Children, both local and refugee, play in the playground during a World Refugee Day celebration. Photo by Sister Martha Ann Kirk.

“Each culture is like a unique colorful thread,” said Narjis Pierre, the program organizer for San Antonio’s Sixth Annual World Refugee Day celebration held Saturday. She hoped the hospitality provided by local citizens will help to weave the threads into the beautiful tapestry of our city.

About 50 million refugees in the world are fleeing political violence, cultural or religious persecution, natural disasters, and other hardships.  That’s every single person in Texas times two, give or take a few million.

Pierre had invited refugees to open the celebration sharing these words in some of their languages, which included Nepali, Farsi, Spanish, Arabic, and French.

Dana Clark, a popular local composer and songwriter, shared an original musical version of this poem:

“May peace prevail on earth. And love replace war.
May nostalgia of leaving our homeland
be surpassed by the joys of creating
our new home in San Antonio.
May our paths be filled with friends
celebrating the possibilities  ahead of us.
In peace and hope we pray
for our loved ones back home and our loved ones in our new home.”

Two board members from the Center for Refugee Services, Ria E. Baker, founder and board president, and Margaret Castantino, executive director, introduced works from the Center, inviting community participation.  Father Christopher Robinson, pastor of St. Francis Episcopal Church where past World Refugee Day Celebrations have been held, graciously welcomed the community before dancers from Nepal delighted spectators of all ages with their exuberance and grace.

The United Nations established World Refugee Day “to honor the courage, strength and determination of women, men, and children who are forced to flee their homes under threat of persecution, conflict, and violence.” Banners listed some of the countries  which were once home to our city’s newest residents, including Afghanistan, Bhutan, Cuba, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Guatemala, India, Iran, Iraq, Kenya, Liberia, Nepal, Nigeria, Rwanda, Sudan, Somalia, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Among the various activities was a “Fact-Finding Passport Game,” and members of the refugee community sold handcrafted gifts. Several agencies provided information about available services, including RAICES, which provides legal assistance to refugees and asylum seekers. The American Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement  had information on International Family Tracing Services, which assists refugees who have lost contact with relatives through war or disasters and desperately want to reconnect.

Todd Glasgow organizer of the Community Table Project, brought a number of volunteers to help the Chow Train in providing a hot meal for anyone who was hungry.  “We have segregated ourselves with things like gated communities; let’s bring our communities together,” Glasgow said. Table fellowship can help do that.

Joan Cheever, an attorney and award-winning legal affairs journalist, felt a calling to focus on the disadvantaged in our society.  She founded the Chow Train, a non-profit corporation dedicated to fighting hunger and food insecurity, eliminating the social barriers associated with food and educating the public about the issues of hunger and homelessness. She likes to say, “We are fighting hunger one plate at a time.”

The Dialogue Institute of the Southwest and the Raindrop Turkish House provided fourteen trays of baklava, a sweet ending to the delicious meals. Sumeyra Tek, a UTSA Ph.D. student in physics, said Turkish people enjoy serving others. Her husband, Dr. Suleyman Tek, an associate professor of mathematics at the University of the Incarnate Word, has been active in UIW service projects for students to get to know and work with refugees.  A UIW student, Caira Spenrath, who was volunteering with children at a face painting booth, said she participates in projects with refugee again and again because her new neighbors had won a place her heart.

Each October, considering the great needs in the world, the U.S. government announces how many refugees from certain countries can be integrated into U.S. society,  then seeks partner organizations to help people on the ground. For several years, the Refugee Resettlement Program of Catholic Charities has assisted about 700-1,000 refugees to settle in San Antonio each year.  Linda Salam, who grew up in Iraq, has been a leader organizing the San Antonio World Refugee Day Celebration. She is very grateful to Sharon Marr, Nancy Gray Grant, and the many organizations and volunteers who assisted this year.

District 8 Councilman Ron Nirenberg spoke at the event.

“Refugees in San Antonio, who we refer to as newcomers, or who I like to call ‘new neighbors,’ face many challenges, from access to health care, housing, education, to transportation and basic necessities,” Nirenberg said.

This past year, refugee summit meetings have been held at the City Hall to better understand the needs of our “new neighbors” and how various groups can work together in response.

“On this World Refugee Day, let’s celebrate what makes San Antonio a great American city: that for those seeking opportunity and hope, we are a city of welcoming neighbors,” he said.

Maurya Villareal, a board member of the Center for Refugee Services, said the center invites community members to partner with them.

“It is as simple as drawing the name of a new family, taking them a ‘Welcome Box,’ and listening to their story,” she said.  “You will be inspired by their courage and determination coming here.”

Villarreal said that she and her children had an opportunity to be part of a literacy project in Guinea in 2005 where they saw extreme poverty.  After that they knew that they wanted to do more.  “Now we are friends with ten families,” she said.

Bob Hooper invited people to tour the International Community Garden and learn of the benefits of growing food and the friendships that are made working together. Often, refugees have more experience with gardening than people of San Antonio and they can teach us!

Mars Gutierrez entertained with music and invited any who wished to join in a “Drum Circle” with a great variety of percussion instruments.  As last year, the celebration ended with a Spiral Dance led by Sister Martha Ann Kirk.  Be part of the day and the dance next year.

YouTube video

Related stories:

Mayor Castro and Business Leaders Call for Immigration Reform

DREAMing of a Goal: Each Immigrant Has a Story

Reflections of a DREAMer, Embracing her Uncertain Future

Fight Crime, Not Immigrants

Sister Martha Ann Kirk, a professor of religious studies at UIW, teaches “Arts for Christian Worship” and is very grateful for her students who are compassionate and creative.