Story by Bob Wiltz, Volunteer, Peoria, IL
When Katiusca Cespedes and her husband Norge Ross disappeared into the Singing Bird Nature Center at Black Hawk State Historic Site in Rock Island, Illinois, their 10 year old son, Felix, could be overhead preparing his younger brother:
“Maykol, when mom comes out, she’s going to be crying. She always cries when she calls back home.”
Katiusca and Norge were among several hundred refugees, migrants, and other participants taking part in the first Walk for Freedom and Cultural Festival sponsored by World Relief Moline, a not-for-profit refugee resettlement and service agency headquartered in Moline, Illinois.
The event was organized to celebrate the new lives of refugees in the area, as well as remember those still in danger in their homelands, on World Refugee Day. After a one-mile walk through Black Hawk State Forest, first occupied by Native Americans as long as 12,000 years ago, families enjoyed a traditional American picnic consisting of hot dogs, watermelon, chips and cookies. Outdoor activities included a native Burmese dance group, a Piñata, a potato sack race, and a water festival.
Inside the Singing Bird Nature Center, participants discussed displays describing the customs and cultures in Burma, Cuba, South Sudan, Iraq, Eritrea, and other countries. These nations were home to many of those attending until, driven out by armed conflict, persecution, or other disasters, they began a new life thousands of miles away in the Quad Cities, a group of neighboring cities and other communities flanking the Mississippi River in western Illinois and eastern Iowa.
Once inside the Nature Center, many festival-goers were drawn to the squeals of excitement coming from a room where refugees were reconnecting with family members back home. The American Red Cross serving Central and Southern Illinois Region was providing free phone calls to loved ones in countries outside the United States.
While some of those squeals—and tears, as Felix had predicted—did in fact come from Katiusca, she was not the only family member showing strong emotions after reconnecting with relatives. Norge later explained to an interpreter how he had been able to speak with his mother in Cuba for the first time in months, fill her in on happenings in the family and get caught up on the lives of those back home. When asked how it felt to be able to talk with her, he choked back tears and responded with one word.