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Despite setbacks, refugees find hope in strange land


Years ago, Mohammad Ali Ruhani was a dermatologist. A native of Afghanistan, he lived in Russia before coming to Baltimore 10 months ago with his wife and young children.

Now, he said yesterday through an interpreter, his factory job consists of washing screens with chemicals for little more than minimum wage. Despite difficulties - finding employment, learning English and navigating a foreign city - he expressed happiness to be here.

Ruhani was among many whose quest for refuge and asylum was recognized yesterday at a festival at Patterson Park. The World Refugee Day celebration was sponsored by the International Rescue Committee and the Creative Alliance.

For Getachew Woyessa, an employee of Lutheran Social Services who helps newcomers find jobs, the celebration was about letting refugees know that they are welcomed here.

"We have to remember that we didn't have what we needed to live where we are from," said Woyessa, a refugee from Ethiopia who has lived in Baltimore for five years. "Here, we are celebrating."

According to Woyessa and Emily Burtt of the Baltimore Resettlement Center, recent refugees in the area include Somali Bantus, Meskhetian Turks, Russians, people from Sudan and other African countries and Afghanis such as Ruhani.

Burtt said it's impossible to know just how many refugees and asylees are in the area but that her organization helps about 400 a year.

At the festival, throbbing African drums were followed by chords of a Russian folk song. People wearing colorful dashikis and bright headscarves walked among others in T-shirts and khakis. The sound of teenagers and young adults talking on cell phones was a symphony of languages, while African dancers, Russian dancers, a poetry reading and a fashion show with refugee children took turns on a stage.

World Refugee Day - officially June 20 - is held to "mark the courage, resilience and invaluable contributions of all of those who have been forced to flee their homes due to violence or oppression," the festival program said.

For Janine Kucik and Scott Morton of Catonsville, it was also a day to let their two young sons experience different kinds of music and ethnic dancing.

"Just hearing the different languages, the different music, I hope it opens their minds for later years," Morton said.

Despite the festive atmosphere, Woyessa said he wants people to recognize that making the transition to life in a new country can be hard.

He said that when he arrived in Baltimore, he spent 10 months cleaning a hotel, even though he has a master's degree in international law from a Russian university and speaks five languages.

"The big problems, of course, are language and cultural adjustment, but also expectations," he said. "Some come here with high expectations of America."

Indeed, Ibrahim Turay, 32, said that's exactly how his family arrived in Philadelphia from Sierra Leone in the 1970s.

"They bought the propaganda, that the streets here were paved with gold," said Turay, a drummer with Sankofa Dance Theater. "But we've had our own struggles here."

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