World Refugee Day Festival in downtown Raleigh honored refugees and informed the public

sgilman@newsobserver.comJune 20, 2014 

— Smells of coffee and incense mingled along Fayetteville Street on Friday, as refugees and local relief workers stood in the shade of tents and strolled over hot pavement.

The World Refugee Day Festival honored refugees with music, dancing, food samples and booths with information on local outreach programs.

The event was geared to help refugees get information about education, housing and job opportunities, but also to tell the public more about the refugees.

“That’s another reason we are having this event, so that downtown can be aware that we are here,” said Lydia Moges, with the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants of North Carolina.

The office, which moved to downtown Raleigh from its Lake Boone Trail location last fall, takes in between 10 and 60 refugees each month.

“We inform them about programs for employment, anything to help them get established in the United States,” Moges said.

The organization also provides refugees with clothing and housing. “A lot of them come with only what’s on their backs,” Moges said.

Refugees could find out information Friday about organizations such as Wake Tech Community College’s multi-faceted refugee assistance program – ranging from GED preparation to accent reduction classes.

Jim Chapman with the Fair Housing Project talked about how the Raleigh organization provides legal services to victims of housing discrimination.

“One of the most common ones is to charge a refugee higher rent or require higher screening, things basically designed to keep them out of housing,” Chapman said.

Other booths included Get Covered America and the United States Committee for Refuges and Immigrants of North Carolina.

The public could sample food from around the world, including Afghanistan, Congo, Eritrea, Iraq and Somalia.

They could look at pictures of other countries, talk to former refugees or turn to the stage to watch dancing and listen to music.

Specialty coffee

Dressed in a long yellow traditional gown and matching scarf, Tenagne Argaw sat before a hot stove, where she roasted coffee beans grown in Ethiopia, her homeland. They crackled in the pan, and she periodically shook them.

“Then just like this, after,” she said, and held up a stainless steel bowl of freshly-roasted beans. She it down, and poured a thin stream of coffee from a black, clay teapot.

“The taste is different,” she said. “A little bit cinnamon.”

It was smooth and nutty with a trace of citrus.

‘Saying thank you’

Argaw came to the United States for an arranged marriage to Moges Ebebe, who was a student in the United States at the time. He is now a chemistry professor at St. Augustine’s University. They run Hallelujah Soup Kitchen in downtown Raleigh and feed about 20,000 people every year, Ebebe said.

“This is my little way of saying thank you,” Ebebe said. It’s a thank you, he said, for his education.

Em Koito, a former refugee from Burma, also expressed gratitude.

She smiled behind the table in the Burma booth, and put on a beaded, floor-length skirt. She added a feathered headdress. “I used to wear it when I did a traditional dance,” she said.

But when she spoke of her mom, she grew serious. When Koito was 23, her mother, Biak Mawi, fled “government problems” to the United States.

“She got her asylum. Then she fought for us,” Koito said. “She was a single mom when she came to North Carolina. She didn’t know anybody. She is really a hero.”

That was 15 years ago. Since then, Koito married and had two children. Each of her three sisters completed college.

“My mom, everywhere she goes, she thanks American people, because we have a good life.”

In turn, Koito said it’s important for Americans to help refugees: “It is very very difficult. Even if a person smiles at us, it feels like home.”

Gilman 919-829-8955

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