Dozens of ethnic artists took turns to showcase their culture and heritage through dance and songs during the Twin Cities World Refugee Day celebration Saturday in St. Paul.
The ninth annual event brought together more than 150 people outside the Arlington Hills Community Center to accentuate the diverse stories, arts and cultures of the nearly 150,000 refugees in Minnesota.
“World Refugee Day is a way for us to celebrate and honor those refugees who are living here in Minnesota,” said Elissa Dale, cultural stage coordinator of the Twin Cities World Refugee Day. “We want to celebrate all the diversity that they bring here … including their artwork, dances and music.”
The festival is also aimed at providing a platform for refugee artists to tell their stories and raise awareness of the 16 million refugees worldwide who have been forced from their homes.
The day’s performances included dances and songs from artists of African, Asian and European descent who have also performed at various celebrations in the Twin Cities metro area.
Diversity Street Dancers, a group of women from the former Soviet Union and the United States, was among the performing groups at the celebration. They’ve been performing locally for the past 10 years, said Maya Wheeler, a dancer and choreographer with the group. “We believe that through art performances, we would learn from each other’s culture,” said Wheeler, who arrived in the United States from Russia 15 years ago and has been with the group for the past four years.
Wheeler, who has performed at the local World Refugee Day with her team over the past five years, said her “love for learning about different cultures” brings her back to the festival each year. “It just overcomes barriers and cultural misunderstanding,” she said of the event.
Jennie Vang, a dance instructor at Iny Asian Dance Theater, also performed at the event. She danced to “A New Beginning,” a song written 34 years ago as Hmong communities streamed from Thailand to the United States in their search for safety and a better life.
Vang explained that the song is a message to the first wave of Hmong refugees in the United States, encouraging them to pursue new lives here and at the same time remember their roots.
“Immigrant and refugee communities go through daily struggles,” Vang said. “But during these festivals, people have fun together, learn from and about one another.”
Sharing personal stories
The festival featured more than songs and dance. Several people took the stage to share their personal stories to educate the crowd about the lives of the refugee communities in Minnesota. Ifrah Mansour, a Twin Cities-based actor who also emceed the event, was among those who shared stories about their past.
Mansour spoke about how her grandmother came to her rescue when the civil war erupted in 1991 in Mogadishu, Somalia. Days later, the violence spilt over into the city Mansour lived in, Kismayo.
The grandmother then took Mansour to her farm — and away from the brutal war that killed tens of thousands and forced more than a million Somalis out of their homes. “My grandmother was magical enough to take us from all of the hate and the killing and crime and just took us to her farm,” Mansour told the audience. “We sort of lived oblivious to what was happening.”
“I remember as a child we didn’t need a babysitter,” she added. “Grandma just left us on the farm and we just played on our own. I just miss that.”
Another speaker, Saw Poe Thay Doh, told the crowd about his journey from Burma to Minnesota. He escaped prosecution by the Burmese military regime, which has been conducting a large-scale offensive against people of his Karen ethnicity, to arrive in the United States in 2008.
When he first came to the United States, he couldn’t speak English. But since his arrival, Doh not only learned English, he earned a high school diploma and became a U.S. citizen. He now works as a receptionist at the Karen Organization of Minnesota.
“After I came to the United States, I was so happy because I got to feel the taste of freedom,” Doh said. “I realized that … I can pursue the American Dream as long as I am trying to work my hardest.”
The World Refugee Day was established by the United Nations General Assembly 15 years ago — and people around the world have celebrated the day with events honoring the history, culture and the achievement of refugee communities.
“It’s important for me to be part of this because Twin Cities has such a large population of refugees and they bring so much here,” said Dale, the cultural stage coordinator. “I want to honor that. I want to respect that. I want celebrate it with them.”