World Refugee Day > Trousers

World Refugee Day

One year ago, after a slow summer day at Bordertown, Rachel and I went to Curry Park on the west bank in Minneapolis to celebrate World Refugee Day. When we arrived we found two stages with alternating performances of dancing, poetry, music, speeches, etc. Inside the center was a maze of booths with literature and information for refugees and about refugees, one of which Brian was at for ARC. There were quite a few people milling around, eating somosas, walking through the booths, watching and listening to the performances. My favorite part of the day was the dancing. There was a group of African-American women doing a form of ethnic dancing with grass skirts on. I was mesmerized by their movements and the beats of the drums coming from their drummer. At one point they invited people to come and join in and my friend Carmen and I hopped up and made complete fools of ourselves but had a great time. The day was really educational for me. With the backdrop of the Riverside apartments and huge amount of Somali refugees that inhabit that area, I was proud to be able to take part in an event that brought awareness about the people in our own back yard.

Cut to last week. World Refugee Day was fast approaching and the NGO’s here in Yei met once a week to plan for an event to happen in “Freedom Square” here in Yei town. Though the plan was originally to have the celebration in nearby Lainya County, it was decided to move to Yei due to recent LRA attacks near Lainya. Whenever a “Day” like Women’s Day, or World AIDS Day, or any kind of designated “day” comes around, all of the NGO’s are called upon by the local government to support and organize the “day”. Well I was really interested to see what this side of World Refugee Day would look like in a place where the life of a refugee is an experience many have had.

I arrived to Freedom Square with some coworkers to find a large crowd already gathered. Each school in Yei was represented with their student choirs dressed in uniform, ready to perform for the audience. We were only waiting for the guest of honor. People sat and waited and listened to loud, distorted music from the blaring PA system. Suddenly a white UNHCR vehicle drove right through the middle of the crowd and the music stopped. We were all asked to stand while the guests emerged from the oddly clean vehicle. Two men stepped out, one in a white military uniform, the other in a blue police uniform. The one in the police uniform was talking on his cell phone loudly, apparently oblivious (or very aware) that hundreds of people were silently staring at him. He continued to talk on his cell phone while the MC welcomed both of the men and officially opened the World Refugee Day presentation.

First came speeches from UNHCR (Unite Nations High Commission for Refugees). Then the man in the white uniform was invited to give a speech. He started by speaking to those Sudanese who are still in exile in refugee camps in Uganda and Kenya. He asked them to please come back to Sudan, because their country needs them. He went on to welcome those refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, Rwanda and Central African Republic. He then made a point to say that Sudan has been especially kind to the refugees who are here compared to the experience of many Sudanese refugees who were attacked and killed by rebels in Uganda and Kenya.

Refugee Drama

This point was repeated when a drama group I have been working with did a drama simply about the life of a refugee. The drama began with a group of women fleeing Sudan with only a few belongings. They flee to Uganda where they were sure they would find some peace and stability while their country was at war. However shortly after the women settle in their refugee camp the LRA come and attack and rape the women. The women are then brought to a refugee hospital where they are video taped and interviewed. It was so interesting to watch these drama actors make a fun drama out of traumatic experiences. The audience roared with laughter at the raggedy, unkempt LRA rebels. I’m sure somewhere Kony’s ears were burning while hundreds of people mocked them. I have to believe there is something therapeutic in that for the people who have faced his group.

My favorite parts were the school choirs who sang songs. Each school choir wrote a song to perform about Refugee life. They belted these songs out at the top of their lungs that give me goose bumps. Here are the lyrics to one of the songs I recorded on my camera. I’ll try to post the video when we get to Kampala this week:

We are victims of war. We are victims of war.

Yes we are. But the lord will help us to undo the trouble we have. We shall be happy.

We are the refugees today. The lord is with us. We shall be happy forever.

We are the refugees today the lord is with us we shall be happy forever.

We are from exile. We are from exile.

Yes we are. But the lord will help us to undo the trouble we have we shall be happy.

We are the refugees today. The lord is with us. We shall be happy forever.

We are the refugees today. The lord is with us. We shall be happy forever.

Kakwa Traditional Dance

Next to the children’s choirs, by far, my favorite part was very reminiscent of last year’s Refugee Day celebration in Minneapolis. One of the largest tribes in the Yei area is a tribe called Kakwa. So one of the last parts of the day was a traditional Kakwa dance by a group of men and women. Sure enough, I heard drums beating, women ululating and the swish of grass skirts. A group of about 20 people emerged through the crowd and they began to dance in a circle around a group of men drumming. I turned to my coworker who is also Kakwa and asked if the grass skirts were used often in traditional dances, to which she responded with a smile and an enthusiastic, “Yes!” Within minutes soldiers, and audience members joined the group to dance. As I watched and snapped pictures I thought about the dancers in grass skirts in Minneapolis last year and suddenly I didn’t feel so far away.

Then I woke up minutes later, suddenly feeling every mile we flew away from home. The guest of honor, the one in the blue police uniform who talked on his phone loudly, took the stage. I was ready to hear more words about refugees and the story of millions of people. Oddly, the man asked a woman to stand up on the stage with him. A woman dressed in a beautiful red pant-suit stood up. He began rattling of in Arabic and as his message was translated my proverbial balloon was burst. “Now! You see here a woman dressed very smartly in a pants-suit! We will not arrest women who are dressed like this!…” A kind of silence went over the whole crowd as he went on, “We WILL arrest women wearing trousers that are too tight to the buttocks and the legs!”

I am sorry to say that hearing this, though it was out of context for World Refugee Day, was not news. For about a month now women in Juba and in Yei have been thrown in to prison, beaten and even stripped for wearing trousers that are, in the opinion of the officers at the moment, too tight. The stories have been horrifying and people everywhere are confused and outraged that this had been continuing to happen. Sitting in the front row, I looked down at the trousers I was wearing (if we call them pants here everyone thinks we’re talking about underwear…), wondering if they would be considered too tight. I was embarrassed as a woman and as a spectator. Up until this point it was a bit unclear if this was just bored policemen having fun or if it was coming from higher up… well his message was devastatingly clear. It seems this mandate is coming straight down the chain of command in the government. It is funny how on the one side we are all rooting for the Southern government to make decisions for themselves, and then when they do… Now that’s a catch 22.

All in all the day was enlightening. I walked away in my trousers humming tunes sung by beautiful voices who have seen more trouble than I ever will. What a world.

Brian and I are headed to an island called Zanzibar off the coast of Tanzania on Saturday! It’s been three months since our last break and we are very ready for it. We will actually be there for the 4th of July so Happy Independence Day if we don’t get a chance to say it later!