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Get Gardening! Columbia Organizations Make Earning A Green Thumb Easy

It’s garden enrollment time again! Several of Columbia’s local gardening organizations invite all residents to get growing, and offer many opportunities for breaking ground.


Image from MU Interdisciplinary Center for Food Security

One option is the Opportunity Gardens program through the Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture. Open to all low-income residents, the program provides free mentoring services and garden supplies to empower people to grow their own fresh food and sharing with others. Clients that live in public housing or in a home may apply for the program and are expected to care for their plots for many years, with the help of CCUA garden gurus. Participants graduate at the end of three years with enough skills to continue growing independently. Download and fill out an application from the Opportunity Gardens website, or call for an application at (573) 514-4174.

The Community Garden Coalition of Columbia organizes 11 Neighborhood Garden plots for anyone in the community to get involved with (see map). Depending on where one lives, there are several close-by plots; however, the Refugee and Immigration Services office has a special relationship with the Broadway Christian Church plot, home of the Columbia Refugee Garden. The garden is coordinated by Don Day, who claims one proof of his gardening skills – he chuckles, pulling out a rubber green thumb he carries in his pocket. Last year, between 20 and 30 refugee families participated in the garden, from whom Day loves to hear stories and with whom he loves to work. Many diverse plants cover the grounds, resulting from various tastes of refugees from many different countries. Day hopes to expand the plots and get gardeners involved with the Master Gardener Program in the coming season.wrd12-080

For some extra help, the Missouri Master Gardener Program through MU Extension provides hotlines for questions, workshops, garden show booths and demonstration projects to spread gardening information to thousands of Missourians each year. Master Gardeners invite those with questions about vegetable gardening to stop by The Learning Garden at the Broadway Christian Church plots Mondays at 9 a.m. and Thursdays at 5:15 p.m. The Program will also be providing “Third Thursdays” trainings at 6:30 p.m. at the Learning garden beginning April 16. “We should be a model for best practice, especially for those from different climates and cultures,” Ellen Condron, a Master Gardner of Columbia, said.

For more information and applications, visit the front desk at the RIS office or the websites of each program.

First Annual RIS Charity Gala Inspires

The Charity Gala did go on! Many of us came into the evening having battled a long day with troublesome weather – but then something extraordinary happened that has driven the Refugee and Immigration Services work for the last 40 years. A combination of appreciation sharing and fellowship, as well as spicy curried chicken, cleared bleary eyes and awakened hearts to an incredible story unfolding in little Columbia, Missouri.

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In their speeches, Katie Freehling and Senad Music joked that for our refugees arriving at Columbia Regional Airport, the scene does not match up to the grand picture of America they may have been carrying on their journeys. It’s a lot of field with a highway cutting through it. The RIS office then strives to correct the first impression. Senad Music, manager of the Columbia office and refugee from Bosnia himself, said his experience as a “newborn” in the US was a dive into diverse community. Still, he “didn’t see difference,” but “just a lot of people helping each other.”

The scene at the Gala reflected this as attendees mingled between tables and were served Thai cuisine by volunteers from the MU African Youth Initiative. Glittering centerpieces and candlelight sparked conversation under festive tissue-paper flower hangings. The simple gathering hall was carefully transformed into classic elegance in shades of purple, black and gold.

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This first annual RIS Charity Gala was a celebration of emotional, physical, mental and spiritual help within Columbia. It was a ceremony of past victory and an encouragement toward growth. Just over 25 countries are represented in the office, with more on the way. RIS looks forward to enhancing its services in classes, managing language barriers, and connecting clients to more opportunities in their new surroundings.

“Tonight is about the story within us all, and what we choose to do with what is left to be written,” Katie Freehling said.

A special thank you goes out to our sponsors: Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church for hosting and Thip Thai Cuisine for providing dinner. Also, we would like to thank The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, The Pampered Chef, Amie B. & The Orchid Emporium, Kent’s on Broadway, Glik’s, Linda Haus, Mustard Seed Fair Trade and Gunter Hans for our great silent auction items.

