Their valley of tears had been transformed into an oasis of second chances and new beginnings.
Several hundred people from near and very far gathered under a Columbia park pavilion June 21 to celebrate World Refugee Day.
“This is about unity and what it means to be a welcoming community,” said Samantha Moog, director of Catholic Charities of Central and Northern Missouri’s (CCCNMO) Refugee Services, which sponsored the event.
Its purpose was to highlight the strength, courage and resilience of refugees throughout the world, including the millions of refugees who are still seeking a permanent home.
It was also a chance for individual refugees and families to celebrate together with volunteers, partner organizations and the community at large.
“It’s about celebrating refugees, their strength and their amazing stories,” CCCNMO Executive Director Dan Lester stated.
Refugee Services’ good work was on full display.
“It’s good to draw attention to God’s love and work in action here,” Mary Phillips, a member of Sacred Heart Parish in Columbia, told Ms. Moog.
CCCNMO Refugee Services, an affiliate of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services, is the only official refugee-resettlement agency in central Missouri.
Since its founding in 1975, Refugee Services has helped more than 4,000 refugees who faced war, persecution and forced migrations in their homelands begin new lives in central and northeastern Missouri.
It does so in cooperation with numerous local organizations, agencies and congregations, as well as many individual volunteers.
Refugees are people who are forced to flee their country due to persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.
“Refugee resettlement is really a life-saving effort,” noted Cristal Backer, director of development and outreach for CCCNMO.
From the many, one
The international theme for World Refugee Day 2021 was “Together, we heal, learn and shine.”
At the Columbia event, groups and sponsoring organizations set up booths and activities under the pavilion.
Colorful banners created by volunteers and refugee groups from several nations flapped in the summer breeze.
Children delighted in meeting Columbia firefighters and police officers and exploring a fire engine and patrol car.
Youngsters also decorated flowerpots, created jewelry, made chalk pictures on the ground, built models out of toothpicks and jellybeans, played badminton, musical chairs and the beanbag toss, and hung out on the playground.
Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture gave away plants for people wishing to start a garden at home.
People feasted on fare from local food trucks while young dancers moved to the beat of popular music from several countries.
Catholic Charities distributed information about its services as well as employment and volunteer opportunities.
CCCNMO staff members provided free blood-pressure checks, while the Columbia/Boone County Health Department offered COVID-19 vaccines.
“Poetry Spoon,” a Columbia native who holds a degree in poetry from Oxford University, sat with individuals and composed free verse based on what they told her.
Hussein Al Hraishawi, 17, was born in Iraq and arrived in Columbia as a refugee with his family in 2017.
He attended the World Refugee Day celebrations in Columbia in 2018 and 2019 and was disappointed that one could not be held during COVID-plagued 2020.
“For me, it’s the best event of the year,” he said. “You meet different people, you see different cultures, you learn from them.”
This year, he took a leading role in helping former Refugee Services Associate Director Grace Wildenhaus organize the event.
“Just seeing all the faces out here, all the smiles, all the people who are really happy to see each other,” he said, “that’s what makes it worthwhile.”
He’s enjoys volunteering for Refugee Services because of all the help he and his family received when they arrived in December 2017.
“They helped me, so I need to give back,” he said.
The turnout for this year’s celebration, the first to be held in an open-sided pavilion, surpassed his greatest expectations.
“We all come from different countries, and each person here has a story,” he said. “And if each of these people told you their story, it would affect you mentally.”
They would include war, violence, ethnic and religious persecution, the death of loved ones, and time spent in unsafe and unsanitary refugee camps far from home.
For Refugee Services’ clients, the stories don’t end there.
“That’s why today’s a celebration,” said Hussein.
Born in 2003, he never experienced peacetime in Iraq.
He’s proud of his Iraqi heritage and misses members of his extended family back home, but he’s grateful for the opportunities available to him in the United States.
He studies history passionately and enjoys listening to older people share their memories.
“My hope and my dreams, all of them are here,” he said.
Looking out at the scores of children and young people at the celebration in Columbia, David Mazimano said he hopes their experiences as refugees won’t hold them back.
