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World Refugee Day celebration is a showcase for the displaced

When Sokoja Kondorka reflects on the violence and death he saw in his home of Darfur, Sudan, he struggles to articulate it.

"You never think that a hundred people are all dead in front of your eyes," he said. "If that's your village and people have been kidnapped from your village … you cannot describe that to any person."

Today, Kondorka lives in Northeast Baltimore, the city he resettled to 10 months ago after years in a refugee camp and a long journey through Chad, Libya and Egypt.

Though he left so much behind, he'll represent his culture Saturday as one of about 15 refugees — plus Baltimore beat boxer Shodekeh — performing in a World Refugee Day commemoration at the Walters Art Museum. The event is staged by the Baltimore Resettlement Center and will feature singing, dancing and visual art.

"I am going to play for my family," Kondorka said this week in his apartment, as translated by Ismail Abdelrahaman of the International Rescue Committee. Kondorka has been practicing guitar daily, singing songs about the traditions and customs of his homeland.

"World Refugee Day seems abstract to some people, like it doesn't connect to their lives," said International Rescue Committee director Ruben Chandrasekar, "but in Baltimore it is part of the health of the city."

His organization works with the Baltimore Resettlement Center, Lutheran Social Services, Baltimore City Community College and the state social services department "to make sure that new Americans are welcomed and valued in the new communities they are integrated into," he said. That includes helping them find homes, jobs and English lessons.

Though World Refugee Day has been commemorated in a large-scale Baltimore event for about six years — drawing up to around 300 people — Chandrasekar sees opportunity for growth this year at the Walters, which can hold more than 400 audience members.

"Refugees are like everybody else," he says. "[This event] is an opportunity for refugees to say, 'Here I am. I'm ready to start a new life and contribute.' They like to be able to connect with Americans and convey those things."

Maria Aldana, outreach coordinator for the Creative Alliance, a partner in the event, said the World Refugee Day performance is meant to help refugees express themselves in a changing city.

"We want them to know that there's a creative space for them to work through," Aldana said. "It's hard to keep track of who lives here and who's planting their families and rooting their families in Baltimore. [The event is] a one-day exposure to the variety of cultures that are home to Baltimore now."

Plus, "Performance just transcends the daily struggles of language and cultural differences. It's universal — everybody dances, everybody sings."

Mixing American and native culture within their art helps refugees forge new identities when they move to a new place, she said.

In the case of Kondorka, he hadn't planned to end up in the United States.

"Our main focus was to save our lives," he said. "If you see what's happened in Darfur and you know what's going on there, you would never believe that I would be here now. I was supposed to be dead. I was lucky."

In light of that nightmare, Kondorka said, nothing compares to his new Baltimore home.

"It's a beautiful city," Kondorka said. "People are really helpful, and I like the city, and I feel like it's my home. I was resettled here, I love the city and I want to stay here."

Kondorka will sing in several languages of Sudan in Saturday's performance. For the future, he is focusing on learning English to communicate better.

"If I believe that I can do something for people to make people feel happy, and that seems better than my music, I will stop music and I will start doing that thing," he said. "But for now I cannot do anything better than music."

If you go

World Refugee Day celebration featuring more than 15 performances from refugees who have been resettled in the Baltimore area. 1-3:30 p.m. Saturday. It will be preceded by an information session at noon. Walters Art Museum, 600 N. Charles St. Free.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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