Going to the Airport: A Volunteer’s Story

Walking into the Columbia Regional Airport that night, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. As the Multimedia and Communications Intern at Refugee and Immigration Services (RIS), I don’t get a lot of “hands-on” experience working with refugees. Whenever there is a new refugee arrival in Columbia, I am the one to post about it on Facebook, but I had never gone to the airport to pick up a family of refugees, or even met them after they arrived. On Tuesday, October 14, I had a relatively free night. I knew that a family of 11 was scheduled to arrive from Congo, so I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to experience a refugee arrival and help out a family. I met Solomon, the African Case Manager for RIS, and two other volunteers, Tina and Patrick, at the office. Because we were picking up such a large family at the airport, we decided to take two separate vehicles. Patrick and I took a car while Solomon and Tina brought a van.

We arrived at the airport about twenty minutes before the plane was scheduled to arrive, which allowed us some time to sit, chat, and get to know one another.  My office space at RIS is at the complete opposite end of the hall than the Case Managers, so I did not know Solomon very well beforehand, and enjoyed learning about all of the languages he could speak! I had also never worked with Patrick or Tina before, and even though I had put their bios together for the RIS – Catholic Charities of Central and Northern Missouri website, I still had lots more to learn about the two of them. Tina can speak way more languages than I can even fathom (I struggle with Spanish), and Patrick has had the opportunity to travel to some really cool places. While we learned a lot about each other, our main hot topic of conversation turned to which TV shows were the best right now (both of them agreeing that I just HAD to watch the show Scandal).

When the plane arrived, we were waiting to greet the entire family – and boy was it a large family! Mom and Dad walked in with their 9 children, some of them with carry-on bags, looking exhausted from their long travels. Not being able to speak their language myself, I mainly greeted everyone with huge smiles and handshakes all around. Tina welcomed them all to Columbia, and asked how many bags they had checked. I know that many refugees travel to the United States with little to nothing, but to learn that this eleven-person family only had one checked bag between them was still hard for me to wrap my mind around! We got them loaded up in the vans, along with their belongings, and drove the family to their new home(s). I say “homes” with a plural, because they are such a large family that we had to get two apartment units, side-by-side, so that they would have plenty of space.

After arriving at the apartments, we took the family inside to show them around. It never occurred to me that we would have to show them how to safely use kitchen appliances like the stove, oven, and refrigerator. I also never realized how much work went in to setting up the apartments and homes for incoming refugees. Solomon and a few other volunteers had been at the house working all day to set things up. The apartment was cleaned and set up for the family, beds made and everything. The kitchen was full of boxes of kitchen and other household items that RIS was giving the family to get them started. We had also brought with us fresh fruit, chicken, and a large container of rice for the family’s first meal in the country. After such a long flight, I imagined they were starving, but they did not say a word about wanting food.

The first thing they asked to do after arriving to the house was pray. The family gathered in the living room, with Solomon and all of the volunteers with them, and then the family began singing a song together in their language. I did not understand the words they were singing, but all of their voices together sounded beautiful. Once the song ended, each member of the family started praying out loud, each their own prayer of thanks and gratitude for the new opportunity they were being given. Although I did not speak the language, I could feel the spirit of love and gratitude that surrounded them and their prayers. Sharing in this moment was probably my favorite and most memorable and touching experience of the night. All of the hard work that had gone into preparing for the arrival by RIS, all of the days, months and even years that the family had waited to be granted this refugee status in the United States, and the long flight over to the US was all worth it as shown by the thanks this family was feeling.

Not wanting to make them wait any longer for food, Patrick, Tina, and I took it upon ourselves to get the dinner ready for the family. All of the dishes donated for the family were still in boxes, so we started by taking them all out and washing them. Then we realized that the chickens and rice had become cold from sitting in the vans for a while, so we had to find some place to heat it all up. The oven in the house wasn’t working yet, and there was not a microwave, so we decided to take the food to Tina’s house, which was nearby. Patrick and I spent almost an hour trying to heat up the chicken in the microwave and the rice in the oven. By the time the food was ready and we had it back at their apartments, it was about 1 o’clock in the morning, and I was exhausted! Waking up the next morning to be back at the RIS office at 8am was going to be rough, but I was excited about the new experience I had to share with the other RIS volunteers and workers! This experience allowed me to see the impact Refugee and Immigration Services is having on the lives of refugees, and how none of this would be possible without donations from the community and the work of volunteers. I am so proud to be a part of this great work.

