By Richard Meek

The Catholic Commentator

Visitors to the Baton Rouge Goodwood Library on June 23 were greeted with the tantalizing aromas from specialty dishes being prepared from around the world.  

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Dancers from Kenya helped kick off World Refugee Day at the Main Goodwood Library in Baton Rouge. The day features entertainment, native dishes and various testimonies from refugee.   

 

Nearby, dancers stepping out to their endemic melodies created a festive atmosphere in the library’s large conference room.  

However, lying just below the surface of the merriment for the more than 350 people gathered to celebrate World Refugee Day was the soberness of being a stranger in a foreign land as well as remembering families left behind in abhorrent conditions.  

World Refugee Day was celebrated nationwide on and surrounding June 20, under the 2019 theme “Unity is strength.”  

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Younger dancers perform to traditional African music during World Refugee Day at the Main Goodwood Library in Baton Rouge. Other performances included dancers from Kenya, and Nigeria. Also performing was the children’s choir from the Hispanic Apostolate.   

 

“I think (World Refugee Day) is critical to our community, especially as Catholics in a Christian nation at a time when the refugee crisis globally is worse than it has ever been in history,” said David Aguillard, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Baton Rouge, one of the event’s sponsors. “It’s critical that we stop and pause and recognize the shared humanity, divinity and love of people from all around the world, regardless of where they came from, regardless of their ethnicity, their religion. It’s an essential part of who we are as a Gospel people.”  

The four-hour celebration included native dance groups from such places as Sierra Leone, Kenya, Africa and the Hispanic Apostolate’s youth choir. Interspersed between the performances were refugees recounting their stories of how they escaped the horrors of their homeland and have found a new home in Baton Rouge.  

Also speaking were city leaders, including Baton Rouge Mayor President Sharon Broome.  

Bishop Michael G. Duca also offered a prayer for refugees and world peace.  

“A house divided cannot stand,” Broome said. “Success comes from sticking together. We are interconnected as a community and so for my brother or sister to be successful that means we have to have an attitude and a spirit of unity.”  

Broome delighted the crowd when she compared the diverse ethnic makeup of Baton Rouge to that of gumbo, one of south Louisiana’s most revered delicacies. She said a gumbo is made up of various ingredients, including shrimp, okra, sausage, etc., that are part of a roux.  

“Guess what makes a gumbo strong and so tasty?” she said, adding it’s not because the ingredients melt into one taste but all of the ingredients have their unique flavor and “they all add to a delicious dish.” 

“I see diversity in this room,” Broome said. “Today is a celebration of cultures, of countries, of nations who make up the fabric of our community, who are part of the gumbo of Baton Rouge.  

“You are certainly welcomed and celebrated in the city of Baton Rouge. You are loved, you are appreciated.”  

Organizer Dauda Sesay, a native of Sierra Leone who eventually relocated to Baton Rouge with the assistance of CCDBR, said the number or refugees fleeing their homelands for safety and numerous other reasons continues to increase. He noted that during the four-hour celebration in Baton Rouge this past Sunday, an estimated 140,000 people will have left their homes in search of better opportunities or simply a place to live without the fear of death or violence. He said there an estimated 70 million refugees world wide.  

Sesay, who was reunited with his two sons after a 16-year absence, also with the assistance of CCDBR, said only one percent of those refugees are resettled.  

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Ombeni Anesiti was one of several refugees to give testimony regarding his journey that eventually landed him in Baton Rouge.  

 

“I (appreciate) the generosity of the people of Louisiana, of the people of Baton Rouge for letting us into the community,” he said. “The Baton Rouge community has chosen to welcome us.”  

Sesay said refugees like himself and millions of others are forced to flee their “cherished homes” to escape unspeakable horrors and eventually land in a refugee camp facing uncertain futures. 

“We did not choose to become refugees,” he said, and added the current national policies regarding immigration do not reflect the country’s commitment for refugee resettlement.  

“(The United States) is no longer a leader in the global effort to settle the refugee crisis,” he said. “Many refugees are placed in cages and their families separated.”  

He also acknowledged a tension between immigrants, refugees and law enforcement agencies, “demanding” elected officials to “show compassion” for those misplaced from their home countries.  

“Baton Rouge will prosper,” he said.  

Aguillard said CCDBR was previously the primary organizer for WRD but several years ago Sesay approached the agency for counsel about forming a non-profit refugee organization, which became the impetus of the Louisiana Organization for Refugees & Immigrants. Aguillard said CCDBR helped Sesay navigate the process and the red tape of establishing LORI, and giving direction on to help the organization grow.  

CCDBR eventually turned World Refugee Day over to LORI but remains a significant sponsor.  

“It’s all part of our mission to help refugees become our new neighbors and fully included and part of the fabric of our community,” he said.