Utah celebrates World Refugee Day

Published: Saturday, June 16 2012 11:18 p.m. MDT

Imani Joseph plays with a drum of the Jambo Africa Burundi drumming group after a performance as refugees from nearly 27 countries gather Saturday, June 16, 2012 at the old Granite High School for a world refugee festival.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SOUTH SALT LAKE — Gerald Brown was in deep denial.

Brown, director of the state Refugee Services Office, was headed to a date in the dunk tank as part of the World Refugee Festival at Granite High School Saturday. Signs that said "Do 1 Thing, Dunk me" were posted on booths and tents encouraging $1 donations for the opportunity. Brown's mug was prominently displayed on the signs.

Fredrick Ntabwoba, a Rwandan refugee, even had a sign pinned to the back of his shirt.

"We like this man. He does everything for the refugees," Ntabwoba said. "I really honor him for (taking up) the cause of the refugee."

"Everyone," he said, "is buying tickets."

Brown brushed it off as "wishful thinking."

"I think people want me to," be dropped into the dunk tank. "I don't see it happening."

The seventh annual celebration, marking United Nations-sanctioned World Refugee Day, featured a soccer tournament, artists' demonstrations, food and dance performances. 

Brown said some 25 refugee groups are represented in Utah, and one or two flags from each group was part of the festival flag ceremony, which included the playing of the respective national anthems.  

Abraham Khalilov, an Ahiska-Turkish refugee, was among the flag bearers. He also performed a Turkish dance on the festival main stage. Khalilov said he was relocated to Utah from Russia about six years ago. There are 40 Ahiska-Turkish families in Utah, he said.

Khalilov said he was honored to carry the flag and to take part in Saturday's celebration. 

"I think it's a nice way for people to represent their cultures. It gives people a lot of hope," he said.

One of the highlights of the festival was a ceremony to grant American citizenship to eight refugees.

"This is the best part of what we do," said Jeanne Kent, field office director for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Bureau. 

"We're a better country because they decide to become citizens."

This was the second year that the festival has included a swearing-in ceremony. Some 430 people have been sworn in as new citizens this past month, Kent said.

Some 25,000 refugees have been resettled in Utah since end of the Vietnam War. The vast majority reside in the Salt Lake Valley.

Ehmoo Na Bright, who was relocated to Utah five years ago from Burma, said she was "very happy" to become an American citizen.

"The test was easy but writing part was hard," she said of her citizenship exam.

"Today is good," she said, holding up her citizenship certificate.

E-mail: marjorie@desnews.com

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