A Global Perspective

Walking into Columbia Independent School, I immediately noticed the cultural respect and understanding this school is instilling in their students. I was sent to pick up what I thought would be a small load of winter clothes that the students at CIS had collected for Refugee and Immigration Services’ Winter Clothing Drive. After speaking with the secretary at the front desk, she led me to a giant box, about 4 ft. tall and 3 ft. wide, filled to the top with winter clothing. I do not exaggerate when I tell you that my jaw dropped. I wasn’t sure if my car was even big enough to take all of these donated clothes with me!

Ellen Jorgenson is the teacher at CIS who sparked the flame and inspired her students to participate in the Winter Clothing Drive for RIS. Ms. Jorgenson is a middle school Social Studies teacher at CIS and has also taken on the responsibility of Global Perspectives Program Coordinator for the school. I met with Ms. Jorgenson to learn more about her interest in global perspectives, tour the school, and learn why she chose to have the school participate in a clothing drive for refugees. This is Ms. Jorgenson’s first year teaching, as she recently returned from the Peace Corps in South Africa. She can even speak some Swahili, and likes to share these skills with her students.

Ms. Jorgenson told me that the Global Perspectives Program had recently set up a Cardboard Challenge Day of Play. The school building was covered with various cardboard structures, designs, and arcade games that students and their families came in and set up for everyone to play and look at. This took place in accordance with their annual Trunk-or-Treat event on October 26. The Cardboard Challenge helped the students understand the impact they have on the environment, and their responsibility to take care of the planet. Ms. Jorgenson decided to kick-off the clothing drive during the event, and had a box set up for students and families to drop off winter clothing.

Columbia Independent School also put information about the Winter Clothing Drive in the school newsletter that went home to parents. In addition, the school hosted assemblies where students learned about who refugees are, the difference between a refugee and an immigrant, where refugees in the Columbia area are from, and why they need winter clothes. Ms. Jorgenson says that the response from parents was amazing.

Ms. Jorgenson is a supporter of project-based learning, and likes when students are able to do projects to gain a better global perspective. Recently, the 8th grade class took a trip to Heifer International, where they stayed the night in a re-creation of a refugee camp. The students were able to learn about and experience firsthand the lives of refugees who live in similar camps around the world.

Aiding Ms. Jorgenson in this endeavor were High School Global Issues teacher, Jennifer Anderson, and Morched Ben-Ayed, the middle school math teacher. In the past, the Global Perspectives Program has hosted drives for the Food Bank and the Salvation Army, so the teachers were excited to be able to share a new and unique opportunity with the school. Ms. Jorgenson says that she wants the students to consider the diversity in our community and realize the different populations that are part of our community. In the future, Ms. Jorgenson says she hopes to have more speakers come in and talk with the students. After the Winter Clothing Drive, she would like to have a refugee come in and share the story of their journey to the US.

Refugee and Immigration Services is volunteer supported, and would never be able to support refugees the way we do without the aid of people in the community like Ms. Jorgenson and the students at Columbia Independent School. Learning to have a better global perspective is a huge step to an inclusive society and community, and these students are well on their way! Overall, RIS received about 30+ children’s coats and other winter clothing items from the students and families at Columbia Independent School, and we are so grateful for their generosity!

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Going the Extra Mile

Every year, Refugee and Immigration Services – Catholic Charities of Central and Northern Missouri has great volunteers come into the office and take on different roles and responsibilities. This year alone nearly 50 volunteers have dedicated over 3,000 hours of service to the refugee community. Without the selfless actions of volunteers, RIS would not be able to provide refugees with all of the great programs we have to offer. Something we have been working on recently shows how people are sometimes willing to go the extra mile!

If you follow us on Facebook you have seen all the beautifully restored bicycles that our office has been able to give to refugees this season. We’re proud to recognize Chuck Bondra, the man behind each and every repair these cycles require before they are ready to ride. Thanks to the work of Chuck and bike donations from Klunk! Bicycles and Repair, and PedNet Coalition, we have been able to provide 4 bicycles to refugees in the past month alone, with many more just awaiting a few necessary repairs before they too will provide an invaluable transportation solution to a refugee rider.

