Refugee Support Services of the Carolinas Inc. recently hosted its seventh annual refugee birthday party.
About 255 adults and children from Charlotte refugee communities gathered at Myers Park United Methodist Church on Feb. 2 through the nonprofit organization, which offers programs and education to help refugees become self-sufficient.
Although they were celebrating a shared Jan. 1 birthday, the party was held in February due to volunteer schedules and venue availability. The work of 50 volunteers helped make the evening a success.
Some of the cultures represented at the party included several African countries, Bhutanese from southern Asia and Montagnards from the mountains of Vietnam.
Many refugees do not know their actual birth date because of records lost in their native countries – or no recordkeeping at all. There also may be differences in calendar systems.
Volunteer Nick Yang said a person may only know, “I was born during the harvest.”
When refugees arrive at camps, officials assign a Jan. 1 birthday and estimate a birth year.
One distinction between refugees and other immigrants is that refugees are fleeing persecution due to religion or politics, or gender or ethnic-minority status, said Ellen Dubin, executive director of Carolina Refugee Resettlement Agency, another organization that works with refugee populations.
The birthday party was “a way of introducing them to an American tradition, but the main goal was to cross cultures in a safe and loving environment,” said Cindy Covill, a Refugee Support Services volunteer who coordinated the event.
Dinner reflected that goal, offering American comfort foods including barbecue and macaroni and cheese.
Dessert, of course, was birthday cake.
The hope was that participants could relax and enjoy themselves without stress while meeting new friends, said Rachel Humphries, director of Refugee Support Services and a member of Myers Park United Methodist.
Volunteers with the nonprofit First Book-Charlotte, which gives books to children in need, were busy at the party. Volunteer Frederica Coleman from the organization brought her son, Ellis, 12, and daughter, Grace, 10, to help. She said recipients of the materials are children who might not have their own books.
Covill said Refugee Support Services uses volunteers in a variety of roles, whether it’s teaching the skills necessary to obtain employment or assisting refugees with something as simple as reading mail.
She cited the example of a person her organization assists who received a sales pitch in the mail and mistakenly believed they owed $2,200.
“They’re very trusting, hardworking … and they come from small communities,” Covill said of those she serves.
Hope Yancey is a freelance writer. Have a story idea for Hope? Email her at email@example.com.
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