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article image'Welcome' refugees in Kansas celebrate their American birthdays

By Beth LIPOFF (AFP)     Jan 22, 2019 in World

Many of nearly 100 excited children running around a community center in Kansas City over the weekend had two things in common.

They were refugees, mostly from conflict-torn regions in Africa and the Middle East. And most were there to celebrate the same thing: a January 1 birth date.

Far from a strange coincidence, the date is usually assigned to immigrants who arrive in the United States without birth certificates, as refugees often do.

Some refugees may have never even celebrated a birthday back in their native countries and do not know when they were born.

So to mark their new, government-issued birthdays, several religious-based organizations in the Midwestern city have for the last four years organized a group birthday party.

A Sudanese refugee child watches balloon artists during the party
A Sudanese refugee child watches balloon artists during the party
DAVE KAUP, AFP

This year's event took place Sunday, complete with colorful balloon animals, cake and carnival games.

"We find the people welcome us. They are friendly and helpful," said Zainab Abed, an Iraqi refugee who fled four years ago with her husband and three young sons after Islamic State group extremists threatened to kill them.

Jewish Vocational Services (JVS), a resettlement agency, joined with three synagogues to put on the party each January for the Christian and Muslim refugees resettled in the near-geographic center of the continental United States.

"The event says, 'we are happy you are here, and we are happy you are part of our community,'" said Monica Kleinman, a rabbi at the Congregation Beth Torah synagogue in a Kansas City suburb.

- 'These are our values' -

The annual tradition is in contrast to the message many refugees in the US have received in the last two years.

Rabbi Monica Kleinman says  "these are our values " and from the Jewish standpoint it is i...
Rabbi Monica Kleinman says, "these are our values," and from the Jewish standpoint it is important to welcome strangers
DAVE KAUP, AFP

The administration of President Donald Trump has sought to limit the number of refugees admitted into the country and has restricted travel from several predominantly Muslim countries.

Parts of the US federal government remain shut down due to lack of funding, as Democrats in Congress and Republicans led by the White House are at a stalemate over whether to build Trump's promised wall along the US-Mexico border, intended to crack down on illegal immigration.

"From the Jewish standpoint... it's reiterated time and time again that we need to welcome strangers and regard those who have joined us as part of the community," said Kleinman.

Louase Denie shows off her face paint
Louase Denie shows off her face paint
DAVE KAUP, AFP

"With all the national rhetoric going on, it's really important that we say, 'No. These are our values. And this is how we're going to live those values.'"

The number of refugee families JVS has helped resettle in Kansas and neighboring Missouri has declined from nearly 600 in 2016 to 160 last year. But birthday party organizers say they are undaunted in their commitment to make refugees feel welcome and to help them adjust to their new American lives.

For Sunday's event, volunteers bought gifts for the children, decorated the gymnasium in cheerful multi-colored balloons, and provided an inflatable "bouncy house" for youngsters to jump in until they were dizzy.

- 'Very welcome' -

The annual event is also an opportunity for refugees to meet each other.

"We like (the party). We want to meet new friends and have good food," said Thomas Welongo, 16, who is from Tanzania, where he said birthdays are celebrated by having water poured on top of one's head.

Refugee children watch a balloon artist during the party  but some may never even have celebrated a ...
Refugee children watch a balloon artist during the party, but some may never even have celebrated a birthday back in their homelands
DAVE KAUP, AFP

The refugees made the birthday party their own, as well. Teens used a basketball to play soccer. And while some kids came in jeans and party dresses, others sported a hijab, the traditional Muslim head covering.

Instead of macaroni and cheese, hamburgers or pizza -- which might feed revelers at a typical American birthday party -- the food on offer included traditional dishes from a local Somali-American restaurant.

"I feel like the event, it teaches people to be friendly with other people and teach people how to interact with people from other religions," said Zaid Alrikabi, Abed's 14-year-old son, who treasured the balloon parrot that he received.

"I feel very welcome," he said.

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