnesota home.
Lester Collins, executive director, Council on Black Minnesotans, noted that, in reference to Rwanda and Darfur, the refugee population is growing. “Today,” said Collins, “the world is watching.”
Speaking on behalf of Sen. Norm Coleman was Mahamoud Wardere, himself a refugee who was studying to be an air traffic controller in Mogadishu, Somalia, prior to the outbreak of civil war there. He recalled a sign on a UN building back in Somalia, which read: Anyone Can Be a Refugee. It happens either through natural or man-made disasters.
“I will never forget,” said Wardere. “The people I fled this man-made disaster with.” He described pregnant women, small children, the sick, the elderly, all fleeing from the civil war.
Sen. Klobuchar’s messenger stated that the senator is working hard to make resettling easier for people.
State Refugee Coordinator Gus Avenido served as the event emcee. He noted the revitalizing influence the Twin Cities’ refugee populations have had on University Avenue in St. Paul and Lake Street in Minneapolis. “However,” he added, “many are still struggling.”