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World Refugee Day marked in downtown Baltimore

Ivy Walker, Regional Coordinator of the International Services of the Red Cross, helps Kamryn Parker, 5, rinse her hands after contributing to the artwork.
Ivy Walker, Regional Coordinator of the International Services of the Red Cross, helps Kamryn Parker, 5, rinse her hands after contributing to the artwork. (Kaitlin Newman, Baltimore Sun)

Nicole Tingler and her relatives passed through various stations set up in McKeldin Square on Saturday to raise awareness about the world's refugee crisis.

They pressed their hands into paint to leave handprints on a wall. They learned about how refugees eat and sleep. And about how they are allotted just 15 liters of water a day — not quite 4 gallons — for all their needs.

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One of her daughters was so moved, Tingler said, that she gave a nearby homeless man money.

"Most people don't realize what some people have to go through," said Tingler, 33, of Baltimore. "It makes you appreciate what you have."

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The regional chapter of the American Red Cross hosted the exhibition in the heart of Baltimore to mark World Refugee Day, a time to focus on the plight of refugees displaced by wars, natural disasters and other crises. June 20 has been designated as World Refugee Day by the United Nations since 2001.

The 10 stations set up by Red Cross volunteers were designed to explain daily life in a refugee camp, and visitors could "walk in the footsteps" of refugees. The stations included one with an image of a crude latrine drawn onto a board, planters where passers-by could plant "seeds of hope," two camping tents and cots set up to illustrate how many refugees live in tent-like structures, and a water station with a mock pump where a volunteer challenged participants to think about how to reduce water usage.

At another tent, volunteers gave free blood pressure screenings — an activity not connected to the refugee crisis but one that organizers wanted to do for the community nevertheless.

The organization also promoted its International Family Tracing Services program, which helps connect refugees with loved ones after displacement.

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The U.N. reported Friday that the number of people forcibly displaced worldwide at the end of 2014 had risen to an all-time high of 59.5 million, compared with 51.2 million a year earlier and 37.5 million a decade ago. About 86 percent of refugees are hosted in developing countries, with the most in Turkey, Pakistan and Lebanon.

"It's a traumatic experience when you go through a refugee camp," said Brittany Fowler, a Red Cross spokeswoman. "Giving people a chance to reconnect with friends and family whom they've lost touch with grounds them and gives them a sense of normalcy."

About 200 people had stopped by the exhibit, which ran from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., by midafternoon, Fowler said.

Levar Parker brought his 5-year-old daughter, Kamryn, to It's Sugar candy store in the Inner Harbor on Saturday to celebrate her graduation from prekindergarten, and the two stopped by the exhibit. Kamryn focused intently on creating a paper doll at a station intended to inspire participants to reflect on themselves and develop healthy a self-image, drawing on one blue leg and one red leg.

"She loves arts and crafts," Parker said.

Saria Widatalla, 24, of Bowie was impressed with the exhibit, calling it "awesome."

"I didn't know refugees were so prevalent in the U.S.," she said, explaining that she thought most went to neighboring countries. Some 3 million refugees have resettled in the U.S. since 1975, according to the U.S. Department of State.

Children and adults wrote messages explaining their favorite thing about themselves on Post-It notes and stuck them to a mirror. "I can run around," one girl wrote. "I like me because I am special and have a nice smile," another child wrote.

"I think it's great to create awareness about what's happening around the world, especially with the increase in refugees," said Jennifer Gonzaga, 40, of Washington, D.C. Her children blew bubbles and made paper dolls at the stations. "At least we have one day that creates that kind of awareness."

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