Bantu choirs, Burmese dances and a myriad of other ethnic entertainment in between mustered at Mifflin Square Park last Thursday evening.
Scattered showers could not keep dozens of local neighbors away from the Philadelphia World Refugee Day festival, as for the first time, the celebration hosted three simultaneous parties across the city through a “Neighborhood Beyond Borders” event initiative.
Along with the Northeast and Southwest regions of the city, South Philadelphia served as one of the three cultural destinations chosen for the city’s take on an international observance instituted by the United Nations and commemorated every year on June 20.
“South Philly is historically really, really diverse…this has been the home for recent arrivals,” said Symbol Lai, deputy director for the city Office of Immigrant Affairs. “And the neighborhoods have changed a lot, and it might be redeveloping in different areas, but Mifflin Square Park still seems to be – this far down south – still seems to be a central point for a lot of recent arrivals.”
For the past few years, the Office of Immigrant Affairs has collaborated with the Philadelphia Regional Refugee Providers’ Collaborative in an effort to localize this global celebration with assistance from a slew of local and regional organizations.
Aiming to cultivate a sense of community while also providing access, the team transformed the central City Hall celebration into a series of scattered outreach efforts actually taking place in local neighborhoods.
“This year, the organizers really wanted to make it in the neighborhoods where people live, so it’s easier for people to attend and come out and celebrate together,” said Melissa Fogg of Mural Arts Philadelphia, one of the event co-sponsors and organizers. “…It really increases access for the refugees across the city.”
Providing creative activities, Mural Arts was one of many entities hosting pop-up programs at the celebration last week.
While some festivities were geared toward family-fun, several vendors included legal, medical, educational and even economic resources.
Since new populations who have recently resettled into new neighborhoods, including the surrounding Whitman and Lower Moyamensing areas, could feel estranged from the community, event organizers say it’s crucial to bring such services directly to individuals.
“(Event organizers) noticed that a lot of times with recent refugees and people who are resettled – because it is such an alienating and disorienting process – the first relationships they tend to build are within their own ethnic or religious communities,” Lai said. “But, they might not necessarily know the resources that are within their surrounding environments. So, this was a way to bring people together for that.”
Resources ranged from The Free Library of Philadelphia and the Mayor’s Office of Education to registration for the new municipal identification and a Narcan training program.
Also in attendance were representatives from Cambridge Innovation Center, a nationwide coworking lab space and office space facility, which has a location in University City.
Part of CIC’s mission includes providing spaces and resources to rising start-ups and entrepreneurs. Since the development of businesses corridors often helps to flourish emerging communities, the company’s objective includes reaching out to immigrants and refugees.
“We really see ourselves as a connector and a center of gravity for innovation districts and clusters…We provide a lot of resources for entrepreneurs,” said Sally J. Guzik, the director of Philadelphia’s CIC. “We really love to connect and engage with the community, so a reason an event like World Refugee Day is important to us, or Immigrant Heritage Month, is because often times, at all of our centers, we see that immigrants and refugees are entrepreneurs, and it’s one of the fastest-growing sectors of entrepreneurs.”
While the event was an opportunity for some more serious matters, it was also, of course, a chance to revel in the summer sunset.
Children of all ages enjoyed live music, including ukulele and hip-hop performances, while receiving henna tattoos and playing hopscotch.
But the site at the public space was not exclusive to World Refugee Day, as every single day the park continues to serve as a melting pot for more than a dozen demographics, including those of Asian, Hispanic and African descent.
“Mifflin Square Park is an excellent location for several different reasons,” said lead event organizer Annie Grainge of the Refugee Access Center based at 3rd Street and Snyder Avenue. “I think the first is that – it does have a rich immigrant, refugee community. A lot of refugees in general are resettled here whether or not they choose to stay in the area. So, (the park) is very accessible…Refugees are welcomed. They’re a part of this community, and there are people that are from here who are dedicated to making sure that their lives here are full and that they’re able to flourish.”