by Lindsay Huth
At the Takoma Park Independence Day Parade, six visitors—all teenage refugees from Syria, recently resettled in communities across the United States—walked alongside the standard community groups, bands and public officials who’d assembled to ring in the holiday Tuesday morning.
Their parade appearance was one stop in the month-long leadership and cultural exchange program run by RefAmerica that brought them to the District last week.
Between their scheduled cultural activities and public-speaking training, the group arrived in Takoma Park to walk and sing English folk songs alongside the Washington Revels performing arts group.
“They’re experiencing the national day of their new homeland, and by participating in the parade, they’re participating in something that’s a quintessential part of the Fourth of July,” RefAmerica Executive Director Liane Dorsey said.
The teens, all ages 16 to 19, came to Washington from their new homes in California, Nevada, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Maryland, where they’ve lived with their families for less than 18 months, Dorsey said.
During the month-long program, the Syrian teens are staying with host families in Montgomery County and participating in their leadership and story-sharing activities alongside a group of American-born high schoolers from the county—all with the goal of encouraging cultural exchange.
“I came to learn more about the history of America and to educate people about my Syrian culture,” Alaa Aljawabra, 18, said. “It’s all about culture.”
Dorsey said walking in the Takoma Park parade wasn’t always part of that slate of educational activities.
She’d reached out to Greg Lewis, executive director of the Revels, ahead of the program, hoping to schedule a time to bring the teens to one of the troupe’s over 50 annual performances. Lewis suggested the Fourth of July parade.
“I was asking about where to stand on the route for the best view, and next thing I knew we were a part of the Washington Revels,” Dorsey said, laughing.
Lewis said the Revels — a performing arts group of all ages and experience levels — performs traditional music, dance and drama from several parts of the world, seeking to “create community across cultural divides and generational divides.”
Welcoming the Syrian teens, Lewis said, was a natural extension of that mission.
Parade Coordinator Tara Egan said the refugees’ participation also reflected the parade’s theme this year, “Unity in the Community.”
Lewis said that the Revels have taken part in the Takoma Park parade since 2007, and though they’ve welcomed a guest or two to walk in past parades, a group like these refugees is a first.
The group of teens is also RefAmerica’s first: the organization was founded this year, borne out of Dorsey’s professional background in international humanitarian assistance, largely geared toward migrants.
Dorsey said the program aims to help its participants tell their personal stories and connect their experiences to the larger American narrative, in which immigration is a common theme.
“It’s really based on the power of the personal story—that if you can tell your story, you can influence people and open their hearts,” Dorsey said.
Activities will include visits to the National Museum of African American History and Culture; the State Department Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration; and the Greater Washington Muslim-Jewish Forum.
The Syrian and American teens will collaborate on two meals, too, that they’ll prepare and serve: a Thanksgiving feast and a Syrian dinner.
For Tuesday’s parade, the teens practiced the Revels’ songs—folk tunes like “The Grand Old Duke of York” and “Apple Tree Wassail”—on Monday, and again on Tuesday morning.
Lewis said he calmed nervous participants by reminding them that singing is an “invitation,” not a requirement.
“It doesn’t matter if you can’t hold a tune,” Lewis said. “Magic happens when we all sing together.”
For Tuesday’s parade, the Revels wore white pants and skirts with pastel sashes and headbands, and their RefAmerica partners sported red “Washington, D.C.” t-shirts and drawstring bags with the organization’s name.
“The parade gives us the opportunity for wider exposure for what we think is a nice mission: to make newly arrived refugees feel welcome, and to show people that they’re fabulous young people, just like all the other fabulous young people,” Dorsey said.
Lewis said the parade was a good fit for RefAmerica’s goals, since Takoma Park is “a really welcoming community in that respect.”
Tuesday’s holiday marked the second Fourth of July for Aya Alsbagh, 18, whose family resettled in Towson, Maryland, over a year ago.
“The holiday is very beautiful to see, and so many people come,” Alsbagh said.
Dorsey said the group concluded its Independence Day holiday watching fireworks on the National Mall.