Jacksonville group to celebrate World Refugee Day

Event in San Marco to honor local refugees

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Each year, the United States accepts approximately 70,000 refugees who were forced to flee their homelands due to religious or political persecution. In 2013 alone, Lutheran Social Services helped nearly 1,600 refugees adapt to their lives in the U.S. through its Refugee Services program.

Karen Rieley, director of the program, says all the refugees served at Lutheran Social Services were forced to leave their home countries for different reasons, but they all arrived in the United States without money, jobs or transportation.

"People often don't realize the challenges and struggles that refugees face after they resettle in the U.S.," Rieley says. "That's why we are hosting a celebration in San Marco on June 20 to honor all of our local refugees and provide them the opportunity to connect with each other and share their incredible journeys."

Rieley says at Lutheran Social Services, the resettlement process begins before refugee families arrive.

"The staff and volunteers with our Refugee Services program prepare apartments with furniture, basic living staples and food," according to Rieley. "We have a diverse team that comes from 14 countries and speaks 22 languages to help refugees through a 90-day orientation period."

Rieley says the organization is not only assisting refugees with living situations, but connecting them to needed social services.

"We enroll their children in schools, obtain proper work forms and helps them with health care issues," Rieley says. "In fact, Lutheran Social Services is the only area program that offers refugees employment services and helps their children integrate into Duval County Public Schools."

Sa Nay Ma was forced to flee Burma due to war conflict and sought refuge in Thailand before resettling in the United States. She says getting adjusted to a new way of life was challenging.

"When we first moved here, we didn't know a single person and couldn't speak any English," Ma remembers. "On top of that, the biggest adjustment for us was the culture difference. People were dressing and talking differently. As a child, I was afraid in the beginning to even talk to people outside of my family."

Ma says now when she looks back, it's hard to believe how much she and her family have achieved throughout the whole journey.

"I just graduated from Englewood High School," Ma says, "And I'm planning on getting a bachelor's degree in education. My dream is to become a teacher because I didn't have that opportunity to go to school when I was at Burma. I'm grateful for the education I've received in this country, and I think it's my time to give back to the community."

Ma says Lutheran Social Services has been there for her family since day one.

"They made us feel that we were not alone and we would always have a place to turn to no matter what," Ma says. "The Refugee team there gave us the hope of starting a better life in Jacksonville."

The World Refugee Day Celebration is coming up next Friday. It will be held at the Southside Baptist Church in San Marco, from 4:30 – 6:30 p.m., and is open FREE to the general public. Lutheran Social Services is hosting the event alongside Catholic Charities and World Relief.

Organizers say the celebration will include cultural performances, arts and crafts, and youth soccer, but the true spirit of the event is to rally community support for our neighbors who were forcibly displaced from their homelands and found sanctuary in Jacksonville.

If you are interested in attending the World Refugee Day Celebration In San Marco on June 20 or have any questions about the Refugee Services program, visit lssjax.org