Honor the journey of refugees at 2023 DSM World Refugee Day

June 8, 2023

Participants enjoy a previous World Refugee Day celebration.

The fall of South Vietnam in 1975 generated seismic shifts across the globe. 

The United States pulled its military forces out of Vietnam. Years of passionate protests and cultural revolutions came to a close. One of the largest refugee crises the world ensued. 

And Iowa became a national leader in supporting and resettling refugees.

It all started with the work of Governor Robert D. Ray. Governor Ray began his fourth term as Iowa governor in January of 1975. As the aftermath of the Vietnam War unfolded, and millions of people from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia fled their countries, he created a system in Iowa that allowed refugees to find a stable, supportive home after experiencing horrific struggles. 

A Syrian refugee camp in Athens, Greece. Photo by Julie Ricard.

Today, Iowa’s bipartisan leadership in resettling refugees continues to provide new beginnings for people fleeing troubled areas of the world. Despite negative stereotypes about how Iowa treats those outside the dominant culture, the state has intentionally created an environment to honor refugees and the struggles they have faced with increased funding and supportive services. The community can join together to support our refugee communities at the 2023 DSM World Refugee Day. 

Because It’s the Right Thing to Do

“When someone is forced to flee their home, it’s because of persecution, genocide, war, weather, famine. Imagine leaving your home in the middle of the night with nothing,” said Refugee Alliance of Central Iowa (RACI)  Director Stephanie Moris. “Supporting refugees is just very, very simply the right thing to do.” 

RACI’s goal is to support refugees with access to services, resources, and programs that will assure refugees are able to resettle and establish themselves in central Iowa. The group is composed of service providers, governmental agencies, nonprofits, religious groups, and educational institutions, all on a volunteer basis. 

Their work is made possible by the precedent set by Governor Ray nearly 40 years ago. When President Ford wrote every U.S. governor to ask them to resettle as many Southeast Asian refugees as they could, Governor Ray stepped up. He lobbied the U.S. State Department to increase the limits on how many refugees a state could resettle. As a result, nearly 1,400 Tai Dam—a distinct ethnic group originating from Vietnam—were able to settle as a group in Iowa. 

Later, in 1979, Governor Ray tuned in to a CBS documentary that showed Vietnamese people fleeing in the night in small boats. The documentary showed these refugees, referred to as “the boat people,” being pulled into the ocean as their boats broke apart. Governor Ray again mobilized his resources and asked then President Jimmy Carter to allow the U.S. to accept more refugees.

He described his feelings on the matter in an interview with Iowa Public Television: 

“I didn’t think we could just sit here idly and say, ‘Let those people die.’ We wouldn’t want the rest of the world to say that about us if we were in the same situation. Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you.”

Refugees Revitalize Communities

The state of Iowa continues to build on the legacy of Governor Ray. In 2018, 175,137 displaced people and immigrants lived in the state of Iowa, with 51,855 refugees and immigrants in the Des Moines Metro Area alone. 

These new Iowans have proven vital to the health of our communities.

“Rural communities are facing losing their townships or their schools closing,” Stephanie said. “Many areas received an influx of refugee communities due to a manufacturing company in the area. The spending power, the taxes — they’re saving rural communities.”

The transformation of farming from family-owned to corporations, the closing of local railroad routes, and an influx in methamphetamine use has changed the fabric of rural communities in Iowa. Resettling refugees in these areas provides both a stable, affordable home for families and brings new economic prosperity to areas that have been losing population for decades. 

According to a New American Economy report published in 2014, households in Iowa led by immigrants and refugees earned $4.1 billion, with nearly $1.1 billion of that going to local, state, and federal taxes.

More important than the economic benefits, as Governor Ray knew, are the humanitarian obligations we have to our neighbors

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees reported that as of 2021, the number of people worldwide who had been forcibly displaced was 89.3 million. They were forced to move because of persecution, conflict, violence, human rights violations, or events seriously disturbing the public order.” 27.1 million of those people are classified as refugees, while others are “internally displaced” or “asylum seekers.” 

Of these millions of refugees, fewer than 1% get resettled yearly. Millions of refugees spend most of their lives, if not all, in refugee camps. 

“Refugee camps are really vulnerable,” Stephanie said. “There’s violence, there are typhoons, hurricanes, earthquakes. We had a fire in Bangladesh at a camp that housed 100,000 Rohingya refugees from Burma. We lose tens of thousands of people every year to preventable things in refugee camps.” 

A refugee will risk nothing to potentially jeopardize their living situation in a new country and return to the danger of their homes or refugee camps. Statistically, they are much less likely to commit crimes than U.S. citizens when the repercussions are so much greater. 

DSM World Refugee Day 2023

The journey of a refugee is tumultuous. On June 24, 2023, the community will come together to honor that journey at DSM World Refugee Day.

“World Refugee Day is an event that’s put on by and for our refugee communities themselves,” Stephanie said. 

While June 20 is internationally recognized as World Refugee Day, the Des Moines celebration will take place June 24 at Tower Park in Des Moines. Stephanie and RACI host the event, but the volunteers from the refugee community, local ethnic community based organizations (ECBO), and resettlement agencies provide the heart and soul of the event.

“It’s people with lived experience who are participating on this level,” Stephanie said. “A refugee's cultural or ethnic identity was oftentimes the reason they were persecuted or forced to flee their homes. So seeing their new home community not just accept them, but actually show up on such a large scale to support them, is a very big deal for a lot of our communities.” 

The event includes a cultural celebration with performing artists from all over the world, food from more than 20 refugee and immigrant owned restaurants, and a community resource fair. The most anticipated event is the annual Cup of All Nations Soccer Tournament.

Participants in the Cup of All Nations tournament

“Soccer is a common language in a city like Des Moines that has 148 distinctly different languages spoken,” Stephanie said. “If you can’t understand the words, it’s pretty incredible how quickly and efficiently everyone’s on the same page when the game begins.”

DSM World Refugee Day brings together a diverse community of people who have survived tremendous hardship. Join us as we celebrate and support families and friends and build a community welcoming to ALL. 

DSM World Refugee Day is almost entirely run by volunteers. If you’re interested in volunteering, sign up here. https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLScfSdLB5Bho0Gs78a6mu63sCHpBPXahjHDNIp8R8xunwcr0Qw/viewform 

CultureALL believes that sharing the cultural richness of our community with others will elevate our society and the quality of life for all.