Concord celebrates World Refugee Day with song and dance

Tahmina Azada, center, stands with her parents Qadam Ali Nikpai (left) and Azada Nikpai during a recognition of World Refugee Day on Thursday in Concord.

Tahmina Azada, center, stands with her parents Qadam Ali Nikpai (left) and Azada Nikpai during a recognition of World Refugee Day on Thursday in Concord. Sophie Levenson / Monitor staff

A group of children dance to Shakira at the Concord Community Center for World Refugee Day.

A group of children dance to Shakira at the Concord Community Center for World Refugee Day. Sophie Levenson—Monitor staff

By SOPHIE LEVENSON

 Monitor staff

Published: 06-20-2024 4:30 PM

A few things in the world can reliably bring different people together: Soccer, food, a nice sunset. Shakira. 

When the Colombian singer’s 2010 World Cup anthem, “Waka Waka,” came on, the jumble of kids swaying nervously on the gym floor threw up their hands and started to dance. Five Afghan girls in matching pink rompers led the charge.

This — a song, a messy dance — was how Concord’s new Americans celebrated World Refugee Day at Keach Park Community Center Thursday. Ascentria Care Alliance, a nonprofit focused on helping refugees settle in New England, hosted the event, welcoming more than 100 now-locals who came to New Hampshire from countries like Syria, Afghanistan, Uganda and Rwanda. Many of the children at the event were part of Project S.T.O.R.Y., a volunteer-powered organization that hosts programming for underprivileged kids, about half of whom are refugees or children of refugees.

They all had a reason to leave. In 2021, the Taliban took hold of Afghanistan again. Tahmina Azada and her family had to flee — they all worked for the government, Azada with a concentration in promoting gender equality. Albania took them in, and Azada found a job teaching math at a UNICEF school for a two-year interim while she waited for her refugee case to go through the system.

On July 24, 2023, she made it to the United States. Azada joined her brother and sister, who had already planted the seeds of life in Concord, and found a job as a teaching assistant at Beaver Meadow Elementary School.

“I started here with zero,” Azada said. All of her qualifications as an educator, any reputation she carried in Afghanistan — all of that was left at home. At 29, she had to start from scratch. “I came here with nothing.”

Now, at 30, she has a little more. Azada worked as a teaching assistant through the academic year and then found a job as a resettlement navigator for new refugees with Ascentria. Her parents joined her in Concord two months ago. One of the little girls who danced in a pink romper is her niece. The rest of them are cousins or more distant relatives — family, all the same.

“The Macarena” bumped through the speakers. The cousins led the room in forming a line, and a little girl with wide brown eyes watched eagerly, copying their moves until she picked up the rhythm of the dance.

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Concord and its surrounding towns have been a haven for refugees since 1996, settling more than 7,500 refugees over the years, according to the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services. On World Refugee Day, Ascentria emphasized a celebration of “new Americans” — people who were once refugees, but now have their feet firmly planted on American soil.

American, indeed. The Project S.T.O.R.Y. dance group of eight girls chose Beyoncé’s “Halo” as their performance song.

When all the kids sitting in the gym bleachers were asked to shout out where they’re from, they called out, “Rwanda,” “Uganda,” and “Here” — they call Concord home.

That doesn’t mean that new Americans have to part with where they came from, in a cultural sense. Most of the kids wore colorful t-shirts and plastic slides to World Refugee Day, but many of their parents donned the traditional clothing of their home countries. Every kind of difference was present in the Community Center — ethnicity, background, money, language. Still, that gray gym floor was common ground.

Sophie Levenson can be reached at slevenson@cmonitor.com.