World Refugee Day: ‘No strangers here’

A volunteer entertains a young refugee girl with bubbles at Catholic Charities’ celebration of World Refugee Day at Christ Our Light Parish, Cherry Hill, on June 23.
Volunteers and parishioners of Christ Our Light serve lunch to refugees from 10 countries who attended the event.
Mister Softee joined the event, serving ice cream to over 100 attendees who attended the celebration.
Photos by Mary McCusker

CHERRY HILL — The Camden Diocese’s welcoming attitude toward refugees was evident on Saturday, June 23, as groups gathered at Christ Our Light Parish here to celebrate Catholic Charities’ seventh annual World Refugee Day — uniting refugees relocated to the United States with the South Jersey community.

As teens and young adults, unfazed by the drizzle, played soccer and engaged in other outdoor sports and competitions, younger children were kept occupied with various other games — blowing bubbles, decorating the parking lot with sidewalk chalk, and creating arts and crafts.

Hameeda Muhammad reflected on her own journey to the United States, speaking in fluent English with only a slight accent, as she watched her 10-year-old daughter get her face painted by a volunteer.

“We left Sudan 13 years ago because of the war and the violence. It was hard coming here at first, but Catholic Charities became a family to me. They helped us learn English, find work, support ourselves,” she said, smiling as she watched her daughter. “They look at refugees with joy, not fear.”

A few yards away, a delighted young refugee from Iraq leapt up from the ground in excitement to admire the colorful chalk outline of her silhouette, traced by a volunteer. Looking up at the 66-year-old volunteer, she exclaimed, “Now it’s your turn!” pointing to the space on the asphalt next to her own outline. Obligingly, the volunteer lowered herself to the ground, smiling, as the little girl meticulously traced every inch of the senior’s horizontal torso.

“You cheated!” cried one young boy from Syria, addressing his younger brother, who was on the opposing team in a lively game of soccer. The dispute quickly dissipated as an announcement was made that the food had arrived.

Chatter and laughter filled the gymnasium as refugee families from 10 different countries gathered with Catholic Charities staff, parishioners, youth groups and other members of the community.

Patrick Barry, Catholic Charities’ director of Refugee Resettlement, addressed over 100 attendees from the stage.

“I am fortunate to have the opportunity to see a community of ambition and hope; I see the good Samaritan here. This is a community that recognizes we have infinitely more in common than we do differences,” he said, thanking all attendees for joining the day. “In opening their doors to today’s event, Christ Our Light Parish has demonstrated that there is no such thing as a stranger here,” he added.

The festivities continued — karaoke, more sports, and a slideshow presentation of photographs and memories of refugee clients from various field trips. When the familiar tune of Mr. Softee’s ice cream truck echoed through the gymnasium, there was a gleeful stampede to the open side of the vehicle.

Waiting in line for ice cream was Mounera Ayoub who has been in the United States for two years. Recalling her journey from Syria to South Jersey, Ayoub was not sure if she, her husband, and two children would ever make it to safer land. “We came here from Damascus,” she said. “It was a war zone. People in our city were getting murdered, kidnapped … we are so lucky to be here today,” she said, watching her teenage boys who were lapping up every drip of ice cream trickling down their cones. “And we’re so grateful to Catholic Charities and everyone here today for welcoming us.”