Gin Sum was only a teenager when his family fled from its home.
Life under a military regime in Burma (now Myanmar) that suppressed democracy and oppressed minorities and religious groups was not easy. His father, a Christian pastor, left the country for his safety when Sum was only 3.
And in 2006, Sum, his mother and four siblings crossed the border into India to escape harassment by the authorities. They made their way to a New Delhi refugee camp and lived there for three years until given refugee status and allowed to immigrate to the United States.
Waiting for them was HIAS Pennsylvania, ready to help them adjust to their new life in Philadelphia.
It’s stories like Sum’s that were celebrated on June 20 during World Refugee Day. The United Nations holiday was started in 2000 to raise awareness of the plight of refugees. And at the forefront of the local celebration was HIAS.
In 1882, nonprofit predecessor organization Association for the Protection of Jewish Immigrants formed to help resettle Jewish immigrants fleeing persecution in Eastern Europe. Over the years, the number of Jewish refugees coming to the U.S. declined, so the organization has turned to assisting other groups. In 1979, HIAS PA started to settle refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos at the request of the U.S. government.
In the past decade, HIAS PA has settled about 8,000 refugees in Philadelphia, with no signs of slowing down.
For World Refugee Day, three celebrations were held across the city to introduce Philadelphians to their refugee neighbors with food, games and music. The three block parties were at Tarken Ice Rink and Recreation Center in Northeast Philadelphia, Kingsessing Recreation Center in Southwest Philadelphia and Mifflin Square Park in South Philadelphia.
Daniella Nahmias Scruggs is the development director for HIAS PA. She said in the past the area hosted soccer games and other activities to commemorate the occasion, but this is the first time they’ve held a block party. Previously, just one event was held at Philadelphia City Hall, but the block parties allow for celebrations right where refugees are located.
“What we realized is one of the things we want to celebrate is that refugees are our neighbors and to really bring awareness,” Scruggs said. “We wanted to really make sure that the people who live in the neighborhoods that refugees live in know who their neighbors are and come together in celebration.”
The parties included music, food and other activities. Scruggs said each had a unique flavor, reflecting the immigrant community that lives there. Northeast Philadelphia is home to many refugees from the former Soviet Union and the Middle East, South Philadelphia has a large population of refugees from Asian countries including Myanmar, Bhutan, Vietnam and Cambodia, and Southwest Philadelphia has many African refugees.
Helping to run the Mifflin Square Park block party was Rona Buchalter, director of refugee programming and planning at HIAS PA, She said it was nice to take the celebration to areas where refugees live.
“The idea is to bring people out and have fun and celebrate each other and celebrate the new people who are a part of our communities,” Buchalter said. “Sometimes, there’s so much negative rhetoric around these folks that we want to be positive and bring people out of different communities together.”
Several guest speakers addressed the block parties.
District 1 City Councilman Mark Squilla spoke at Mifflin Square Park, encouraging attendees to reach out to the proper city departments for help and to take advantage of city services.
“This was my park growing up, and it’s only a pleasure to come back here and celebrate with you, celebrating World Refugee Day with you,” Squilla said. “How important it is here in Philadelphia that we have three events simultaneously going on for the first time out in the public.”
Sum was also at the park.
Long ago after coming to the United States, Sum was reunited with his father, who he hadn’t seen in 17 years. His father died soon thereafter from brain cancer.
It was around that time Sum said he wanted to give back and started volunteering with HIAS as a translator. Today, he works for the organization as an employment and self-sufficiency coordinator. He attended the party to show his support and chat with former clients.
“This year, I’m very excited because we’re able to do more outreach,” Sum said. “Just today, I have been speaking to a few Burmese. They were asking what this was about, and I was able [to tell them] this is about us, they’re celebrating refugee day.”