To commemorate World Refugee Day, which is internationally observed on June 20 each year, some 150 people filled the cafeteria of Somerdale Park School on June 18 for a day celebrating culture, family and resilience.
For the fifth year in a row, Catholic Charities, Diocese of Camden sponsored this annual celebration for the refugee families it serves in South Jersey. Burma, Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia and Eritrea were among the countries represented, and the crowd was bright with the colors of traditional clothing.
Attendees presented performances of song and dance, followed by lunch and a soccer tournament while children played field games. An ice cream truck even made an appearance, to the delight of the many children at the celebration.
Patrick Barry, director of Refugee and Immigration Services at Catholic Charities, said that attendees come to socialize, enjoy food and just have fun.
Barry, the son of a Cambodian refugee, is passionate about events like this.
“These types of events show we recognize that we are all Americans and we all come from somewhere,” Barry said. “This is the American dream and it’s also the ideal immigrant story: to work as hard as you can to make a better life for your children.”
Composed primarily of refugee families, this year the event was also open to the public with the goal of helping the broader community meet and interact with their refugee neighbors, Barry said.
The Somerdale school offered to host the event this year and provides year-long support to the many refugee children that are enrolled there, particularly through its ESL (English as a Second Language) program.
Somerdale Mayor Gary Passanante attended the celebration, as did members of the Somerdale Human Relations Commission and several Somerdale Park School teachers, who helped Catholic Charities organize the event.
“The teachers and administration at Somerdale Park School provide a wonderful nurturing and welcoming education for the refugee children,” said Priscilla Adams, Refugee Academic Success Coordinator for Catholic Charities. “This event was a model for how an organization like Catholic Charities and a school can partner together for the benefit of the local community.”
Barry explained that some refugees have lived in camps, with their time spent there ranging anywhere from three to 10 years. Often they have escaped war, genocide or ethnic cleansing. The UN interviews every refugee and each refugee must withstand several years of intense interviews and background checks.
“Refugees are people like everyone, but war took away their home, work, relatives and friends,” Pope Francis said on the eve of World Refugee Day.
Seeing the faces and hearing the stories of refugees should lead Christians “to renew our obligation to build peace through justice,” he said after praying the Angelus with people gathered in Saint Peter’s Square June 19.
“This is why we want to stand with them — to encounter them, welcome them, listen to them — in order to become together with them artisans of peace, according to God’s will,” the pope said, referring to the day’s theme, “We Stand #WithRefugees.”
There are approximately 20 million refugees in the world, and more than 60 million displaced people.
Catholic Charities’ program assists refugees with English as a Second Language classes (ESL), immigration and social services, in addition to resettlement services and assistance securing employment. The agency provides refugee resettlement services to approximately 100 individuals each year, while providing long term support services to nearly 600 refugees per year.
“Refugees just want the best for their families,” Barry said. “Events like World Refugee Day are an opportunity for us to reach out to the broader South Jersey community and come together to learn about refugees and interact with them.”
Kesete Haile is a refugee from Eritrea, a country in Eastern Africa that is slightly larger than Pennsylvania and borders the Red Sea. To show where Eritrea is located, Haile quickly hand sketched a map of Africa.
Haile arrived in the U.S. in March with his family and receives resettlement services and ongoing support from Catholic Charities.
He said it is important for refugees to meet together at events like World Refugee Day.
“This day is important for refugees to gather and interact with other refugees,” he said. “Refugees are able to come and experience different cultures and different norms.”
Contributing to this story was Joanna Gardner and Catholic News Service.