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World Refugee Day celebration offers food, dance, soccer and citizenship

Published: Sunday, June 19 2011 12:38 a.m. MDT

Chris Konan, a 9-year-old from Salt Lake City, jumps rope at the World Refugee Day Festival at Granite High School on Saturday.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

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SOUTH SALT LAKE — A diverse crowd of several hundred people quietly stood, lining the first curve of the former Granite High School's track. Others sat cross-legged or knelt on the grass, intently watching 11 people who stood on a temporary stage.

In the distance, a soccer match raged — between a team wearing red-and-black jerseys and another in teal and white. But like the distant wars many of these refugees fled, few were paying attention.

The 11 were having their "birthday as American citizens," Jeanne Kent, a field officer with the U.S. Customs and Immigration Service, told the audience. The swearing-in ceremony Saturday was the first-ever for the World Refugee Day celebration that is put on annually by the Utah Refugee Coalition and other organizations.

Kent slowly intoned the Oath of Allegiance to the United States line by line, as refugees from Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan and three other countries repeated the lines back to her.

Afterward, Azeb Kebede flashed a broad smile. "Oh, I'm excited," she said. "It's an open door to me." She seemed relieved that a long journey had finally ended.

When she fled her native Ethiopia because of war 21 years ago — three of her siblings were killed — "I don't know anything about the U.S.," Kebede said. "I hear many things is good."

She fled to nearby Djibouti, where she lived in a refugee camp for 11 years. Ten years ago, she finally got approved to come to the United States. But during the five-year citizenship application process, she had to forgo the right to visit her remaining family members who are still in Ethiopia.

Now, as a citizen, she can use her "open door" to come and go freely, she said.

A 39-year-old with warmly colored, bronze skin, Kebede works as a housekeeper at the University of Utah hospital and has hopes to further her education in the health care field.

She also looks forward to her chance to vote. President Barack Obama's election in 2008 was an inspiration to her and others from Africa, Kebede said. Obama's father, Barack Obama, Sr., was born in Kenya, which borders Ethiopia to the south.

Besides citizenship, the daylong celebration featured a soccer tournament, music, dance and food from a variety of countries — Burundi, Bosnia, Iran, Bhutan, Russia and elsewhere.

From a booth, Congolese native Emmanuel Lebo and his wife, Cathy Tshilombo, served shish kebabs drizzled in peanut sauce, as well dishes of fried bananas, chicken and rice.

They also offered bottles of Mama Mia Hot Sauce, or pili-pili sauce, for $5 each. As one customer emptied a spoonful onto his combo platter, she warned, "Oh, no, no, no, no — that's too much!" Then, she barely dipped a plastic fork into the sauce and had him taste it.

"If you are a tough man, then you can handle it," Tshilombo joked.

The couple runs Mama Africa, an African food and catering business. Even though Lebo emigrated in 1983 and is a permanent resident, he does not wish to apply for citizenship, he said.

With elections in November, they are hopeful that the Congo will finally return to peace and that they can return home to make their contribution — easier to do if still Congolese citizens.

The celebration is part of the observance of June as Utah Refugee Month, which continues with other activities such as a Spyhop youth film screening Wednesday, a Rwandese cultural event Saturday and a Bhutanese cultural event June 28.

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