Unity. Strength. Freedom. Tradition and celebration were the themes of the afternoon Saturday during Maine’s online celebration of the 21st annual World Refugee Day.

The Catholic Charities Office of Maine Refugee Services celebrated the annual event via livestream, with more than a dozen speakers recognizing and highlighting the trials and tribulations of refugees around the world.

For the past two decades, hundreds of people have gathered on June 20 each year at Simard-Payne Memorial Park in Lewiston to hear speeches from immigrants, faith and community leaders, and Senate and congressional delegates recognizing the struggles of refugees who have been displaced by violence or persecution. The annual event is an international observance and, according to organizers, is dedicated to raising awareness of the situation of refugees throughout the world.

Locally, it has also been a celebration of culture, highlighting traditional food from different countries, including Jordan, Somalia, Djibouti and Iraq.

However, like many events held over the last several months across the country under COVID-19 pandemic protocols, the Office of Maine Refugee Services moved the 46-minute celebration online, hosted on Facebook Live and Zoom.

Ekhlas Ahmed of Portland, a delegate to the Refugee Congress with the U.N. Refugee Agency, was the master of ceremonies for the event and introduced each of the speakers.

In her remarks, Lewiston City Councilor Safiya Khalid noted that 2020 was a busy year, between “the pandemic, an election season and the Census.”

“I hope that with all that’s happening, we’re able to get together with friends and family – virtually, of course – and celebrate culture, traditions, nationality, and celebrate all that makes (you who you are),” Khalid said.

Dina Yacounagha of the Islamic Center of Maine and U.S. Representative Chellie Pingree each described Maine’s immigrants as adding to Maine’s “mosaic” of voices.

“We value your experiences and contributions to our communities all over Maine and have been fortunate to get to learn from you the traits of perseverance, patience and hope,” Yacounagha said. “We’re stronger when we work together and support each other.”

Tarlan Ahmadov, refugee coordinator at the Maine Office of Refugee Services, told viewers that while “being a refugee is never easy, recent years have been particularly challenging in our country and in the world.”

“We at the office of Maine Refugee Services will continue in the great Catholic tradition of welcoming those new to the country and standing in solidarity with refugees as they work toward justice,” he added.

During her remarks, Gov. Janet Mills proclaimed that June 20 is recognized as World Refugee Day in Maine to “recognize the positive impact and enduring contributions of refugee communities seeking peace, freedom, and opportunity within Maine’s borders.”

Portland Councilman Pious Ali, South Portland Councilwoman Deqa Dhalac and Westbrook Mayor Michael Foley all announced during the livestream that their respective cities had approved similar proclamations declaring June 20 as World Refugee Day.

Charles Mugabe, who immigrated to the United States from the Democratic Republic of Congo four years ago, said during the livestream that World Refugee Day is “not just a day for refugees, but a special day for everybody.”

“Coming here was a very long journey,” Mugabe said. “We endured suffering in the Congo: killings, drugs, famine, instability, insecurity, lack of development. Coming to the United States was a life-changing moment for us. It meant a second chance at life itself.”

“The help I got along the way is what shaped me into the person I am today,” Mugabe continued. “Today is a day of unity, a day to show that by ourselves, we cannot do anything, but if we stand strong, support immigrants and our fellow friends and neighbors, we’ll uplift each other.”

Mugabe left his speech on a note of unity.

“In French, we have a saying: “L’union fait la force,” Mubage said. “It means ‘unity brings about strength.’ Happy World Refugee Day, everyone.”

 

Eklhas Ahmed was the emcee of Maine Virtual World Refugee Day celebration on Zoom. Screenshot from video


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