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Diversity on parade at Refugee Festival


Emily Burtt would like to answer some questions you might have. The questions go something like this:

Who are these people walking around my neighborhood wearing headdresses?

Where did they come from?

What are they doing in Baltimore?

It's a good chance these are some of Burtt's clients: Refugees from another country. Burtt is the administrative manager of the Baltimore Resettlement Center, which helps refugees get settled in the United States. As for the last question, you can ask some of them yourself at the inaugural World Refugee Festival Sunday.

The Sankofa Dance Theater, an African drum group, opens the festival with traditional African garb, drumming and dancing. The group's performance draws influences from different African countries. Izolda Trakhtenberg will play traditional Eastern European and Russian songs, and the Kalinka Russian Dance Ensemble will perform costumed folk dances. Some refugees in the Baltimore area will also perform, and speakers will read an Emily Dickinson poem in five languages.

Burtt said the festival's theme is "courage," which highlights the strength refugees muster to fit into a foreign country such as America and completely rebuild their lives.

"A lot of people are coming from war-torn countries -- countries where their ethnic group is persecuted," Burtt said. "They've survived through extremely traumatic ordeals to come here. They also face an uphill battle entering into the low-income group of people."

Not only do they not know the language, but the culture here is completely different, Burtt said. A refugee from Africa might not ever have lived in a city. Hopping on the bus to the grocery store and buying a six-pack of soda could be extremely foreign to them, she said.

The Baltimore Refugee Center provides social services including help with housing and employment, health screenings, English language classes, food stamps and a small amount of starter cash. The center houses several refugee initiatives, including the International Rescue Committee, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, Church World Service and Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.

The festival is free with a $5 suggested donation, which will help pay the cost of the festival and help provide more services for the center's clients, Burtt said.

"We just want to increase the image of our clients as integrating into part of the community, and also increase the community's awareness of us, and what we do," she said.

The World Refugee Festival runs from noon to 4 p.m. Sunday at Patterson Park's Pagoda Hill on Patterson Park Avenue. Free. Call 410-558-3179 or visit

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