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Refugees, Utah’s newest pioneers, to be featured in Days of ’47 Parade float

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SALT LAKE CITY — As Julie McAdams thought about ways she might learn more about refugees, it occurred to her that the thousands of people from around the world resettled in Utah in the past 40 years were modern-day pioneers.

"It’s a later time period but this state has done this before," McAdams said.

"This place was built by refugees and they’re (refugees) just like modern-day pioneers where the pioneers were the earliest refugees."

To help educate mainstream Utahns about the newest arrivals among them and to help refugee communities better integrate to their new home in Utah, McAdams pitched a group of refugees with the idea of creating and entering a float in the upcoming Days of '47 Parade.

"Nobody I talked to knew what a parade or a float was," she said.

McAdams, who is associate general counsel for the University of Utah, a community mediator and Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams's wife, said she did her best to draw pictures and explain what happens in a parade. "Still, they’re looking at me like ‘What are you talking about?’"

So she looked up links on YouTube to show videos, explaining, "Hey this is a parade. This is what’s happening. Salt Lake City, Utah does this every year. It’s kind of a big deal. Do you want to be part of this?

"Once they see what it is, they’re like, ‘Yeah, OK!’"

That pitch was followed by a series of other meetings during which McAdams, and Ze Min Xiao, refugee liaison for Salt Lake County, further explained Utah state history, the significance of the state's Pioneer Day observance and more background on parades and floats.

"I think one of the big things is a float is a foreign concept to many of the communities. Once you explain it to them, everyone is super excited about this opportunity," Xiao said.

Committee member Brigitte Rwakabuba said she had seen the parade on television but "this is the first time the refugee can participate. Usually we see that on TV. I was like, ‘Oh, we have not been forgotten. … We are part of Utah now.”

She and her husband, who are from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, were resettled in Utah in August 2000. It was summer and living in Utah was agreeable until winter.

They were working at an assisted living center and fellow employees and residents noticed they were not dressed for the weather.

"Everybody knew we were refugees so they decided to bring clothes, they decided to bring coats. They decided to bring us shoes and they would say, ‘This is for the snow, you know. It’s cold. It’s good for you to wear a coat.'

"We knew people were nice. That’s why we stayed," said Rwakabuba, now a naturalized citizen and mother of four who works as a certified nursing assistant.

Naima Mohamed, who was resettled in Utah 10 years ago from Somalia, said serving on the float committee "has been a really great experience for me and I’m really happy to be part of it, the planning, the decision making, coming up with all it."

She looks forward to the parade, which she says will help to further integrate refugees into the Utah mainstream.

“It’s a sense of belonging,” said Mohamed, who is coordinator of Salt Lake County's refugee child care program and a mother of two.

Over the past few months, the float committee agreed on a theme and a design.

Twelve refugee communities will be part of the inaugural parade entry, marching along the float. Groups representing two refugee communities — Burundi drummers and Bhutanese dancers — will perform on the float switching off along the parade route.

The parade, to be held on July 25, starts at 9 a.m. at South Temple and State Street, concluding at Liberty Park.

The float's design is intended to convey the message that Utah is home for some 50,000 refugees resettled in the Beehive State since the end of the Vietnam War and portrays the rich diversity they bring to the state.

"It really turns into this idea that we talk about all the time, integration, educating the refugee communities about the significance of Utah history. On the other end, doing the parade to also educate the mainstream community about all this culture and assets that refugees bring with them and that there is this common bond that ties everything together in a community," Xiao said.

While plans are still being finalized, the following refugee communities will be represented: Iraqi, Somali Bantu, Somali Banjuni, Somali, South Sudanese, Bhutanese, Burundi, Burmese, Congolese, Ethiopian, Sierra Leone and Iranian.

The float was professionally built by Innovative Design Concepts and funded by Zions Bank, which is also providing Utah refugees complimentary tickets to the opening night of the Days of '47 Rodeo.

McAdams said she thinks "it will be fun, too, to see if they’re into it or shocked or hate it. I’m really excited to see their reaction to a rodeo.

"One of the refugees said, ‘Is it like the Running of the Bulls? Do we have to get out of the way?’

"I told them 'Oh no, no. You won’t be in danger. There’s no risk here. You will be watching. They’re trying to relate it to something they’ve seen before and really there’s nothing."

McAdams said the joy of working on this project has been introducing refugees to so many "firsts" in their community such as the parade and rodeo.

"I'm hoping it goes really well. Regardless, it’s going to go well. They’re coming. They’re going to be dressed in their native clothes. They’re beautiful, fun people. For a parade, it’s going to look great. I hope they love it and are happy they did it and feel they were a part of something," McAdams said.

Email: marjorie@deseretnews.com