Red Deer is doing June 20, World Refugee Day, a little differently this year.
Instead of hosting a fifth year of a simulated Refugee Camp that the public tour for an eye-opening, first-hand experience, the Central Alberta Refugee Effort and partners are celebrating the first World Refugee Week in the city on June 18 and 20.
A number of public activities — all free — have been planned, including a cultural cafe, personal presentations and singing, dancing, drumming and henna tattoos, as well as a choir and speakers at Veteran’s Park.
“It’s the first year we’re doing Refugee Day as more of a collaborative undertaking,” said Elxbieta Sawicka, manager of community connections at CARE.
“It’s an important day to recognize, knowing the situation out there in the world is not getting better, that there are more refugees out there every year in need of help and some of those people come here and establish themselves. We want to feature those people.”
Sawicka said the Refugee Camp model hasn’t been permanently retried as a Refugee Day event and may make a comeback next year, and on an alternating basis in the future.
Jan Underwood, CARE’s public awareness co-ordinator and a settlement practitioner, added the new series of events is to acknowledge “the value refugees have given to us in many ways and the richness in diversity they have contributed.”
William Gabriel, a longtime volunteer with CARE and a settlement counsellor with the immigration unit at Catholic Social Services, has been involved with Red Deer’s Refugee Day festivities for a number of years.
A refugee from Sudan who spent two years in a refugee camp in Kakuma, Kenya, Gabriel said he believes in sharing his story to help other immigrants and refugees know they are not alone and that he can relate to them.
“Since I lived it, I tell them they can make it, too. I tell them to put their plans in order, one in front of the other so they can move on because if you dwell on the past it will impact your progress in Canada. … Use your experience in a positive context,” Gabriel, 37, said. “I use my story also to educate people who have no clue what refugees go through. It’s not like what you see on TV.”
Gabriel came to Canada in 2003. He had fled Sudan because of the civil war and fear when the government began targeting students to support the military.
“I was in Sudan, in the seminary, and life was beautiful for a time. Then suddenly I was in the UN office in Nairobi and then I was taken to the refugee camp, and life was completely opposite and difficult, horrible and I couldn’t imagine living there for all this time but I still had an advantage because I had my people with me and I was there only for two years. There are people that are there for five or 10 years.”
World Refugee Day brings back the reality of those years for Gabriel and spurs him to let others know about the challenges refugees still face today.
“The aim is to reach out,” he said of June 20.
Gabriel hopes that having two days of events instead of the traditional Refugee Camp activity will mean more participation from the wider Red Deer community.
The week will kick off at 6:30 p.m. on June 18 with special guest Ethel Suarez telling her refugee journey at the Red Deer Museum and Art Gallery.
June 20 will consist of an open house at the Central Alberta Immigrant Women’s Association (CAIWA), dozens of cultural happenings at Veteran’s Park from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., and a “table talk” at The Hub on Ross from 3 to 5 p.m. where anyone can have a seat with former refugees and learn about their journeys.
“We’re inviting everyone in the community to come see what we do at CAIWA and find out more about our programs, including our new one on financial literacy, as well as hear refugees’ stories,” said Margarita Fuentes at CAIWA.
She said she hopes the open house peels back negative stereotypes and prejudice when it comes to immigrants and refugees and opens up a supportive community dialogue.