About 600 refugees make their home in Charlotte each year. They become students, teachers, business owners, homeowners, consumers and taxpayers while quietly adjusting to the world they've arrived in. On June 20, these refugees will come together to educate and entertain Charlotte residents who want to learn more about those who have escaped persecution in their home countries to settle in Charlotte.
This year's event, held at The Green in Uptown between the Charlotte Convention Center and the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, will be the fourth annual event celebrating World Refugee Day in Charlotte. For 2015, however, nearly a dozen new organizations have joined the planning committee, which now consists of representatives of 16 agencies that help resettle, educate and support members of Charlotte's refugee community. Creative Loafing sat down with two committee members who have been working to make this year's celebration the biggest one yet. Heather Bise sits on the board of directors for ourBRIDGE, an after-school program for immigrants and refugees. Amanda Ingrassia is the director of refugee solutions for Charlotte Awake, a local faith-based organization.
Creative Loafing: What are misconceptions some natural-born citizens have about refugees?
Heather Bise: I think there's a misconception that refugees don't work or that they're not a part of the community. I find that people in the refugee community are the hardest working I've met. We have data that shows (refugees living) on Central Avenue are more likely to start a business and hire people in the community and help revitalize the area. I think the conception is that they come here and they're just a drain. They're really not. These kids are some of the best students. These kids are so grateful to be in school, to be receiving an education. I find them to be the most respectful and encouraging people.
What has working with this year's planning committee been like?
Bise: This is my first year being involved with this event and I didn't know what to expect. I think almost everybody that came to the committee this year was fairly new to the process so I felt like I had a blank slate to make it something bigger than what it's been and everybody was enthusiastic. The way that everybody jumped in to collaborate immediately was really exciting because you don't often see that, because different faiths are represented, different ideologies are represented, different scopes of work are represented. Everybody has their agenda, and they're important agendas, but the fact that everybody from such a broad spectrum of services is coming together not just for the message of World Refugee Day, but also to network together, introduce each other to people who can help them, it's really been a gratifying experience.
Ingrassia: I've never seen it cross this many lines. We come from very different backgrounds; Christians, Muslims, Jews, people who don't have any religious background. We just have all these different backgrounds and I've never seen that type of collaboration. I feel like this is something that we've always wanted but it's never happened. I feel like this is the first year where all our desires to have this actually all happen at the same time makes sense.
What can event attendees expect?
Bise: You're going to see some wonderful cultural performances. You're going to see some things you didn't know we had in Charlotte.
Guests will see the different types of refugees that are coming to Charlotte. You think you know what the population is, but I think people would be very surprised to see the difference in cultures and all the different countries that are represented here.
Ingrassia: I think they'll be surprised at how much of Charlotte is engaged in this. It feels really isolated, but at the event it's a unique way to see that it's not isolated, that there are a lot of people who are touching this in one way or the other. They just might not realize theyre part of this big, interconnected web.
From a refugee's standpoint, why are events like this important for them?
Ingrassia: One of their favorite things about this is that they get to share their culture. A lot of these people were kicked out of their countries because of their culture and persecuted for it. They were kicked out for ethnic reasons, so to be able to come into a public space and share what they were persecuted for is really exciting.
One refugee friend hates World Refugee Day and thought being a refugee was terrible and said, "Why woud you celebrate it?" So we've been having discussions and others have said, "We've come this far and look at what we are able to do." They're remembering something that was actually quite horrible and now they're able to say, "Yes, that was horrible, but now we're in the United States and we have a country and we want to make our country proud."