Local leaders to celebrate—not demonize—area refugees Friday

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In Hillsborough County, Friday marks the first annual Refugee Day, an occasion that seeks to recognize and celebrate the Tampa Bay region's diversity and welcome those who have escaped violence, persecution and possibly even death in more troubled parts of the world.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin Beckner on Wednesday presented the proclamation that made the occasion official, and his fellow board members appeared supportive despite the political sensitivity of the issue and the many different perspectives represented on the board.

“It's my pleasure to recognize those individuals that have fled their homelands to escape persecution to come to this country to find a better way of life,” Beckner said. “We take great pride in recognizing the strength of the diversity in our community. Recognizing and realizing the diversity of our community provides the strength and the pillar to make our community a better place.”

Beckner's proclamation comes at a time when refugees are highly stigmatized, given that many of them come from war-torn places like Syria. Critics argue that those escaping persecution and bloodshed are actually wolves in sheep's clothing, something the statistics don't bear out, as CL has covered.

Still, the stigma persists, especially in the wake of Sunday's mass shooting in Orlando—despite the fact that the shooter was an American.

Meanwhile, over 3,700 displaced people received refugee services in Hillsborough County from the Tampa Bay Refugee Task Force in 2015. The task force is a coalition of nonprofit and government agencies dedicated to assisting refugees as they settle, integrate and grow in the region.

“We help them with housing, food, employment, education, English-language training, school enrollments and childcare,” said Janet Blair, community liaison with Florida Department of Children and Families’ Refugee Services. “We help to remove any barrier that may get in the way of them becoming self-sufficient.”

Hillsborough County was the first county in Florida to be designated “welcoming” to refugees in 2015, after the commissioners unanimously voted to join “Welcoming Cities and Counties,” a national program that helps local governments provide services for newcomers.

An event scheduled for Friday aims to celebrate those who've made it through the intensive, sometimes years-long refugee vetting process to resettle in the States after living through precarious situations overseas. That celebration will start at 10 a.m. at St. Petersburg College. St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman will among officials in attendance.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services will be also hosting a citizenship ceremony for 34 refugees that day, which takes place three days before World Refugee Day.

Those who have been helping resettle refugees for years hope the occasion will help the public see beyond the rhetoric casting refugees as potential terrorists, rhetoric that's often uttered by the likes of presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.

“The community needs to know that we have refugees here in Hillsborough County,” said Amira Salama, executive director of Coptic Orthodox Charities, an organization that aids immigrants and refugees. “They have been getting their citizenship, contribute to society, volunteer, pay taxes and are good citizens. The community needs to see and recognize that.”

Advocates say that there is an urgent need for countries to help and resettle the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees who risk their lives to find shelter and protection. Last year, a photograph of a 3-year-old Syrian refugee who had drowned and washed ashore in Turkey seemed to capture the scope and severity of the refugee crisis while bringing widespread awareness of the issue.

“This photograph got people thinking about what the refugees are going through,” said Salama. “They can feel that these people are really fleeing. Within that flight, they can be in a lot of danger.”

Yet, in the U.S, which has brought in comparatively fewer Syrian refugees than Europe, fear often dominates the dialogue—something advocates want to change.

“People hear from the media that refugees are the criminals, the ones who are doing the atrocities around the country,” Salama said. “Refugees are the safest population you can think of. These are good families… These refugees are being persecuted. They’ve been run off from their country with their children. It’s not their choice to go anywhere. They’ve been forced to flee.”

Beckner, Blair and Salama hope that Refugee Day will help the general public gain a better understanding of refugees that have resettled locally.

“Through the Hillsborough County Commissioners in proclaiming this day as our local celebration of World Refugee Day, you are helping us to provide the community with awareness and education regarding refugees arriving in our community and showing these refugees and their families that they are welcome in their new home in Tampa Bay,” Blair told the commission.

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