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Halloween's a first, but refugees eat it up

Once he was blindfolded, Ali Abdalla needed someone to show him what to do with the stick in his hands.

The 11-year-old Somalian refugee was the first to get a crack at the bright pumpkin pinata but was unsuccessful at bringing it down. Several kids followed him, and when the pumpkin finally fell to the floor, nobody moved.So the pinata was tied to the rope again, and others took their turn with the stick. Finally, a good swing cracked the pumpkin open and a flood of Tootsie Rolls spewed out to the floor.

Instinctively, all the kids rushed to the candy. It was a reaction nobody had to teach.

Nobody had to teach them to like Halloween, either. All the approximately 70 refugee children and their parents had to do was attend a Halloween party to know that all the scary masks and costumes they'll see in the next few days are just in good fun.

Call it Americanization at its sweetest.

"It's great," said Ali's father, Ali Mohamed Salim, through an interpreter. "We don't know what it means, (but) it's very interesting."

It's what leaders of the Catholic Community Service Refugee Resettlement program hope to accomplish with their annual Halloween party for recent refugees - to get them acquainted with one of America's most bizarre traditions and help them understand that the seasonal fascination with the macabre is just for fun.

"We don't want kids to go to school Friday and be really scared when they see their teacher in a witch's costume," said Emily Burk, health services and volunteer coordinator for Catholic Community Services.

Last year Burke heard about several Vietnamese children who arrived in Utah just before Halloween and had a big surprise when on their first day of kindergarten their classmates and teacher looked like goblins, witches and vampires.

"They were just absolutely terrified. It was just a horrible experience for them," Burk said. Unless someone tells them, "they don't have a clue what Halloween is. Some of these kids were born in refugee camps. We feel like it's such a big part of our culture that we want them to understand and be able to celebrate the holiday with the other kids."

So Wednesday night they celebrated. Refugees from Somalia, Bosnia, Vietnam and Iraq gathered at Salt Lake's New Hope Refugee Friendship Center to toss bean bags through a cut-out cardboard pumpkin, fish for goodies and to break two Mexican pinatas.

None of the refugee children wore costumes, but most got their faces painted - another American thing that seemed to delight them.

"I like Halloween," Ali said while modeling his new pink vampire teeth.

With a bagful of candy and other treats waiting, how could he not?