May Ria, 15, has henna applied to her hand by Sahro Nor as her friends wait their turn during the annual World Refugee Day Celebration, hosted by the San Diego Refugee Forum at Jeremy Henwood Memorial Park in City Heights. (Thom Vollenweider/U-T)
Pam KragenContact Reporter
At the World Refugee Day Celebration on Saturday in City Heights, there was Iraqi dancing, Burmese traditional music, henna tattooing and bedazzled headscarves for sale. But more than half of the booths at the afternoon festival were there not to celebrate refugee culture but to serve the immigrants, who make up nearly half of the ethnically-diverse neighborhood.
San Diego County has one of the largest refugee populations in America, with more than 100,000 moving here since the Vietnamese “boat people” arrived in the 1970s. At Saturday’s festival in Jeremy Henwood Memorial Park, refugees and their children talked about their love for their new country while acknowledging that assimilation challenges remain. That’s why so many of the booths were focused on helping these newcomers find their way.
The San Diego Police Department had a recruiting booth set up on the south edge of the park, where acting Sgt. Sam Morales said he’s looking for multilingual men and women interested in serving as dispatchers and officers. With the influx of Middle Eastern and African refugees to San Diego in recent years, he said there’s a great need for officers who can speak Arabic, Farsi and Somali.
Three of the organizations at the fair offer mental health counseling services for refugees. Mental health care was cited in a recent study by UCLA Health as one of the top three priorities of refugees living in San Diego County. The issue has received more attention since the shooting death of Alfred Olongo, 38, a Ugandan refugee who was killed in an encounter with El Cajon police last September during a mental breakdown.
Jodi Ortiz works with the Union of Pan Asian Communities’ Multicultural Community Counseling program. It provides services to Asian, Pacific Islander and Latino youth, ages 5 to 20 from National City to Mira Mesa. She said that while young refugees are better than adults at assimilating the English language, they face more challenges with culture clash, religion and relationships when they’re in school.
“There are so many changes they face coming from a different culture that can result in behavior problems at home and school,” Ortiz said. “But seeking counseling still remains a huge stigma.”
After speaking briefly to the crowd, local Democratic Congresswoman Susan Davis said many of the refugees she talks with are concerned about immigration and deportation since the election of President Donald Trump. She said it’s important to build a community dialogue so that refugees feel safe approaching law enforcement and other public service providers without fear of repercussions.
The annual event was organized by the San Diego Refugee Forum, whose chair Rebecca Paida said more than 40 organizations were represented this year — the most ever. She came to the U.S. from Sudan in 1999 and said the festival not only celebrates the resilience of refugees, it also shows their desire to contribute to America.
A posterboard display in front of the Vietnamese Community of San Diego’s booth featured photos of several successful first-generation Vietnamese-Americans, including California Congresswoman Janet Nguyen and U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Luong Thanh Viet. Spokesman Kim-Trang Dang said Vietnamese immigrants have successfully assimilated because they worked hard, but also because they never let go of their cultural values and community unity.
“We have a deep history of culture,” he said. “Culture is what made us strong and helped us succeed.”