“I know that their parents’ hope for them in coming here is simply to have the chance to be kids and grow up into adults who can have an education, a chance at really pursuing a life without the fear for own survival,” Mr. Mazimano, a case manager for Refugee Services.
He began working there just over two years ago and has served as a case manager, children’s education coordinator and refugee medical assistance coordinator.
He noted that refugees all over the world are displaced through a multitude of circumstances.
“And when they gain citizenship or they gain asylum here, it’s a chance at getting to rebuild a new life in a new place,” he said. “That’s what we’re celebrating today, all those new beginnings.”
The world is now experiencing the worst refugee crisis in history, with at least 79.5 million people having been forced to flee their homes.
Among them are nearly 26 million refugees, around half of whom are under the age of 18.
Less than 1 percent of refugees will ever reach resettlement.
Mr. Mazimano prays that people who can help will do so.
“Circumstances like this will always happen,” he asserted. “It will always be the case that somehow, somewhere, there will be turmoil, there will be war.
“So for the people who aren’t in that situation, I pray that they care,” he said. “I pray that they extend their hands. I pray that they put themselves in the shoes of people who aren’t as lucky.”
He noted that nobody is responsible for the circumstances into which they’re born.
“You have to understand that people anywhere and everywhere are an extension of yourself,” he said. “So don’t look at giving to someone else as taking from yourself.
“No one gets where they are without the help of another,” he noted. “So I say, always say reach back, open a door and give where you can.
“Not because you’re above them,” he added, “not because you’re better, but because circumstances have allowed you to. It’s because others have given to you.”
With a 13-member staff working in Columbia and Jefferson City, Refugee Services provides essential services to arriving refugees, especially in their first 90 days here.
Volunteers of numerous faith backgrounds play a crucial role in welcoming refugees and providing services to them.
The agency currently serves refugees and other migrants from the Burma/Myanmar, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Honduras, Iran, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Ukraine.
All of them are thoroughly vetted for security through multiple federal departments, including the U.S. State Department, before arriving here.
Many previously lived in refugee camps for years. Most arrive with little more than the clothes on their backs.
Refugee Services-provided assistance, funded through government grants and through contributions to Catholic Charities, includes: finding and helping to pay for suitable housing, used furniture, clothing and food; providing English-language instruction, driver’s training and employment strategies and placement; and offering interpreter services, health care facilitation, community information and referral, and extensive case management/counseling.
Refugee Services provides these serves to all eligible populations regardless of faith, culture or situation.
“Our programs are designed to empower and equip clients with skills, resources and tools to build their lives in the United States,” said Mrs. Backer.
Refugee Services staff members collectively speak more than 10 languages. Each brings decades of expertise and often personal experience.
“Never give up!”
Hussein requested prayers for peace throughout the world.
“We need to pray for God to bless all the people around here and those who are out of the country,” he said.
He offered some advice to people who are arriving here as refugees and are preparing to begin a new life here.
“Let this be a new beginning,” he said. “You can’t change the past, so don’t dwell on it too much.”
“Find a good job,” he continued. “Study. Don’t leave school until you’ve got your diploma. Keep going and never give up.
“That’s my rule: Never give up!” he stated. “My goal is to keep chasing my goal! Whatever life brings for me, I’m ready for it. If I fall, I will keep standing back up. To the end of the road, until I die!
“God has something better in mind for you,” he said. “You can do it. You CAN do it! If someone tells you can’t, don’t listen to them.”
Ms. Moog visited with “Poetry Spoon,” who created an original poem for her in the heat of the afternoon.
“Joy sticks to me
like sweat. Like a T-shirt,
like a smile that never quite
fades. When today is over
I will sleep soundly and
when I wake up, my smile
will still be here.”
“That really sums up how I feel right now,” said Ms. Moog.
She noted that Refugee Services is gearing up for a large increase in the number of refugees to be resettled in Columbia and Sedalia.
She suggested praying, wishing, hoping and working “for people to embrace their neighbor, embrace all parts of their community.”
Refugee Services relies heavily on community support to carry out its work.