Children from many nations hold flags from around the world as part of Lewiston’s World Refugee Day on Monday evening in Simard-Payne Memorial Park. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)

LEWISTON — Community leader Fatuma Hussein told hundreds of people at Simard-Payne Memorial Park on Monday evening that World Refugee Day is a time to celebrate the rich cultures in Lewiston-Auburn.

Hussein, 38, said she came to Lewiston from Somalia 17 years ago when there were only three families from the war-torn African nation in Maine.

As of January, there were between 6,000 and 7,000 people from Africa living in Lewiston, according to former City Administrator Phil Nadeau.

Hussein said it’s hard to see, 17 years later, that there is still such a divide between refugees and U.S. citizens.

According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, a refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. Refugees have been forced to leave their country to escape war, persecution or natural disaster.

“People like me, who look like me, dress like me, worship like me, are not evil,” Hussein said. “We’re just looking for safety, like any other person,” she said.

Hussein founded The Immigrant Resource Center of Maine, a nonprofit organization to assist immigrant and refugee women and children living in Maine in a manner which reflects gender and cultural practices.

Jim Thompson, uncle of 38-year-old Donald Giusti of Lewiston who died after being assaulted in Kennedy Park on June 15, said he and his family are fully behind World Refugee Day and want the community to come together to make a better Lewiston-Auburn.

“We want the violence to stop,” Thompson said. “We all live here, work here, sleep here, our kids play here. We’re all hurting. We hurt for our community. There’s a lot of hardworking people here, and we get to decide what goes on here.”

Keynote speaker and former legislator Peggy Rotundo of Lewiston said, “Today we celebrate the richness and blessings that diverse cultures bring to our community.  We celebrate past generations who bravely set out from their homelands to the United States, ready to sacrifice all that they had to provide bright futures for their children and themselves.”

Many refugees, she said, have fled from conflict and violence that is unimaginable to most of us.

“Today is a day to remember the 14 million refugees across the world, who have crossed oceans, deserts and mountains, hoping to escape terror and find safety,” Rotundo said.”They are no different from us as they seek the freedom, security and promise we enjoy in our country.”

The World Refugee Day celebration offered games and face painting for children, information tables for local resources, a fashion show and dance performances from local high school students.

One of the highlights of the yearly event is the food, with offerings from nine  countries. They included Kunafa from Jordan, mikate from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, chicken and rice from Somalia, fatira from North Sudan, fadira from Djibouti and basbousa from Iraq.

Roda Hassna, reflected in the mirror, admires her new face paint as friend Kaltumo Matan looks on at the World Refugee Day Celebration in Simard-Payne Memorial Park in Lewiston on Monday evening. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)

A joyful participant in World Refugee Day runs to the stage with the El Salvadoran flag on Monday evening in Simard-Payne Memorial Park in Lewiston. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)

Children hold up flags from many nations during World Refugee Day at Simard-Payne Memorial Park on Monday evening. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)


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