Local immigrants mark World Refugee Day

BALBOA PARK — April Moo was keenly aware of her limited educational opportunities growing up in a crowded camp for Burmese refugees in a rain forest just across the border in Thailand.

So the teenager persuaded her parents to immigrate to the United States despite their fears of moving to a country where they couldn’t speak the language or understand the culture.

Moo, now 19 and living in San Diego for the past four years, graduated from high school last week. She will enroll in San Diego City College in the fall as a nursing student.

“My future was limited in the camp,” she told a crowd of more than 200 people Sunday at San Diego’s first celebration of World Refugee Day.

Nearly 3,700 refugees arrived in San Diego County last year with the same simple aspiration as Moo — a chance to start a new life with opportunities that don’t exist in their troubled homelands.

That figure, which was more than triple the amount who came here in 2007, makes the region one of the largest refugee centers in the country, said Ralph Achenbach, chairman of the San Diego Refugee Forum.

The organization co-sponsored the afternoon event at the Museum of Photographic Art in Balboa Park with the U.S. Association for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

The United Nations created World Refugee Day, which is officially marked Monday, to bring attention to the plight of the tens of millions of people chased out of their countries because of war or political and ethnic violence.

After a wave of refugees arrived in Southern California in the 1970s from Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries, support agencies and organizations took root in San Diego County, making the area a magnet for more immigrants, said Bob Montgomery, executive director of the International Rescue Committee in San Diego.

Those ingredients gave birth to new communities in San Diego’s City Heights neighborhood and other parts of the county centered around refugees from Somalia, Iran, Sudan, Myanmar (also known as Burma), Russia, Ethiopia and Afghanistan. In East County, more than 35,000 people make up the second largest Iraqi community in the United States, which is rooted in the Christian-based Chaldean culture.

Those groups enhance the ethnic diversity of the county, and their members provide work, create businesses and pay taxes, Montgomery said.

The World Refugee Day event included several panel discussions on refugee life, traditional singing and dancing by local refugees, and the screening of “Where We Live,” a documentary film by Fady Hadid about an Iraqi refugee family in San Diego.

Another Burmese woman named Nu Nu, 29, told the crowd about the five years she spent in a camp in India with her husband, two small children and a brother after they fled their country because of a civil war raging between the country’s military government and the Kachin ethnic minority.

Since arriving in San Diego in November, the family has settled into an apartment in City Heights and Nu has begun taking English classes.

“I was really happy (to come to the United States) because I thought there would be good hope for my children,” she said.