After retiring, Chuck was looking for volunteer opportunities in the community where he could lend a hand. Chuck wanted to help an organization he found interesting, and about 2 years ago he heard of a program through PedNet for low-income high school students and homeless veterans. PedNet would fix up bicycles and give them to individuals in the program. Having only experience repairing motorcycles, and not much previous knowledge about bike mechanics, Chuck had to be trained. Through PedNet training and the proactive approach of renting books and videos from the library to learn more about this unique trade, Chuck was soon the go-to guy for minor bike repairs.

Eventually, the PedNet program lost funding and Chuck had to find a new place to hone his newfound skills. Karl Kimbel, fellow PedNet volunteer and also the owner of Klunk!, mentioned Refugee and Immigration Services to Chuck. PedNet has done work with RIS in the past, educating refugees on bicycle laws and safety and Klunk! has also been donating bikes to RIS that they do not have the time to fix up themselves, so Kimbel was familiar with the work RIS was doing in the community. Chuck decided to stop in and leave his name with the RIS office, and very quickly received a call letting him know that his services were needed. Chuck generously agreed to fix up the bikes Klunk! had donated, as well as bikes currently in the possession of refugees that need some TLC.

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Chuck says that most of the bikes he has repaired for RIS have needed new parts. When he was working with PedNet he worked on bikes that were close to new and just dirty from sitting in basements and garages. However, parts can deteriorate from sitting for long amounts of time. Klunk! has been generous in giving Chuck substantial discounts for new bike parts, as well as used bike parts that are in good condition. Many of the bikes Chuck receives have missing or broken parts, but can usually be salvaged. Chuck says that his main goal is to make bikes workable, and he is not so concerned with cosmetics and appearance. Chuck tries to replace seats and rusted parts, as well, but it is not absolutely necessary. As long as the bike has good tires, brakes, and chains, the bike should be safe and functional for refugees to ride. Chuck recognizes that working on bikes is very labor intensive and not something that he could easily make a living from, as one bike repair can take him up to 7 hours since he is still fairly new and slow at the repair process.

In addition to volunteering with RIS, Chuck also takes on several other responsibilities in the community. He works once a week at the Habitat for Humanity thrift store in Columbia where community members can buy building materials. Chuck runs the cash register, moves furniture, helps load trucks, and takes donations. Once a month, Chuck also works to direct traffic at a hazardous material drop-off center. Chuck’s giving nature even expands outside of the Columbia city limits. Chuck and his wife spend 5 months out of the year in Florida to help with his wife’s fibromyalgia. He spends his time there as a case worker for St. Vincent de Paul, works at a library, and also volunteers at St. Matthews House, a local homeless shelter. Sometimes he has the opportunity to fix bikes for homeless people while working at St. Matthews House and enjoys seeing the gratitude of the bike-owners. Because the homeless shelter has little money to spend on the bike repairs, Chuck has learned to make these repairs for cheap, which has aided him while fixing bikes for RIS. Chuck has also been able to see the impact his work has had on refugees here in Columbia after receiving a video from RIS, of a young man who had been given a bike and “looked really happy”. Chuck’s schedule is busy and he is not always able to repair as many bikes as he would like to, but he has expressed interest in helping others learn the tips and tricks that he has figured out and letting volunteers shadow him so that RIS can expand the amount of bikes they are able to offer to refugees.

We are delighted to share Chuck’s story because it is a testament to how far service and community collaboration go to serve our local refugee population. We are beyond grateful to Chuck and the many other volunteers that dedicate their time and talents to those in need.

If you have an interest in repairing bicycles for refugees, or learning more about volunteer opportunities with RIS, contact Katie Freehling, Volunteer Coordinator at the RIS office.

(573) 442-7568                                     

Helmets for Hope

In 2012, Columbian Kim Boyer received a diagnosis of MS. Soon after, her good friend Craig Lycke offered to put a Bike MS team together for Boyer, supporting her in her fight and raising money to help find a cure. Lycke became team captain for a Bike MS team with nearly 50 members. With great determination, Lycke, Boyer, and their team raised around $23,000, winning this year’s Gateway Area Bike MS Rookie Team of the Year award. Part of the endeavor of Bike MS is local community service, and Lycke knew that with the determination and support of his Bike MS team, he could stir up the Columbia community to make a real difference in the lives of community members. That was two years ago, and now a team created to support a friend in need is going the extra mile to support our local refugee community.

