World Refugee Day allows opportunity to share tales of past and visions for future

New Hampshire Union Leader
June 20. 2013 10:52PM
Burundi drummers from the Burundi Association of NH march to the front of the State House during the World Refugee Day celebration held at the State House on Thursday. (Thomas Roy/Union Leader)

CONCORD — The east lawn outside the State Capitol was a medley of music, dance and brilliant colors Thursday in a celebration of reaching a common destination through very different journeys.

It was World Refugee Day and members of New Hampshire’s varied and growing refugee population gathered on the Statehouse steps, sharing stories of their new lives in the Granite State while contributing a cultural taste of music and dance from their former homelands.

“It’s definitely amazing hearing everybody’s stories,” said Jane Yen, who was a child when her family fled war-torn South Sudan in 2003. “They’re not always the same, but in a way it’s similar because we all came here because of war or it was not a protective society.”

Now 17, Yen is finishing her junior year at Concord High School and plans on becoming a doctor. She said the education she has received since arriving in Concord as a 6-year-old was a wonderful opportunity she would not have had if her family wasn’t relocated.

“It was very devastating because of the war. I lost so many friends and family. It motivated me to become someone to reach higher even though it seemed impossible in the moment,” she recalled. “I saw people in South Sudan standing in line and they couldn’t get in to see a doctor because there wasn’t enough medicine and there were not a lot of doctors.”

Yen was one of a handful of designated speakers at the event and closed by singing a song she wrote and titled “I Have Hope.” It was a fitting message she delivered to others who arrived much more recently, seeking safety and opportunity.

The event was put on by Lutheran Social Services for New Americans, the Friends Program, the Bhutanese Community of New Hampshire and several other groups that helped recognize Refugee Day separately from Concord’s annual multicultural festival, which will still be celebrated this fall.

“They used to celebrate it in the (refugee) camps while waiting to come here,” said Kerstin Ahlgren, an education and employment specialist with LSS who helped organize the festivities. “It’s a very familiar holiday for them.”

The celebration started at 3 p.m. and Ahlgren said people were still coming as afternoon turned to evening. One of the last events was a fashion show featuring styles and vibrant colors from literally around the world and not often seen at the Capitol.

Dawn Higgins, director of cross-cultural education at New Hampshire Technical Institute in Concord, estimated the students learning English at the small school have a total of around 55 native languages.

“We’re definitely starting to see the population on campus is growing and it’s representative of the community’s growth as well,” Higgins said. “It shows that the community is growing, not only in language but in new ideas and new ways of thinking about things.”

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