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For Good

For Good: Free Welcoming Tampa event celebrates cultural diversity of refugees, immigrants

No need to bring your passport to travel on a virtual tour around the world during a free event coming soon to USF.

Among the offerings at the second Welcoming Tampa celebration: Get a henna tattoo, take a Latin dance lesson, watch a culture fashion show, listen to live international music, visit cultural educational tables and test your patriotic knowledge by taking a mock citizenship test.

Along the way, it’s an opportunity to meet new neighbors -- resettled refugees and immigrants who now call this area home.

It takes place on Saturday, Sept. 17,  from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. in the Marshall Student Center at the University of South Florida. The collaborative effort is sponsored by the Tampa Bay Refugee Task Force, the USF’s Honors College and the Department of Global Health, and the local refugee and immigrant community. Campus organizations, volunteer outreach programs and social-service agencies take part as well.

This is just one event like this celebrated all over the country in September. The initiative is coordinated nationwide by Welcoming America, a Georgia-based nonprofit. The mission is to recognize and celebrate the contributions made by refugees and immigrants in local communities.

“It helps all who participate with a localized understanding of the refugee experience and encourage true connections across cultures,” says Natalie Harrell, spokesperson for the Suncoast Region of the Florida Department of Children and Families. “Every year we hear of new friendships formed and gatherings held after the event, so we know there is an ongoing impact.”

And for the refugee families, she says, it’s a day of fun where they get to see their culture celebrated and “feel fully included in their new community.” 

Service providers will also be on hand, as well as information on volunteer opportunities to encouragement more engagement.

This year’s theme is “Small Shoes, Big Journey,” and will focus on the experiences of refugee children and youth as they begin a new chapter of their lives here in the Tampa Bay area. Ten-year-old Rachel Ackey, whose father was once a refugee, is coordinating a shoe drive for these youngsters. To donate a new pair of shoes or a gift card for a refugee youth, email Florence and Rachel Ackey or call (813) 732-4190 or contact Elizabeth Dunn at (361) 510-7935.

Dena Gross Leavengood, a member of the Tampa Bay Refugee Advisory Group, an independent advocacy volunteer effort, says giving refugees a support system is the first step toward establishing normalcy in their new lives.

An event like this can be a first step in building new relationships, she says. It also can set in motion more dialogue so there is less duplication of services.

“The more coordination we have between agencies and volunteer groups, the better,” she says. “There are so many issues refugees face when the first arrive -- cultural divides, the language, transportation, housing, jobs. As a community, we need to collectively understand these challenges and how to address them.

“In the end, we all will benefit as they work toward becoming contributing citizens.”

Read more articles by Michelle Bearden.

Michelle Bearden is a feature writer at 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.
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