Lycke was devastated when he heard about a refugee who had been hit by a car while riding his bike without a helmet. Although the individual walked away from the collision with only a few minor injuries, the helmetless rider could have suffered far worse. For refugees, a bicycle is a priceless resource that many use as their primary source of transportation to work, school, and various appointments. However many refugees can’t afford a new helmet. Shortly after hearing about the accident, Lycke and teammate Beth Shepard began brainstorming ways the community could respond to this need for helmets. Knowing that some refugees received bike donations from Refugee and Immigration Services – Catholic Charities of Northern Missouri, Lycke resolved to make a connection and see if the partnership could assist in connecting refugees with helmets. This would ensure that all refugees receiving bikes in the future also received a helmet. With the same passion that inspired the Bike MS team in 2012, Lycke began thinking of ways the community could ensure that every refugee rider could ride with the protection of a helmet, and so the seed for Helmets for Hope was planted.

Lycke’s first step was to get his team on board. With their help, he contacted some local bike shops and asked them if he could set up collection sites in their stores. People could come and drop off their safe and usable helmets to be donated to refugees at RIS. One of the local businesses even gave the campaign $100 in seed money. The local stores participating are:

Walt’s Bike Shop

Ultramax Sports

CycleXtreme Bicycle Warehouse


Many people might not know, but helmets actually have expiration dates because of the Styrofoam used to cushion the head. After a certain amount of time the Styrofoam won’t protect a person’s head properly. Lycke explains that they will still take helmets past their expiration dates as long as the Styrofoam is still functional. He decided to name his efforts Helmets for Hope, as they are keeping refugees safe while they are beginning their new lives in the United States. Lycke understands that “those being helped are oftentimes victims of political and military strife and are fleeing nations where hope and safety are not the norm.” He describes Columbia as a community of activists, and he knew that his Helmets for Hope campaign would have a good response from community members.

Most of the endorsement for Helmets for Hope has come from flyers put up around town and word of mouth. Lycke has also received help from Lawrence Simonson at the PedNet Coalition (a local non-profit that promotes active transportation) in promoting the campaign. Bike MS got wind of Helmets for Hope, and at one of their rides, set up a collection site. At the end of the ride, some of the participants took off their helmets and donated them to the cause. So far, Lycke says he is pleased with the results of the campaign, having delivered 35 helmets to RIS so far with about 20 more to deliver.

A member of Lycke’s Bike MS team placed a flyer for Helmets for Hope in her church bulletin, where it was seen by a local Boy Scout Troop, who wishes to expand on Helmets for Hope as a service project for the community. Lycke is currently working with the troop to iron out the details.

One of Lycke’s greatest joys of the summer was seeing pictures on Facebook of refugees who had received helmets from his cause. He said that the pictures gave him “goose flesh” and inspired him to keep the campaign going. He hopes to start the campaign again in 2015, next time making it bigger and better. He knows that refugees come here with little more than the clothes on their back, and could use all the help community members are willing to give them. Refugees have been excited about their new helmets and the chance to ride safely on Columbia roadways.

RIS is so touched by the response of the Columbia community. The support of community members like Craig Lycke, his team, and programs like Helmet’s for Hope does not go unnoticed. To find out how you can support the Columbia refugee population through donations, service, or to learn more about Refugee and Immigration Services, please contact our Community Outreach Coordinator, Katie Freehling, at

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Putting Down “New Roots” in Columbia

On Monday, September 8, 2014 Refugee and Immigration Services – Catholic Charities of Central and Northern Missouri teamed up with Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture and traveled to Kansas City, Kansas. As any true Mizzou fan knows, entering Kansas territory is not an activity that takes place without good reason, but our wonderful volunteers braved the “bad land” to visit New Roots for Refugees, a community refugee garden created from a collaboration of Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas and Cultivate Kansas City. After driving 130 miles (plus a few more lost in the twists and turns of the Kansas City roadways) the group finally spotted a farmers’ market in a church parking lot and knew they had arrived at their destination.


