With all of the recent and often incorrect attention paid to the issue of immigration and refugees due to the war in Syria and throughout the Middle East, September 19th couldn’t have come soon enough to help set the record straight! On a beautiful Saturday afternoon, our community, and Catholic Charities Diocese of St. Petersburg, came together at the University of South Florida’s Marshall Center to celebrate the local immigrants (asylees, refugees and regular immigrants alike) who have braved the hardship of leaving their homeland, and in many instances their families, to find safety and opportunity in our great nation. As Pope Francis intoned to the U.S. Congress less than two weeks ago, “In recent centuries, millions of people came to this land [the United States] to pursue their dream of building a future in freedom.” The Tampa Welcoming Week Cultural Festival, a free event open to public, served to underscore that idea and to remind us all that immigrants are often the lifeblood of a community, helping it to grow and diversify, an enriching our culture and lives!
The event was hosted by the University of South Florida (USF), and organized by the Tampa Bay Area Refugee Task Force, a group dedicated to assisting refugees settle into their new communities, with assistance from the USF Honors College. Catholic Charities was represented on the task force by Debi Jarrie-Colon, Program Manager of Housing Education & Refugee Services. Several local public and private organizations attended, including the Florida Department of Children and Families, Project Prosper, Gulf Coast Jewish Family & Community Services, as well as Catholic Charities Diocese of St. Petersburg.
Attendees met refugees and immigrants and enjoyed the diverse music, dance, traditional ancestral clothing, and foods of many of the participating groups. USF students and faculty, joined with immigrants and refugees to perform music and dance. Of note, Catholic Charities refugee program alum, Muhanad, played with his band. Muhanad escaped from Iraq 12 years ago and after waiting 10 years in Amman, Jordan, made it to the United States and is thankful to Catholic Charities: “they helped me with everything, for the job, for the rent, for the language, the school.” He particularly cited how friendly everyone was noting “…all the people [are] nice, all the people helped me.” Another program alum, Ali Albadrani, watched on as his colleague and asylee from Sudan, Abdelaziz Abdelmunim (known simply as ‘Aziz’), a Job Developer in our Refugee Services program, accompanied his supervisor, Katrina Doyle on the guitar as she sang and played the keyboard. The crowd enjoyed the duo as they performed ‘Hands and Feet’ by Brilliance and the old Negro spiritual ‘Wade in the Water.’ Watch the video below to enjoy the performance!
In addition to music, there was a fantastic fashion show featuring colorful and unique garb from the cultures represented from Cuba and Puerto Rico to Iraq and Syria! There were also activities for the children, including the ever popular henna tattoo tent that had a seemingly never-ending line! There were as many as 30 booths and tables that provided educational materials and resources for the immigrants and refugees to help them navigate life in the United States and expose them to available resources (e.g., the U.S. Department of Naturalization and Immigration Services provided free flash cards used to learn everything one would need to know to pass the citizen’s test). There was also information provided for non-immigrant attendees to assist them in better understanding how they could make a difference, including signing up for volunteer and internship opportunities. The Catholic Charities table, manned by USF volunteers, had many visitors and ended up with over two dozen volunteers!
One hundred forty-seven families have been relocated to the Tampa Bay area with the assistance of Catholic Charities over the past year. Next year, we expect to assist nearly two hundred families make Hillsborough County their home, making it the second most popular destination for Middle East refugees in Florida. While there is great debate regarding how many Syrian refugees, the United States should admit, one great misconception is how many have arrived in the Tampa area to-date. Of the resettled families Catholic Charities has assisted, only 12 have been from Syria over the past three years.
One such family, the family of Walid Daabou, a father of 3 boys (ages, 12, 8 and 1) and one girl (3 years old) with his wife, recently arrived from Syria after being forcibly removed from their home and escaping to Turkey with a seriously ill child. With the help of Catholic Charities, Walid’s family is integrating into the community and moved into a home in Pinellas County the last week of September. Walid’s desires for his family are ones to which we can all relate. Through a translator, he said: “My dreams are very simple. I want to be a good citizen. I want for my kids to be able to go school and get educated.” See Walid describe this simple desire on a recent television interview: http://bit.ly/1iR8JC0.
As Pope Francis said during his recent historic address to the U.S. Congress:
“We, the people of this continent, are not fearful of foreigners, because most of us were once foreigners…descended from immigrants.” Our world is facing a refugee crisis of a magnitude not seen since the Second World War. We must…respond in a way which is always humane, just and fraternal.” Let us remember the Golden Rule: ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ (Mt 7:12).”
We at Catholic Charities will continue to breathe life into Pope Francis’ words by living the Gospel mandate to help those in need through our immigration services and refugee resettlement programs.