America’s newest citizens celebrate World Refugee Day in San Marco

America’s newest citizens celebrate World Refugee Day in San Marco
Isabella Nevado and her grandfather, Virgil, wait to watch Isabella’s mother, Orlene, take the Oath of Allegiance to the United States during a ceremony at Theatre Jacksonville June 13.

When the World Refugee Day Committee and the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) requested to use Theatre Jacksonville as its venue for its naturalization ceremony June 13, Michelle Kindy, the theatre’s general manager, did not hesitate to say yes.

 “From a personal perspective, I became a citizen in 2007, so I have been where these folks have been,” said Kindy, a native of Canada. “When they told me that they were doing the rest of the World Refugee Day celebration at Southside Baptist Church but had no place to do this part, I knew we could say yes. People who run businesses within the Square here act as partners and friends. It’s never a surprise when its someone in the Square looking to partner to make something happen for someone else in the community. Me saying yes was not only because we could do it, but also because our partner, Southside Baptist Church, needed it so they could do the rest of World Refugee Day, because, unfortunately, they can’t do the (naturalization) ceremony in a church. The irony is that we are currently performing ‘Sister Act.’ The fact that behind our curtain is a full cathedral set is not lost on me. Fortunately, the set is not consecrated so we don’t have to worry about it,” she laughed. “We would definitely partner again for this if they ever ask.”

As part of a celebration of World Refugee Day, USCIS administered the Oath of Allegiance to 20 of America’s newest citizens during a special ceremony at the theatre in San Marco on June 13. Although World Refugee Day is observed on June 20 internationally each year, Jacksonville celebrated on June 13 because eight to nine similar celebrations were to be conducted in June throughout the State of Florida this year.

Lutheran Social Services Volunteer Greta Apilstoli (in red), World Refugee Day Committee Member Hind Chalio (in purple) and Elaine Carson, better known as “Mrs. P,” founder of World Relief in Jacksonville, stand with some newly minted American citizens after a naturalization ceremony at Theatre Jacksonville in San Marco June 13.

Lutheran Social Services Volunteer Greta Apilstoli (in red), World Refugee Day Committee Member Hind Chalio (in purple) and Elaine Carson, better known as “Mrs. P,” founder of World Relief in Jacksonville, stand with some newly minted American citizens after a naturalization ceremony at Theatre Jacksonville in San Marco June 13.

There was nary a dry eye in Theatre Jacksonville’s auditorium as the new citizens collectively took the oath, sang the national anthem, the Star-Spangled Banner, and accepted their official citizenship documents on the stage one at a time. This year the citizenship candidates were a diverse crowd, originating from 14 different countries including Afghanistan, Burma, Cuba, Ethiopia, India, Iraq, Jamaica, Mexico, New Zealand, Nigeria, the Philippines, Turkey, Venezuela and Vietnam. In 2018, USCIS naturalized more than 750,000 people from countries all over the globe, according to a press release.

“This ceremony means so much,” said Nina Frank, an employee of Lutheran Social Services, who served on the World Refugee Committee. “These people are taking the time to become Americans, the country where I’m from. That they want to become part of this nation is just amazing to me. I’m so proud to be an American and to witness this event. To have this in San Marco is beautiful because the ceremony and the celebration are within walking distance of each other. San Marco is part of the history of Jacksonville and being in the middle of that is really good.”

After the ceremony, the new citizens and their families received American flags and paraded through San Marco Square to join the special World Refugee Day Celebration at Southside Baptist Church, where the theme of the festivities was “Entrepreneurship: Investing in OUR CommUNITY.”

“The day is to honor and bring attention to the refugees in our community,” said Patti Grogan, director of refugee services for the Florida Department of Children and Families. “The refugees are here from all over the world because they were forced to flee from their home countries. Jacksonville has been a wonderful community in inviting and embracing refugees when they come here. Over many, many years, Jacksonville has become one of the most diverse refugee communities in the State of Florida. All who come here become part of the community and engage with their neighbors.”

During the World Refugee Celebration 15 graduating high school seniors, who were refugees, were honored and special awards were distributed. Dr. Leslie G. Kaplan, director of the Hicks Honors College at the University of North Florida received the Community Impact Award. Mi Nge of Burma and Mohammed Tarek Alrez from Turkey received Inspiring Youth Awards. Two families that suffered severe hardships on their way to the United States – Balthazar Batachoka and his Congolese family of eight and Mohammed Ali Nur and his family from Eritrea – received the Resilience Award.

Dan W. Daly of San Jose, a member of Lakewood Methodist Church, earned the Volunteer Award for his work with several churches. Daly has taught English classes, provided transportation, and mentoring, and offered all types of donations and food to needy refugee and immigrant families since 1990. He recently provided transportation to 31 children from Denis Court and Stone Mount Apartment complexes to San Jose Baptist to participate in the Stars Program.

Also, during the celebration, Newdline Fidele sang “Istwa Dwol,” the Dancers of Peru demonstrated “Tondero,” and Jacksonville Sings, a chorus at UNF, performed. Vendors from agencies helpful to refugee families also set up booths and distributed information during the event.

“It is a big honor for us to be able to host this for the second year at Southside,” said Senior Pastor Dr. Gary Webber. “As a church committed to seeing people of every nation and tribe brought together, it is a picture of what heaven is going to be like and gives us an opportunity to practice that right here, by having all these wonderful folks in our facility. We are just delighted to be part of the city-wide celebration of the refugees God is bringing to Jacksonville.”

By Marcia Hodgson

Resident Community News

Southside Baptist Senior Pastor Dr. Gary Webber welcomes the crowd during the opening of the World Refugee Day celebration at his San Marco church June 13. Travis Trice of World Relief acted as Master of Ceremonies.

Southside Baptist Senior Pastor Dr. Gary Webber welcomes the crowd during the opening of the World Refugee Day celebration at his San Marco church June 13. Travis Trice of World Relief acted as Master of Ceremonies.

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