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World Refugee Day Event Moves To A Changing El Cajon

World Refugee Day 2015

A video previews the San Diego Refugee Forum's World Refugee Day celebration scheduled for June 20, 2015.

Special Feature Speak City Heights

Speak City Heights is a media collaborative aimed at amplifying the voices of residents in one of San Diego’s most diverse neighborhoods. (Read more)

El Cajon is quickly becoming San Diego's new refugee hub, and for the first time the city will host the region's annual World Refugee Day celebration Saturday.

Since 2001, communities throughout the world have gathered on June 20 to celebrate the resilience and culture of those who fled persecution and built new lives in host countries. The United States resettles more refugees than any other nation.

"It's not a helpless community. It's a community that sometimes needs our support and certainly, when exposed to a new environment, wants to learn about it," said Ute Maschke. She's vice chair of the San Diego Refugee Forum, which helps organize the World Refugee Day event each year. "But (the refugee community) also has an incredible resourcefulness and incredible amount of knowledge to share."

In San Diego, the "refugee hub" moniker has long gone to the City Heights neighborhood of San Diego, where Vietnamese refugees settled in the '60s and where other Southeast Asian groups and East Africans followed.

But today, about 65 percent of the refugees coming to San Diego County are Iraqis settling in El Cajon. Many leaving Iraq now are joining family and friends who left in the '90s as a result of the Gulf War and started businesses and churches in East County.

"I think El Cajon has become a wonderful, multicultural community, and that goes beyond an ethnic restaurant here and there," Maschke said. "I think the atmosphere has become more open, more internationally oriented."

The city has faced challenges as its demographics have shifted. In 2013, the city council appointed its first Iraqi-American council member, Star Bales. But that was only after discriminatory remarks from former Mayor Mark Lewis triggered a political shakeup. He insinuated in a magazine interview that Chaldeans – Iraqi Christian minorities – were defrauding the welfare system.

Read More: Iraqi Refugee Doctor In San Diego Learns Whether She’ll Practice Medicine Again

Saturday's event aims to shed a positive light on the Chaldean community. It will include a screening of "Chaldean Voices," a documentary by El Cajon schoolteachers Peter Alkatib and Miguel-Angel Soria. It follows six Chaldean youth who successfully petitioned their city to proclaim September "Chaldean-American Month."

"Their story is very similar to any immigrant story. They were forced from their home to a place they don't know. Yet they immediately get the stereotype of 'the bad guy,'" Alkatib said. "They're just families supporting each other."

"Chaldean Voices" Trailer

Trailer for "Chaldean Voices," a documentary on Chaldean-American youth by Peter Alkatib and Miguel-Angel Soria.

Last year more than 2,600 refugees settled in the county. Behind Iraq, the largest groups were from Somalia and Paraguay.

Read More: San Diego's Somali Population, Explained

Refugees are legal residents in the United States and are eligible for citizenship. They receive eight months of emergency assistance, and families are eligible for safety-net services.

Saturday's World Refugee event is scheduled for 9:30 to 12:30 a.m. at the Prescott Promenade Park in El Cajon, and will feature cultural performances, talks and food.

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