Anchorage celebrates World Refugee Day

Anchorage residents gathered at Mountain View Lions Park on Friday to celebrate World Refugee Day. The day honors people who have fled their home country, often because of war or ethnic persecution. About 120 refugees are resettled in Anchorage every year as part of a national program.

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Netra Dhakal dances during the World Refugee Day celebration in Anchorage.

Netra Dhakal dances to music from his home country of Bhutan. The song tells a story familiar to his parents- a boy who left his village and misses his home. Dhakal’s family was forced to leave Bhutan when he was three years old.

“The Bhutan government said, ‘You are Nepali,’” he explained. “’Because you eat Nepali, you speak Nepali, you wear Nepali dress and everything. But you are in Bhutan. So you should go to Nepal.’ They forced us to leave Bhutan so we went to Nepal. But Nepal government said, ‘You came from Bhutan. So you are not Nepali citizen, so you should go back to Bhutan.’”

The family lived in a refugee camp in Nepal for 18 years.  Dhakal said they couldn’t work and didn’t have access to things like radios, electricity, or cars. Organizations donated food, schools, and health care for the camp of 140,000 people. In 2010, they were finally relocated to Alaska.

“In the beginning it was a little hard because of English problem,” Dhakal said. “It was hard to communicate with people, go shopping, travel from place to place.”

But now, Dhakal has earned his GED and is teaching English as a Second Language.

Abdikarim Mohamud arrived in Anchorage from a refugee camp in Kenya in 2011. He was originally from Somalia. When he learned he was moving to Alaska, he said people warned him.

“People, they say, ‘You go to cold Alaska. It’s very far.’ But now I live here. It’s nice–winter and summer.”

Mohamud says he never wants to go back to live in East Africa. “No, no. I’m living here. America. I like it, so much,” he exclaimed as Neil Diamond’s “Coming to America” blasted out of the sound system.

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Women from Somali take photos during the celebration.

He shares his enthusiasm with other Somali refugees by greeting them as soon as they arrive at the airport. Catholic Social Services’ refugee assistance program named him one of their volunteers of the year.

But many refugees pointed out that the celebration also recognizes nearly 17 million people worldwide who are still refugees. And with the new conflicts in Iraq, Ukraine, and South Sudan, the numbers are rising.

Peter Rom’s family fled southern Sudan into Ethiopia before he was born. He resettled in the United States 13 years ago.

“I would say thank you for God bring me here to America,” he said. “And also I feel bad for what happen in my country. A lot of people are in rural area, remote area. Yeah, it’s very difficult.”

Rom said the people there can easily get sick from malaria or diarrhea. Now, because of the war, it’s hard for them to get money or food. Rom has returned a few times on mission trips to try to help, but he says his home is now the United States.

The U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement reports that more than 58,000 refugees were accepted into the country in FY2012. Only a small number can be resettled in Anchorage because of housing constraints.