Talent night gives metro refugees a platform for expression

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Dressed in jeans and T-shirts, diaphanous head scarves and myriad other touchstones of teenage garb from around the world, nearly a dozen performers at Aurora Central High School’s auditorium last Friday used experiences from the third act of their lives to inspire the main act of the evening.

Young performers from across the globe — with a sizable contingent from the Horn of Africa — sang, spoke and danced Feb. 10 during the second annual “International City Talent Night,” a presentation of artistic expression put on by local immigrant and refugee students and organized by the African Community Center in Denver.

For many of the young performers, the United States marks the third country in which they’ve lived. Many were refugees in countries that neighbor their native nations before coming to the U.S.

Started as an after-school program at the ACC’s Denver facility on Leetsdale Drive, the event was created for young immigrants and refugees “to create a community and a sense of self,” according to Brenda Herrera Moreno, youth programs lead at the ACC, which operates under the purview of the Ethiopian Community Development Council.

This year’s event featured a smattering of cross-cultural showcases, including spoken word poetry about the meaning and perceptions of Islam, a cover of Josh Groban’s “You Raise Me Up,” and traditional dances from several East African nations.

But the atmosphere at this year’s event was markedly different than it was in 2016, thanks in no small part to the temporary holds — except in certain circumstances — President Donald Trump’s administration has put on the country’s refugee intake systems.

Melissa Theesen, managing director at the ACC, underscored her organization’s support of immigrants and refugees despite the recent orders.

“We have seen a lot of changes in refugee resettlement in the past few weeks,” Theesen said. “And we want to make sure that everyone here knows that you are still welcome in our community.”

The U.S. accepted slightly fewer than 85,000 refugees in fiscal year 2016, according to The Pew Research Center. Of those admitted to the country last year, about 46 percent — or 39,000 people — were Muslim, which is the highest proportion on record, according to the PRC.

Runners-up at the talent show event, Dunia and Eyni Ali, sisters who were born in Somalia but spent much of their adolescence as refugees in Kenya, performed a poem by writer Amal Ahmed called “My Name Is Islam,” to try to shirk the stereotypes surrounding the religion.

“(The poem) shows that Muslims are not terrorists or bad, but something good,” said Dunia, a 17-year-old senior at Hinkley High School. “It’s not like all Muslims are bad, but some people are just watching on the media or social media and they think that Muslims are … but it’s not really bad, it’s just how you think about it.”

Although former President Barack Obama had pledged to admit 110,000 refugees to the U.S. in 2017, that number will likely be more than halved following the new orders being enforced under the Trump Administration, according to the PRC.

Kit Taintor, Colorado’s state refugee coordinator, said at a recent community event that the state accepted slightly fewer than 2,000 refugees last year.

Hafsa Ali, a 17-year-old student at Aurora West College Preparatory Academy, said the quagmire surrounding travel for refugees simply means she won’t return to her native Somalia any time soon.

“Until the issue is settled and everything, we’re not going to be able to go back to Africa,” said Ali, who moved to Uganda as a refugee at the age of four. She came to the U.S. seven years later.

Not a performer herself, Ali — who is unrelated to Dunia and Eyni — was attending the show to watch performances of some of her friends from the nearby Mango House, a refugee resource center. She said she would have been decidedly more upset had the ban been instated last year, when she had to travel back to Uganda for her mother’s funeral.

“If that had been in effect last year … I would have been so mad,” said Ali, who now lives in Aurora with her grandmother. “Our family is so separated and everything and I’m just like, ‘What if we want to visit them? What if we want to go back to them? What if we want to help them? We can’t do that without like the whole issue being settled.’”