First-ever Refugee Day creates community for refugees
By Kirstin Nichols
For The Diamondback
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The Cambridge Community Center was full of food, music, games and crafts to welcome refugees to the University of Maryland’s campus for Refugee Day. The event was the first of its kind at this university, although many of those involved hope to make it an annual occasion.
The event was held to help refugees find community at this university, despite the hardships they may experience. The CCC’s rooms became lively and decorated, filled with activities designed to bring people together.
In one room, kids covered a sign saying, “Welcome to UMD Refugee Day,” with colorful handprints and drew on paper with markers while student volunteers painted faces. Refugee children, some holding hands with student volunteers, moved from station to station while parents chatted among themselves and watched. Other rooms included a “game room.”
The event later hosted multiple guest speakers, including vice president for student affairs Patty Perillo and university President Darryll Pines.
Perillo said in her speech she was one of the leaders in the effort to make this event a reality, due to her responsibility for housing and dining. However, she said Refugee Day was far from a solo effort.
“There is a grand village of people that have come together to make this happen,” Perillo said. “We are grateful for all of you that have resettled in this region, and we at the University of Maryland want to be your partner.”
Prince George’s County has recently welcomed many refugees because of its proximity to both Washington, D.C., and several national and local refugee resettlement organizations. During the summer of 2021, hundreds of families from Afghanistan came to this area for sanctuary, fleeing the fall of Kabul to the Taliban.
The Justice and Legal Thought and International Studies College Park Scholars Programs were part of the group that made this event a reality. The group’s focus has been to help recently resettled refugees in the community, according to Dr. Justine DeCamillis, assistant director of the JLT Scholars Program.
Victoria Worley, a government and politics doctorate student, helped organize the event through her work as a graduate assistant in the MLaw and JLT programs. She said this event has been in planning since the beginning of the spring semester, but ramped up around March when organizers began partnering with other organizations and reaching out to the university community for student involvement.
Worley said recently, the International Rescue Committee started housing Afghan refugees on campus. They moved in almost a month ago, and this is an event to welcome these families to the community.
“I think it’s important that UMD has this event because it really just shows our community values and our values of diversity and inclusion,” Worley said. “We have people living on our campus that have never been to America. They were just taken away from their homes, and they need to feel loved and valued, especially in our College Park community.”
Caroline Thorne, a sophomore government and politics major, is in the International Studies Scholars Program. She volunteers weekly with kids who live in the Parkview Gardens Apartments and volunteered in the craft center on Refugee Day.
“This was originally supposed to be on McKeldin Mall,” Thorne said. “We were going to also have a bunch of field games, like soccer is a really big one for the kids and also the adults.”
Despite the change to original plans, she hopes this event still has lasting impacts.
“They’re our neighbors, and they should feel welcome and feel like they’re a part of the community, and I hope UMD can provide that,” Thorne said.
Zoe Hill, a freshman psychology major, has been volunteering at a local apartment complex that houses Afghan refugees. When she heard about this event, she felt it aligned with her work and many of her fellow scholars also showed up to volunteer.
“Everyone’s been dealing with their own variation of being isolated,” Hill said. “Even though it’s raining out, being able to have everyone come into the CCC and just get together and see each other face-to-face is definitely a lot more meaningful than seeing each other on a screen or in an email.”
In her speech, Perillo outlined a long-term goal of this partnership between this university and the refugees.
“Some of you children can’t understand what I’m saying because you’re too little, but some of you may — that we will know in many ways that what we’re doing as an institution will matter,” Perillo said. “Your children will walk across our stage at commencement.”