Photos by Claire Burke
By Emma Grover
On June 17, 2023, at Clinton Park in Downtown Oakland, hundreds of community members including local non-profit organizations, City and County’s officials, families, artists, and more, gathered to celebrate World Refugee Day and the resilience and diversity of the East Bay’s refugee and immigrant communities at this year’s World Refugee and Immigrant Day Festival. A day of connection and celebration, ARTogether, in partnership with the East Bay Refugee and Immigrant Forum and its members, orchestrated a robust program of incredible performances, a community resource marketplace featuring over thirty local organizations, a plethora of engaging children’s activities, and free food for the community including an array of Afghan, Chinese, and Korean dishes.
World Refugee Day was founded by the United Nations in 2001 to honor refugees around the world. On June 20th of every year, we come together to celebrate the strength and contributions of refugees in our communities, as well as build awareness around the struggles and threats refugees face while fleeing conflict or persecution in their own countries.
Nick Kanozik, ARTogether’s Music Program Director as well as the co-chair of the World Refugee and Immigrant Day Festival planning committee, explained to me that ARTogether expanded their celebration to include immigrants in addition to refugees in order to recognize those who did not flee their home countries but who may still struggle to feel a part of their new communities. Nick shared with me,
This festival is about the celebration and coming together of those who feel a similar loss or distance from their home or their culture. The idea is to come together to highlight all that makes Oakland and this community beautiful.
The World Refugee and Immigrant Day Festival planning committee started meeting in January of 2023. The planning committee met every few weeks to confirm location and funding logistics, before shifting their efforts in March towards building a robust program of musicians and performers. This year’s festival included an opening ritual by local artist Dohee Lee, mesmerizing music and dance from Afghanistan by Samia Karimi, dynamic cultural showcases from Kenya, Senegal, Mali, Brazil, and Congo by Cheza Nami Ensemble, a Vietnamese fashion performance titled “Ao Dai Dep” by Anna Wong, soul-stirring Latin American music and dance by Diana Gameros Quartet, and captivating Arabic music and vocals by the Aswat Ensemble.
At the festival, over forty volunteers united together to help with the various tasks of the day, including supporting the kids’ activities, distributing food, and ensuring the wellbeing of all the day’s participants. Polina Marso, one of ARTogether’s Program Managers who organized the kids activities for the festival, added, “This year we had the most organizations participate (table) than any other year and it was such a unifying experience!”
This year’s festival also included an expanded variety of children’s activities, including soccer games facilitated by Soccer Without Borders, a team of clowns from Church of Clown, free duffel bags with teddy bears and baby essentials distributed by 5ive Pillars, mask decorating, face painting, henna, printmaking, cotton candy and popcorn stations, and more.
ARTogether received lots of positive feedback for this event, all of which recognized the tremendous love and effort that went into putting this program together. One person named ARTogether’s World Refugee and Immigrant Day Festival the “United Nations of community events” while another remarked, “We need to do more of these!”
It’s important to show newcomers that there are places they can go where they are welcome, that they don’t need to live in a vacuum,” Nick thoughtfully responded after reading this feedback out loud. He continued, “A lot of times, so much of what refugees and immigrants are required to do is fit into something else. I love that this festival is the opposite of that, it’s for them and because of them; it’s their event. Our hope is to build up folks who might feel that they are struggling to acclimate, to show them that we care about them individually as well as their culture. We would love to do these events more often.
Emma Grover is a freelance writer from New York City who recently moved to the Bay Area after completing her degree in English and Creative Writing at Wesleyan University. She is passionate about the healing powers of written and artistic expression as well as highlighting the voices of underrepresented and diasporic writers like herself. She has a background in non-profit work and education.