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Refugees salute freedom with street fair in Kansas City

Singing a prayer of thanks Saturday and asking for help for those still in Africa, Amani Mambo (front) joined other members of the Mambo family outside the Samuel U. Rodgers Health Center, 825 Euclid Ave. The celebration had ethnic food, music, dancing and a soccer exhibition.
Singing a prayer of thanks Saturday and asking for help for those still in Africa, Amani Mambo (front) joined other members of the Mambo family outside the Samuel U. Rodgers Health Center, 825 Euclid Ave. The celebration had ethnic food, music, dancing and a soccer exhibition. The Kansas City Star

Last year, 46-year-old Tshibasu Mpanga left a refugee camp in Namibia and moved to Kansas City — bringing his wife, six children and a grandchild along.

“My life has changed,” he says, smiling. “Here, we are free.”

Mpanga celebrated Saturday with dozens of other refugees at a World Refugee Day street fair near the Samuel U. Rodgers Health Center, 825 Euclid Ave.

Under a cooling tent amid the Midwest humidity, the voices and languages were loud and boisterous. Luckily, any refugees facing serious language confusion could fall back on the common tongue of a Kansas City summer: dripping frozen treats and chilled water.

“We’re really happy to have this day,” said Ka Baw Say, 23, a Myanmar native who grew up in a Thai refugee camp and relocated to Kansas City in 2007. “We can show who we are and what believe.”

Roughly 400 refugees move to Kansas City every year. Unlike most other immigrants, refugees must prove a specific fear of danger to participate in the resettlement program overseen by the Department of Homeland Security and the United Nations. The process is long and often difficult.

Once refugees enter the United States, social service agencies help them find work, learn English and adapt.

“Refugees have suffered a lot,” said Martin Okpareke of Jewish Vocational Services, one of the event sponsors. “But their perseverance is insurmountable.”

For some of the refugees, memories of violence and oppression are fading. For others, daily headlines are a reminder of what they left behind.

Sardar Ali Mirza, 44, arrived in Kansas City from Iraq four months ago. “Very bad in Iraq,” he said. “Especially in Mosul, in Baghdad.”

Some local agencies working with resettled refugees say they are concerned about possible budget cuts for the program. In the coming weeks, some resettlement funds may be redirected to address the surge of Central American immigrants along the Texas border.

“If (Congress) does not act, there will be a crisis, and no more refugees will be coming,” said Abdulkadir Bakar, refugee resettlement director at Della Lamb Community Services.

“There are millions of refugees suffering across the world.”

Mpanga says he wants to help new refugees if the program continues.

“My prayer is, the way I was helped, to help other refugees to come and enjoy what I’m enjoying right now,” he said.

To reach Dave Helling, call 816-234-4656 or send email to dhelling@kcstar.com.

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