Culture at the Forefront | RFL Chicago brings World Refugee Day downtown!

Photovoice Exhibit is displayed at Daley Plaza, a project from Marjorie Kovler Center and Sulzer Regional Library. Photo credit: American Red Cross - Chicago and Northern Illinois Region Chapter.

Photovoice Exhibit is displayed at Daley Plaza, a project from Marjorie Kovler Center and Sulzer Regional Library. Photo credit: American Red Cross - Chicago and Northern Illinois Region Chapter.

When I reflected on this year’s World Refugee Day event at Daley Plaza, I realized I needed to reflect on last year to gain perspective. Last year, I had the opportunity to co-chair the Chicago World Refugee Day Committee for the third time on behalf of the American Red Cross. As the ‘co’ part of the chair, I was lucky to have a creative and forward-thinking partner, (with endless energy it seemed!) Peter O’Keefe, from the Chicago Burmese Community Center and long-time supporter of refugee work in Chicago. 

Azieb Abraha performs at World Refugee Day Chicago 2016.  Photo credit: American Red Cross - Chicago and Northern Illinois Region Chapter.

Azieb Abraha performs at World Refugee Day Chicago 2016.  Photo credit: American Red Cross - Chicago and Northern Illinois Region Chapter.

Last year was also the first time we received a grant for World Refugee Day, which pushed Peter and I to plan ahead about what we could do as co-chairs that year to bring World Refugee Day in Chicago to more people, in more ways. At that time in early 2015, news was rapidly emerging about refugees, in particular “refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Somalia, and Iraq—all countries experiencing conflict, widespread violence and insecurity, or highly repressive governments” - risking their lives to cross the sea in hopes of finding safety. With this increase in news coverage on this humanitarian emergency came serious identity misconceptions in the discourse heard externally in the media and internally within our own communities. And while we couldn’t put an end to the negative rhetoric, we could support and give a platform to the positive voices. So we chose to create an event to recognize World Refugee Day in Chicago’s downtown business district, at Daley Plaza in addition to the annual soccer tournament put on by the committee. Through the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, we secured a one-hour lunchtime performance slot, reserved for nonprofits who are promoting Chicago’s arts and culture. 

Chicagoan spends time viewing the Photovoice Exhibit, from Marjorie Kovler Center and Sulzer Regional Library. Photo Credit: American Red Cross - Chicago and Northern Illinois Region Chapter.

Chicagoan spends time viewing the Photovoice Exhibit, from Marjorie Kovler Center and Sulzer Regional Library. Photo Credit: American Red Cross - Chicago and Northern Illinois Region Chapter.

I’m not going to lie- it was totally overwhelming to think of coordinating a new public event- I love working in programs! Coordinating events is not in my natural comfort zone. But Peter had a great vision for this, and with his partnership and the amazing work of our Restoring Family Links team and the Committee, we held the first annual World Refugee Day event (in recent memory) at Daley Plaza. It was then voted by committee consensus at the final meeting to renew this event for 2016, which was both a feeling of relief and encouragement that we were moving in the right direction.

Abraham Mellish plays before the crowd at Daley Plaza celebrating World Refugee Day in Chicago. Photo Credit: American Red Cross - Chicago and Northern Illinois Region Chapter.

Abraham Mellish plays before the crowd at Daley Plaza celebrating World Refugee Day in Chicago. Photo Credit: American Red Cross - Chicago and Northern Illinois Region Chapter.

Last year’s experience and another grant gave us the opportunity to dream even bigger. This year, our event was emcee’d by Luis Narváez, Director of Strategic Projects for the Chicago Public Schools office of Language and Cultural Education. He opened the hour-long program by sharing his own story of being born and raised in Mexico City, and then arriving in the U.S. as a teenager, attending a new high school speaking not one word of English. He then asked his mom to stand up, and he personally thanked her for bringing him to the United States and getting him an education, and changing his life. This was a person, who in the face of extreme challenges refused to give up and now works full time to support youth in Chicago who’ve come here from all over the world. Our migrant and refugee communities are the collective of these unique individuals, with unique stories and dreams that cannot possibly fit into just one label or stereotype. He shared that truth with the public in a really powerful way.

Emcee Luis Narváez introduces Los Leones, Lester Rey and Giovany Revelle. Photo Credit: American Red Cross - Chicago and Northern Illinois Region Chapter.

Emcee Luis Narváez introduces Los Leones, Lester Rey and Giovany Revelle. Photo Credit: American Red Cross - Chicago and Northern Illinois Region Chapter.

His introduction led us to musical performances from three talented and rising musicians in Chicago. This year we welcomed returning artist Abraham Mellish, and new artists Azieb Abraha and Lester Rey to the stage. Each brought a really different sound to the event, sharing music with influences from the Caribbean, Ethiopia, and Liberia, blended together with sounds from the Chicago Latin and hip-hop scene. We also had three new art exhibits this year that were set up throughout Daley Plaza for public viewing. Volunteers answered questions and provided resources and information for anyone wanting to learn more about what we do. We also staged ‘WRD Ambassadors’ throughout the Plaza with Refugee Fact Sheets from the Illinois Bureau of Refugee and Immigrant Services, handing out almost all 400 of the copies. The Red Cross had an information tent and was staffed by RFL Intern Tessa Lavdiotis and RFL volunteers Susie Mazaheri and Jemina Shikany. Many people approached our tent with questions about donating blood, and while we directed them appropriately, it provided a great opportunity to educate the public about our Restoring Family Links program and our work around the world. 

R to L: Victoria Kruszewski on the Mbira and Khari Lemuel on cello accompanied Abraham Mellish at World Refugee Day Chicago 2016. Photo Credit: American Red Cross - Chicago and Northern Illinois Region Chapter.

R to L: Victoria Kruszewski on the Mbira and Khari Lemuel on cello accompanied Abraham Mellish at World Refugee Day Chicago 2016. Photo Credit: American Red Cross - Chicago and Northern Illinois Region Chapter.

I’m grateful our team could shape the 2nd Annual WRD Celebration downtown and raise awareness to a section of the public that may have never crossed paths with the amazing individuals who have come to our city as refugees. Our goal was to counter the negative conversations and share our alternative – one based in both facts and humanity – and I think we did that. The RFL program has brought the American Red Cross into this strong network of community organizations advocating and working with refugees and migrants in our community. Our team is proud to work for a program that continues to push the envelope on what we can do for our migrant and refugee neighbors and how we can make a positive impact right here at home.

*Source: Human Rights Watch