Those who fled bullets and butchery in their homelands gathered Saturday to celebrate a new day and a fresh start. World Refugee Day at Downey High celebrated safety and community found half a world away.
Graduate student Peter Ishaya addressed the crowd of about 125 in Assyrian, telling them "we're here to help you."
Ishaya, 23, who attends California State University, Stanislaus, fled Baghdad with his family in 1993. Now seeking U.S. citizenship, he plans on a career in international diplomacy, a way to put what he went through to work for a better world.
"The eyes of all people are upon us as we open our doors to refugees," he said. "It really defines who we are as Americans."
Carmen Morad, on the Equal Rights Commission of Stanislaus County, said she encourages refugees to "own their citizenship," becoming active, informed voters who give back to their new country.
"There's this whole humanitarian crisis, all of this happening thousands of miles away, that has an effect on Modesto," Morad said. "The numbers are only growing, depending on what's going on with the wars. People are fleeing these horrible, horrible situations."
Refugees arriving in the Northern San Joaquin Valley come mainly from Iraq, where those who helped Americans are in danger, she said. "They fled to Syria and found themselves in the middle of more violence," Morad said.
International Rescue Committee leader Vivian Jacob said Afghans seem to be settling in the Tracy area, while refugees from Iran and Iraq are coming to Turlock and Modesto.
Stanislaus County includes about 20,000 Assyrians, Christians from Iran and Iraq, drawing newcomers escaping the violence. "They seek that sense of belonging," Morad said.
The IRC helps refugee families find places to live, learn English and find health care, counseling and schools for the children. Some arrive with only the clothes on their backs. Others have more. Some have nightmares and difficulty adjusting; others adapt more easily.
Teacher Lindsey Bird, who works with immigrant students at the Davis High Language Institute, said the immigration reform debate caused some controversy in her classes this spring.
Refugees come to the United States through a rigorous legal process. Others in the class came illegally. "So you have not only the different (countries and cultures), but those in different circumstances, as well," Bird said. "It's a hot topic right now, and they don't realize they're at the epicenter of it."
Switching from global to local issues, Modesto police Lt. Jolene Gonzales told the group that the city is experiencing a rise in property crimes, including a number of vehicle thefts in north Modesto on Friday night. "Do not leave property out, visible in your vehicle," she told parents before handing out stickers and high fives to the kids.