Close to 100 refugees filled Broadway Christian Church Saturday, during the Columbia World Refugee Day Festival. The party started out slow, but picked up after someone tossed a few soccer balls onto the field in the back of Broadway Christian Church. Within minutes, dozens of kids and young men swarm the balls, set up goals and begin to play soccer. A few young girls guard the goal, while the rest dribble and shoot in the afternoon heat.
Almost everyone on the field Saturday was a refugee in Columbia. Many Columbia refugees are from Myanmar, but there are others from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Afghanistan and Iraq. Each person here has a different story of struggle and survival when they were forced to leave their home country.
Hseh Reh, a 24 year old refugee from Myanmar, stops in the middle of the soccer game to explain how he ended up in Columbia five years ago. When Hseh Reh was seven, he and his family fled to Thailand after soldiers forced them out of their home.
After 15 years in a refugee camp in Thailand, Hseh Reh was able to come to the United States. He came alone leaving his family back in Thailand. He was anxious to arrive in Columbia alone.
“I didn’t think I would have any friends here,” he said. He was surprised to be greeted by other Burmese refugees at the airport, who became his friends and teammates in Columbia.
"I was at Columbia Regional Airport and I look at the window and I see him and another friend, and I was so happy and so surprised,” Hseh Reh said. “Oh, my god, I have my friend and I felt free, like I am good you know.”
For now, it is still too dangerous to return to Burma, although Hseh Reh says he’s like to go back eventually. “I want to go because it is my homeland. But there is a lot of starvation there right now,” he said. Hseh Reh calls his family back in Myanmar about once a month to see how they are doing.
Other refugees were able to come to Columbia with their family. Some even had children there in the United States.
Vung Lun Cing watches her two daughters, ages 5 and 3, learning how to use a hoola hoop. She has been here for almost four years, and her daughters were mainly raised in Columbia. She said part of her challenge will be helping her children to remember their Burmese culture. “When she talks with her friends at school she wants to speak just English but at home we talk to her only in our language,” she said.
Many spoke about the culture shock of coming to the United States. Columbia’s Refugee and Immigrant Services, one of the organizers of the Columbia World Refugee Day Festival, provides a variety of services for refugees in Columbia.
“Getting a job is a really important part of becoming self-sufficient here in the United States,” said Katie Freehling, Job Developer at Columbia’s Refugee and Immigrant Services.
“Most of them don’t want to be on public assistance or these other things that they have to rely on during their first few months in the United States,” Freehling said, “so finding a job is huge to having their own lives and supporting themselves.”
In the end, Freehling said she just supports refugees, but all the hard work is their own.
“I help these people but they find these jobs themselves and represent themselves in the workplace and they do it tremendously,” she said.
The games die down as dinnertime approaches. Families and friends gather inside to listen to traditional marimba music and enjoy some hamburgers and hotdogs.
To some this day is a chance to relax, play games and share in a meal. To others, it is a chance to remember the story of their journey to safety.
“I want to thank you for the World Refugee Day because it reminds us where we are from,” said Hseh Reh. “If we don’t celebrate maybe five years or ten years later kids might not know where they come from. Why are they here? Why? Maybe they don’t know.”
Hseh Reh said although he had to start over here, he feels like he is safe in Columbia. He’d like to return to Burma one day when it is less dangerous. “It will always be my home,” he said.