New Roots provides refugees in the Kansas City area the opportunity to learn small business practices through growing and selling vegetables. Refugees attend training for months before they are accepted into the program and given land of their very own to farm. They are then shown how to sell their food at local farmers’ markets. Program staff provide guidance on how to invest, save, or spend the profits in smart ways. The refugees are able to feed their families healthy food while they work towards their ultimate goal of financial stability and independence. Recent graduates of the New Roots program have purchased land of their own and continue to farm as a way to provide for their families.The staff  from RIS and CCUA were exploring the opportunity of implementing a similar program right here in Columbia. They were able to tour the New Roots garden, ask questions about the program, and even shared in some delicious watermelon!

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RIS and CCUA have teamed up in the past to assist refugees in starting their own urban gardens and learning how to produce and prepare American vegetables through the Opportunity Garden (OG) program.  Many refugees in Columbia are already active Opportunity Gardeners, but CCUA is always accpecting new applicants. Refugees who are interested should stop by the office for an application, or can access the applicaiton online here. CCUA determines  the size of garden to create by the yard size, abilities, time, and need of the refugee family. Most gardens are fairly small at 4×10 ft, while others are even smaller and are only container gardens on porches and balconies. Regardless of the family situation, CCUA staff always find a unique way to bring gardening to peoples homes.

Through the OG program, not only do the refugees receive education on growing vegetables, but they also learn what to do with the food once they have it. Classes are given on how to can tomatoes, save seeds, and what to do about frost and clay when gardening (things common to Missouri but completely foreign to most refugees). Many refugees rely on their gardens to feed their families and some have even begun selling greens at their churches.

Tricia Woolbright, the Opportunity Garden Coordinator, is one of the employees of Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture who attended the trip to New Roots for Refugees. She likes how the refugees in KC sell their produce at farmers’ markets, although before something similar could take place in COMO, she would have to see if refugees have an interest in selling and if there would be a market for these crops in the community. Tricia believes that many refugee women who feel like they do not hold a significant place in the community will begin to feel like they are contributing more significantly to society and could benefit from the supplemental income that selling produce would bring.

A project as large as New Roots for Refugees would take awhile to become reality in Columbia, MO, but small changes made  to the refugee gardening programs already in place could be on the horizon. Through the support of the refugee and local community some New Roots may be sewn in Columbia sooner rather than later.

To learn more about the gardening projects already exisitng in Columbia please visit:

Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture: and

Community Garden Coalition:

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2013 World Refugee Day Recap

Photo courtesy of Missourian photographer Quint Smith

Photo courtesy of Missourian photographer Quint Smith

We would like to thank everyone who came out to Broadway Christian Church on Saturday to celebrate World Refugee Day with us and our refugee community! Your support is so important to us in honoring the strength, courage and determination of refugees and in welcoming them into our community. We had approximately 200 people show up for games, crafts, music and a potluck featuring dishes from around the world (plus some generous donations from some local restaurants).

KOMU, the Missourian and the Columbia Tribune all covered the event. Check out their stories, and head over to our Facebook page to look at behind-the-scenes photos of our hardworking volunteers and to see some photos from the celebration itself.

A huge thanks to everyone who made this day possible! We hope to see you all next year!

July 18: Mandela Day

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July 18 marks the birthday of Nelson Mandela, the anti-apartheid leader and former South African President. In 2009, in honor of his birthday, the United Nations declared July 18 Nelson Mandela International Day. This day is meant to inspire people to take action to change the world for the better. (more…)

Announcing World Refugee Day 2013

Join us for our World Refugee Day Festival, 2013

Join us for our World Refugee Day Festival, 2013

This year marks the fifth annual World Refugee Day Festival. On June 20, the world celebrates World Refugee Day to honor the courage, strength and determination of those who are forced to flee their homes under threat of persecution, conflict or violence.

The Columbia refugee community celebrates this day a month later with our World Refugee Day Festival to support the heritage and cultures of local refugees and immigrants who now call Columbia home. The free event will be 5-10 p.m. on Saturday, July 20 at Broadway Christian Church (2601 W. Broadway). It’s open to the public and we encourage the whole community to come out for a potluck, music, games and crafts.

If you are interested in volunteering at the event, please contact Katie Freehling at We welcome help of any kind, including set up, clean up, photography and everything in between.

More details will be posted on our Facebook page as July 20 draws closer. We hope to see you there!