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Emily Colby
Michael Keo and his wife Monique at the refugee festival.

To help Houston residents know of organizations and efforts to help refugees, the Northeast Houston Refugee Festival was hosted by the Houston Texas Summerwood Stake of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The festival held Sept. 17 included more than a dozen community aid or religious organizations, of which representatives distributed handouts, explained services they offer and welcomed volunteers. The festival also included speakers about offering help, booths sharing about various cultures and presentations from former refugees.

With more than 2,500 refugees relocated to Houston every year, the fourth-largest city in the U.S. has large refugee outreach programs and services that need volunteers at all commitment levels.

Rebecca McCallister, a member of the Houston Texas Summerwood Stake and mother of three young children, volunteers for Refugee Services of Texas.

“I loved picking the family up at the airport," she said. "All the work of organizing people, collecting donations and setting up their apartment seemed to be centered on that moment. … I’m not sure all they have been through but they arrived smiling and with so much love and gratitude to us.”

McCallister organized a team to prepare welcome kits, including living essentials, furniture and one week of groceries, for incoming refugees. She has befriended a family that arrived as refugees, and has started teaching them English and introducing them to American customs. She is now organizing a new team for another refugee family.

Local LDS volunteers had booths offering international cultural displays and food samples from all over the world, including Samoa, Russia, the Philippines, Germany, Cambodia and Mexico. The Samoan booth provided freshly grated coconut, using a traditional scraper bench right at the booth.

Michael Keo, a member of the LDS Church who hosted the Cambodia booth, was a refugee as a child in the 1970s and displayed his mother’s dresses and offered traditional Cambodian pickled foods.

“I wanted to spread awareness about refugees and help people in my community associate the term ‘refugee’ with something positive," he said. "I am so appreciative of (my mom and dad) and their determination to make a better life for me and my brother. I feel a sense of pride for this country that allowed us to come in and literally make our dreams come true.”

Later during the speaking symposium, Haley Smith, who flew from Phoenix for the event, spoke on behalf of Lifting Hands International about her time volunteering in Greek refugee camps. From YMCA International, Joe Saceric outlined ways that the organization helps incoming refugees from small services like welcome and hygiene kits, to larger services like help furnishing homes and job placement.

Also, Steve Quach, a local resident and member of the LDS Church, shared his personal refugee experience in postwar Vietnam. As an Indian refugee during the India-Pakistan partition, Imam Mubasher Ahmad shared his personal refugee story and the hardships his family endured prior to offering a beautiful prayer to close the meeting.

“It was very informative and helped me realize the opportunities that my family and I could take advantage of,” said Karin Riedel, a Summerwood resident.

Lorie Comacho, co-organizer of the event, said, “To see, hear and feel people from different faiths and backgrounds uniting in one cause is something that is sorely needed in our society.”

Refugee aid organizations that were present include the Bilingual Education Institute; Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Galveston/Houston; Lifting Hands International; YMCA International; Amaanah Refugee Services; Amnesty International; The Refugee Project; Refugee Council USA; JustServe.org; Humble Area Assistance Ministries; Refugee Services of Texas; Alliance for Multicultural Community Services; and Interfaith Ministries. During the interactive fair portion of the evening, representatives from these organizations distributed handouts, explained services they offer and welcomed volunteers.

Religious groups, including Temple Beth Torah, Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, Lakeside United Methodist Church and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also held booths for potential volunteers and informed community members about their respective religions. LDS Church leaders announced the “I Was a Stranger” initiative this spring, encouraging Mormons to help reach out to refugees in their communities.

Lacey Kupfer Wulf is a wife, mother of twin toddler boys, and a freelance writer and editor. She lives in Houston. Her email is [email protected].