Each year, about 800 refugees who have been persecuted due to their race, nationality and/or political opinions flee their homeland and find sanctuary here in Tucson, according to the International Rescue Committee of Tucson. Currently, the Old Pueblo is home to some 11,000 refugees from more than 55 nations.
For some, moving to Tucson includes many firsts (besides just seeing a saguaro for the first time). It may be the first time they've had a stove or a fridge. For some, it's the first time they've had running water and indoor plumbing.
"They really are starting over in a completely foreign land, with a new language, new culture and completely different ideals, and there's a lot of transition for them," said Melissa Wieters, volunteer organizer and development manager at the International Rescue Committee of Tucson.
To honor local refugees, the Third Annual World RefugeeFEST will be held this Friday and Saturday. The event, which started as a small gathering of about 80 people within the refugee community, has grown exponentially.
"We're expecting anywhere between 2,000 to 3,000 people this year," predicted Wieters.
Past events have opened the eyes of attendees, she said. "It's really been a lot of, 'Wow! I didn't know these cultures were here in our community,' and, 'Oh! This is part of our community.'"
The event also promotes awareness of the goings-on in the world at large. Wieters said that showing how our community is connected to what's happening in the world is one the messages she likes most about the event.
For the refugees, the event offers a chance to showcase their talent and culture. "In terms of the refugees, I think, for them, the feedback has really been just a feeling of respect and honor to be recognized," said Wieters. "It's really one of the only times that those different cultures come together."
This year, the event will for the first time include a soccer tournament, featuring 11 teams from countries ranging from Sudan to Iraq, and from Bhutan to Liberia.
"(The teams) are already starting to get a little competitive," joked Wieters. "They're really phenomenal players, so I think it's going to be a really good game."
In addition to watching some rousing soccer matches, festival-goers will have the opportunity to check out a "living book." In other words, they'll get to talk one-on-one with a local refugee. It is a part of a global movement called the Human Library, which aims to overcome prejudice by bringing people together in dialogue.
Fest-goers will also get to witness an oath ceremony: Some 50 children will take the stage and become U.S. citizens. "It's the first year we've done this, so we're really, really excited," said Wieters.
Another first for the festival is the "Teach Me How" tent, where people can learn everything from Burundi dance to Arabic calligraphy. And be sure to bring your kids to the Family Corner, where you'll find face-painting, a cookie-eating contest, and stories read in Arabic, Swahili, Somali and English.
For movie-lovers, there will be a free screening of the film Welcome to Shelbyville on Saturday at 2:30 p.m. at the Joel D. Valdez Main Library. The film documents the lives of Somali refugees living in small-town Tennessee, and their struggles and triumphs as they integrate into the community.
Of course, on Saturday evening, there will be a lot of ethnic food and entertainment. For example, taste Burundian iced coffee; get your hair braided; or listen to St. Cyril's African Choir.
"It's very interesting to see the color of the festival—not just in terms of people, but in the clothing and food and in everything that happens. It's just very colorful," said Wieters.
Of course, Tucson's refugees need our support throughout the year, beyond the two-day festival.
"Walk around some of the educational tables, and learn about the (refugee) organizations that are in the community ... and one will call out. One will speak to you; you can get involved that way," she said.
Reaching out to a refugee is even simpler than that. "Just stop and say hi," said Wieters. "It doesn't matter if you speak the same language. In the end, that's a gesture that we all understand."