Balloons, basketball and birthday cake were the order of the day Jan. 21 at the Della Lamb Community Center in Kansas City, where 65 children and their parents attended a birthday party put on by Jewish Vocational Service for refugees.
Many refugees come from cultures where birthdays aren’t recorded or celebrated. When they come to the United States, they may not know their real birthdate, but they need one for legal purposes. By default, they’re assigned Jan. 1 of the most likely year, hence the start-of-the-year celebration.
“We wanted to find a way to do something celebratory for our refugee clients and connect the refugees with the community at-large in Kansas City,” said Hilary Singer, executive director of Jewish Vocational Service. “People come from so many religious backgrounds. ... We wanted to do something that brought a little bit of light into the cold winter but didn’t have that religious component.”
Jewish Vocational Service, which resettles hundreds of refugees each year, partnered with Congregation Beth Torah, The Temple Congregation B’nai Jehudah and Della Lamb for the party. It’s the third year for the event.
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The party attracted a diverse group, with immigrants from Democratic Republic of Congo, Bhutan, Sudan, Somalia, Syria, Iraq and more joining in the festivities. Children from less than a year old through their teens came to bounce on a moonwalk, get their faces painted and play various games.
“This year in particular, it’s been a hard year for refugees,” Singer said. “The political landscape has been challenging. People wonder what their place is here and if they’re welcome.”
Singer said federal policies have restricted the number of refugees they’re able to resettle in Kansas City.
In 2016, jewish Vocational Service resettled almost 600 families. Last year, that number dropped to 450 families and this year Singer expects it to drop even more to about 350 families.
One purpose of the party is to show the kids what U.S. birthdays are like, so they have some idea what to expect when classmates invite them over for a party.
When the group gathered to sing “Happy Birthday,” several groups of attendees stepped up to the microphone to sing the song in their own languages.
Papi Kasindi brought his four children and various members of his family to the party. It’s been five years since Jewish Vocational Service helped them resettle here from the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The party “brings people together,” he said. “People get to listen to different kinds of languages. The kids can go here and there. We have small apartments, so they don’t have space (like this) to run around at home.”
Adult and youth volunteers from both synagogues were on hand to help run the event and make guests feel welcome.
“It’s really nice to be able to see the clients we work with in an environment where they can relax and have fun,” Singer said. “There’s so much to worry and be nervous about (in a new country). ... The smiles on people’s faces are amazing to see.”
Each child also received a present donated by members of the community. The presents were sorted by age group and wrapped in brightly-colored paper and ribbons.
“We have been really encouraged by people committing time, money and energy,” Rabbi Daniel Kirzane of B’nai Jehudah said. “(There are) people from different faith communities. We have Muslims, Christians and Jews all working together. It’s a way of building bridges between members of different communities.
“I think that people should know that we’re doing this, in part, to assert that resettled refugees are our neighbors just like anyone else. Our tradition urges us to care for the most vulnerable members of society.”
Resettled refugees from numerous nationalities and backgrounds live all over the Kansas City area, though Jewish Vocational Service centers its efforts on the Missouri side. Resettlement help might include finding a place to live, finding a job, furnishing an apartment, and even getting help with the bills for the first few months.
Ali Kaky and his family came to Kansas City three years ago from Iraq, where his son had worked for the U.S. military.
“JVS is a very important organization for the refugees,” he said. “They help anyone from any country, any religion.”