At World Refugee Day festival in Baltimore, a focus on celebration and feeling welcome

The 19-year-old who took the stage Saturday at Baltimore's World Refugee Day festival seemed to showcase what a successful resettlement might look like — a leader among his peers, invited to read poetry written in a language he learned about a year ago after moving to the United States from Burundi, where he lived with his family in a refugee camp for more than a decade.

But even for Sartre Ndebaneza, the transition to a new life in Baltimore was not easy.


"At the other side we were welcomed, the border was opened like shark's mouth," he said, reading from his poem "Annoying Life." "In their eyes we were refugees, not humans."

Ndebaneza's words underscored the tensions surrounding this year's World Refugee Day, as anti-immigrant political movements gain steam in the United States and Europe amid conflicts in the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere that have driven millions from their homes.


"The goal is just celebration," said Nick King, 34, development coordinator at the International Rescue Committee, one of the groups that organized Saturday's festival, which also hosted dancing, drum circles and face painting. "In the news, there's been a lot of backlash. We just want people to feel welcome here."

As the crisis escalated last fall, President Barack Obama said the U.S. would admit 85,000 refugees in 2016, about 15,000 more than last year.

Maryland has accepted about 740 refugees since October, with more than half coming from Burma, Eritrea or Iraq, according to data from the State Department's Refugee Processing Center.

Many have settled in Baltimore, which accepted 43 percent of the state's 6,716 refugees between 2010 and 2014.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake called it a "humanitarian duty" to welcome refugees.

The city has been expanding its programs to meet refugee needs, launching a refugee employment program with other partners that offers English-language classes and training for jobs like forklift operation or maintenance to help arrivals start their new life.

About 48 people have received training since January, with 30 placed in jobs, said Catalina Rodriguez Lima, director of the Mayor's Office of Immigrant and Multicultural Affairs.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Anne Richard, who attended Saturday's event, said she often holds up Baltimore as an example of how to help refugees transition.

"There's been some dark days lately, some bad talk about hate speech and keeping people out and who we'll let in, and I would encourage people to look to Baltimore and emulate Baltimore," she said. "You've got the right spirit here."

Ndebaneza's family was originally from the Republic of Congo, but they were members of a minority tribe and their home village was attacked by government troops, he said. After 15 years in a refugee camp, his parents and brothers flew to New York last year, then took the bus to Baltimore.

The city has started to feel more like home since that night, said Ndebaneza, who spoke four languages but not English when he arrived.

The Enoch Pratt Free Library and new friends have helped, he said. A rising senior at Patterson High School, he was named one of the city's inaugural Light City Teen Scholars this spring.


"It was hard to come to a new place," he said. "I started to feel this was home since … I meet other people."

Ndebaneza's second selection for the festival crowd, "Morning of Smile," hinted that he sees happier days ahead.

"I am a tree that grew up in thorns," he read. "But now I sit on throne."

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