As Ali Kadhum celebrated World Refugee Day at the YWCA on Grant Street on Sunday, he stopped to tell about a close friend from Mercy Movement, the organization Kadhum joined in his native Iraq to call for human rights.
Extremists killed his friend for speaking out.
Kadhum feared he would be next. He fled to the United States in 2006 and now balances his work as a translator with a master’s curriculum at the University at Buffalo’s School of Social Work. His life is better now, but when he got here, he felt conflicted.
“I’m selfish, because I left my country and my people dying day by day,” said Kadhum, who becomes a U.S. citizen next month. “But at the same time, I want to do something here.”
He already has. In 2009, Kadhum became president of the Buffalo Immigrant Refugee Empowerment Coalition, which supports and educates immigrants and refugees in Western New York in areas such as public safety, housing and health.
And on Sunday, the group marked World Refugee Day with soccer, dancing and food. It was an opportunity for Buffalo’s immigrants to unite and learn about other cultures.
“When you eat with someone, you feel there is a kind of relationship, kind of friendship,” Kadhum said. “We believe that eating food together creates a stronger relationship to each other.”
Iraqis served koubaa – a dish comprising beets, onions and other spices – and Africans served sambusa, fried pastries filled with anything from chicken to beef to spiced potatoes, in addition to a wide range of other cuisines. Groups from different countries performed songs and dances as the others ate. And the winners of an international soccer tournament held Saturday were honored.
Omar Sundi, 22, who moved to Buffalo in 2004, played for the Somalian team and came in third place. Sudan won the tournament, which was at LaSalle Park, and Iraq was the runner-up. Twelve teams competed.
Sundi remembered a time in Somalia when playing soccer was not so easy.
“It was really difficult for us because we didn’t have the kind of soccer balls that they have here,” he said. “We usually wrap papers and wrap them together and make it like a soccer ball.”
Kadhum said soccer helps break down the language barriers between the immigrants, almost as if it is a language of its own. Though soccer may never rival football and hockey in Buffalo, Kadhum and others said they like living here and praised the kindness of Western New Yorkers.
But Kadhum had a familiar complaint: the weather.
“I mean, we used to live in Iraq, which is the same weather in Arizona,” Kadhum said. “But we are OK with not too much snow.”
Others lauded the educational opportunities in Buffalo. Asmhane Kafe of Sudan came to the United States 14 years ago and worked for years as a teaching assistant at Holy Cross Head Start. She’s now switching careers and attending Erie Community College to enter the medical field.
Deborah Lynn Williams, the CEO of the Western New York YWCA, said the refugee empowerment group holds its board meetings at the YWCA, and some Burmese girls recently signed up for summer camp there. She said it’s important for the YWCA to continue its tradition of helping immigrants.
“This round of immigrants is no different than the round that came after the wars from Europe,” Williams said. “They’re the next building blocks of America.”