The universal languages of relief, resolve and joy filled every pathway and pavilion of the Cosmopolitan Recreation Area in Columbia the evening of June 25.
It was a community-wide celebration of World Refugee Day, cosponsored by City of Refuge and Catholic Charities of Central and Northern Missouri’s (CCCNMO) Refugee Services program.
“This celebration is a significant event for our community because it raises awareness of refugees, who have been part of our community for decades, shifting the narrative and breaking down barriers to become a visual representation of a community interwoven,” stated Lacy Stroessner, Community Sponsorship Coordinator for CCCNMO.
“We give thanks to the refugees that bring all of this to us, through the joy and hardship that they’ve experienced and simply who they are,” said Valérie Berta, community engagement coordinator for Catholic Charities Refugee Services.
People from numerous nations, many dressed in clothing from their homeland, mingled in a line leading up to the largest pavilion, where volunteers served food that reflected many cultural favorites, catered by the Syrian Kitchen, Bridgit in the Kitchen and Tiger Café.
Local food trucks dropped anchor in nearby parking areas.
People of all ages played games, including several spirited matches of beanbag cornhole.
Young volunteers painted intricate, pastel-colored artwork onto the faces of children whose complexions spanned the visible spectrum.
One table contained musical instruments from numerous countries for the children to try out.
Youthful laughter filled the playgrounds, soccer field and giant inflatable slides and bounce houses.
“We have quite a lot of activities going on, because we wanted to make this a really welcoming and FUN event,” said Ms. Berta, “because it’s to honor refugees and all they’ve been through and their cultures and everything that they bring to the table. But it’s also to have fun!”
Participants wrote “welcome” in a dozen languages in colored chalk along a sidewalk leading up to one of the pavilions, which decked with large banners welcoming refugees to the community.
More than 20 community-resource agencies that work in partnership with Catholic Charities Refugee Services, City of Refugee, or both set up tables under tents along the walkways.
Children from the KM Mother Group and from Jabberwocky Studios gave dance performances “to music that a lot of them would be dancing to if they were still back in their home country,” according Linda Schust Ph.D., executive director of Jabberwocky Studios.
Columbia Mayor Barbara Buffaloe gave a proclamation proclaiming June 25 to be “World Refugee Day 2022 in the City of Columbia” and calling upon neighborhoods, communities and workplaces within the city to join in the celebration.
“Refugees and immigrants contribute culturally, civically and economically, and by recognizing these contributions, along with the contributions of others, Columbia, Missouri, will become more prosperous and inclusive to all who call it home,” Mayor Buffaloe stated.
“The success of Columbia depends on ensuring that all refugees and immigrants feel welcome,” she added.
A really beautiful relationship
More than 100 volunteers brought this year’s event into being.
“They’re really good volunteers,” said Chelle Smith-Vandergriff, CCCNMO volunteer coordinator. “They’re just really good people who want to help and want to do good things.”
“We give thanks for all the hard work of everybody involved on both of our teams,” said Ms. Berta, who came on board as Catholic Charities Refugee Services’ first community engagement coordinator last July.
Part of Ms. Berta’s job has been to increase cooperation between Catholic Charities Refugee Services and other agencies and organizations throughout the area.
City of Refuge and Catholic Charities Refugee Services previously organized separate World Refugee Day celebrations.
The organizations have worked together on many projects over the past year, including helping hundreds of displaced people from Afghanistan who were resettled in the area in record time.
“It’s developed into a really beautiful relationship,” said Ms. Berta. “So we reached out to them very early and said, ‘Hey, can we do a World Refugee Day event together this year?’ And they were up for it, so we started meeting together and organizing the whole thing.”
“Here to facilitate”
CCCNMO Executive Director Dan Lester said World Refugee Day highlights how beautiful a community Columbia and Central Missouri are.
“Look at all these people here from all over the world!” he said.
He noted that agencies such as Catholic Charities Refugee Services and City of Refuge exist to help refugees through their transition to a new homeland.
“But ultimately, the community is here to support them, too,” he said. “And that’s really what allows this work to continue to happen.”
He said this year’s World Refugee Day celebration epitomized the nature of refugee-resettlement.
“The agencies are here to facilitate,” he noted, “but at the end of the day, it’s the resilience of the refugees themselves that allows them to be so successful in coming here.
“So, it’s not about us,” he said. “We create the space, but this is their celebration.”
None seemed deterred by summer temperatures from fully participating.
“We’re glad everybody is here,” said Dan Szy, director of development for City of Refuge. “We’re glad to be sharing this city together with all of our refugee neighbors. We honor you. We honor your stories and your journeys. Thank you for joining us.”
“I hope everybody knows that we are stronger when we’re diverse and we can pull on skills, knowledge, backgrounds of a wide array of different cultures,” Ms. Berta stated.
City of Refuge (cityofrefugecolumbia.org) is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization created to help refugees recover and regain control of their lives. It helps refugees become productive, successful and contributing members of our community.
Catholic Charities of Central and Northern Missouri (CCCNMO) (cccnmo.diojeffcity.org), an entity of the Diocese of Jefferson City and the local resettlement agency for mid-Missouri, responds to the needs of people in 38 counties regardless of faith, culture, or situation. This includes services for refugees and immigrants, those with food insecurity, mental health needs, health and nutrition education, basic household, and shelter needs.