Nothing shows support for refugees more than joining an Afropop dance-off, and Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski rose to the occasion at the Sorenson Unity Center Thursday during a luncheon and awards ceremony in celebration of World Refugee Day.
Just look at her go!
Mayor Biskupski was there to honor leaders in the refugee community and speak about the city’s support for the state’s 65,000 refugees, who come from as far off as Vietnam, Bosnia, South Sudan, Somalia and Bhutan. She declared June 20, 2019 as World Refugee Day in Salt Lake City, part of a global series of events to raise awareness about those forced out of their homes because of conflict and repression.
“As Utah’s capital city, we must set an example for the rest of the state,” Biskupski told the audience, which included members of the refugee community, representatives from local nonprofits, officers from the Salt Lake City Police and Fire Departments and Democratic legislators Rep. Sandra Hollins and Sen. Gene Davis. “We have a legal and a moral obligation to restore policies that reflect our values and our honor, and to honor our promises to thousands of refugee families looking for safety. Refugees make our community and our country stronger,” the mayor declared.
The United Nations Refugee Agency estimates that the world is experiencing the highest levels of displacement ever, with 70.8 million people living as refugees. Soon after taking office, President Donald Trump responded to the crisis by issuing a travel ban on predominantly Muslim countries. More recently, the administration is considering a new rule to make it harder for asylum-seekers—people who flee their homes and seek legal protection in a foreign country—to enter the United States.
Locally, Mayor Biskupski has appointed Fatima Dirie as a refugee community liaison to organize events and spearhead projects like the Know Your Neighbor program, a collaboration with Utah’s Refugee Services Office to pair newly-arrived refugees with locals who can help them settle into a new life in Utah. Dirie organized the luncheon Thursday and wanted to make it celebratory.
“I want people to see refugees more than just as people who struggle. They’re here, they’re making a great impact, and they’re still resilient,” Dirie told City Weekly. “Whether it’s through music, dancing, sharing a meal, it doesn’t matter—as long as people are coming together, they don’t worry about the other stresses and issues.”
Hits by artists like Nigerian Afrobeats star Davido boomed from the sound system as people dined on rice, goat meat, plantains and salad. Dashingly-dressed hosts Elie Kamungu and Flora Sasa cracked jokes in between introducing speakers.
In video presentations, speeches and a panel discussion, speakers from across parts of Africa and Bhutan, a country in South Asia, discussed the challenges they face when living in a new country, learning new languages and adapting to a different culture. One young Congolese woman, born in a refugee camp in Botswana, described how she was rescued by a nurse as an infant after her mother died during childbirth and she was abandoned in the hospital. Another said he speaks eight languages, helping him work with different refugees in the city.
“I speak French,” he said. “I speak English, Arabic, Swahili, Kirundi, Kinyarwanda, Kinyabwisha, Kinyamulenge. And as I came from Uganda straight to Utah … I speak also Luganda and Runyankore.”
Just before the dancing kicked off, Joe Nahas, program specialist for refugee capacity building at the Utah Department of Workforce Services, said he was thankful for the support he and other members of the refugee community have received in Utah.
"If you see [refugees] around you, make sure you say hi," Nahas said. "Support them in any way you can, because that's where the strength comes from."