By Sydney Keller
Pittsburgh Current Intern
Every day, all around the world, people are fleeing their countries and being taken out of their homes. These refugees have left war-torn or otherwise unsafe environments to seek safety and stability for themselves and their families.
On June 20, World Refugee Day, we recognize these people and their stories.
The United Nations (UN) General Assembly voted in 2000 that from then on June 20 would be observed as World Refugee Day in commemoration of the strength, courage and perseverance of all refugees, and to raise awareness of the millions of displaced people around the world.
A local observation of the event, World Refugee Day Pittsburgh, will be held in Market Square on Friday, June 21 from 11 a.m to 2 p.m.
World Refugee Day Pittsburgh is presented by the Acculturation for Justice, Access, and Peace Outreach (AJAPO) and Jewish Family and Community Services’ (JFCS) Refugee and Immigrant Services.
Senior Case Manager at AJAPO, Shannon Messana, is organizing this year’s World Refugee Day Pittsburgh 2019. It is her first year taking the lead on the event, but in her three years with AJAPO she has seen how World Refugee Day can create a sense of community.
“I really enjoy seeing the wide variety of people that come out to enjoy the event,” Messana said. “I think we have people from all walks of life that come through Market Square that day.”
At the event, there will be a variety of performers—like African, Nepali and Greek dance groups, Venezuelan musicians, dance and drumming from the Hill Dance Academy Theater and a reading by poet Osama Alomar from Pittsburgh City of Asylum.
There will also be vendors, crafts and food from Syria, Iraq, Turkey and more, provided by members of our local refugee and immigrant communities.
“I’m glad that we have some people coming from out of state, all the way from D.C., for Refugee Day,” Messana says. “It really shows how well it has grown over the past few years.”
World Refugee Day Pittsburgh has been held in Market Square for the past five years. Director of Refugee and Immigrant Services at JFCS Pittsburgh Leslie Aizenman believes having World Refugee Day Pittsburgh in Market Square allows people who work Downtown or travel Downtown an excellent opportunity to engage with refugees and the event itself.
Aizenman says that being Jewish and having great grandparents that fled their home country to come to the United States for their safety makes her feel connected to this issue.
“I want to help people,” she says.
Aizenman has been Director of Refugee and Immigrant Services for eleven years at JFCS Pittsburgh, which is affiliated with the national organization, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS). This year’s recognition of Pittsburgh’s refugee and immigrant populations has extra significance, as the attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue shook the community and it was discovered that the shooter blamed HIAS online for bringing immigrants he was prejudiced against into the community.
But Aizenman emphasizes that Pittsburgh’s effort to assist refugees have not been at all dampened by this one act of hatred.
“Pittsburgh is welcoming,” Aizenman says. “We are still here. We are still welcoming refugees.”
HIAS President and CEO Mark Hetfield will speak at the event on Friday, as well as the Office Director of Refugee Resettlement at the U.S. Department of State, Lawrence Bartlett, and Matthew Reynolds, who is the regional representative for the U.S. and the Caribbean at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
According to Aizenman, the event is a great way for refugees to share their art, food and stories with other Pittsburghers.
“It’s a time to recognize their resilience and strength,” Aizenman says. “It’s a reminder that there are over 25 million refugees. It is a crisis. On top of that, there are another 40 million people that have been forced out of their homes.”
World Refugee Day is special to Aizenman and others who dedicate their time to helping refugees in the area because they get to see the people who were initially dependent upon their help “shine and bring their art and their culture to us.”
“It’s a moment where they are shining,” Aizenman says.