Where Jamaican Jerk meets Swahili Spice: World Refugee Day celebrates 20 years

World Refugee Day celebrates more than 30 refugee cultures in Utah.

“I grew up with a lot of Islamophobic remarks and even anti-black remarks, but I’m proud of who I am and I try not to let that bother me,” said 19-year-old Gudon Abdi, who lives in Utah.

Abdi’s family fled from war-torn Somalia before she was born. She came to World Refugee Day at Big Cottonwood Park on Friday evening sporting a stunning turquoise green Somali Baati Dress with symmetrical sun patterns.

19-year-old Gudon Abdi on World Refugee Day

“I’ve come here like, I think four years in a row at this point,” she said. “I love seeing the different cultures and just how they all come together.”

World Refugee Day is an annual celebration that features the diverse refugee communities in Utah. The event includes food trucks, water slides and concerts that showcase the different cultures. This year’s two-day event, held on Friday and Saturday, celebrated its 20th anniversary.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kids play with soap bubbles as they join the celebration for the 20th anniversary of World Refugee Day at Big Cottonwood Park on Friday, June 21, 2024.

“What you’ll see is a representation of more than 30 different refugee communities here in Utah,” said Mario Kljajo, the director of refugee services for the Utah Department of Workforce Services and the main organizer of the event.

Kljajo was a refugee himself when he first landed in Utah at about 15 years old. His family sought safety away from their home in Bosnia, which was wrought by a civil war. Mario didn’t speak a word of English.

“A lot of times we think of the refugee experience as something that’s ... difficult and traumatic and, it is. But there’s also a component of it that involves resiliency and hope,” Kljajo said.

The festival’s main purpose is to highlight that hope and unity. There were henna stations, a Swahili food truck, and a market that showcased the eclectic mix of cultures woven into the Utah community.

“I saw the Jamaican truck and you never find Jamaican food really anywhere in Salt Lake,” 32-year-old Collin Madisen said. “This little one even likes it a little bit too,” he said while smiling at his 18-month-old daughter.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rosette Bahati sells her wares at her African Roots Fashions tables as people gather to celebrate the 20th anniversary of World Refugee Day at Big Cottonwood Park on Friday, June 21, 2024.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A friendly game of soccer keeps kids engaged for World Refugee Day at Big Cottonwood Park on Friday, June 21, 2024.

“The refugee community is growing and so we want them to be able to integrate and feel supported. And we also want to celebrate that diversity,” Anna Smyth said, who came with her young five-year-old daughter.

While Utah’s unforgiving sun beat down on the park, people didn’t lose their smiles. Even 40-year-old Majati Abdalla, who was cooking in the sweltering hot Swahili food truck along with her family. The constant heat from the fryers and induction stove made the truck feel like it was boiling inside. But Abdalla’s spirits stayed high.

Majati Abdalla cooks with her family in Swahili food truck on world refugee day

“Somalian culture, it’s like cooking food with their families, like celebrating Eid, getting together as one, going to greet one another in the house, which we missed in Utah. Everybody lives by themselves,” Abdalla said. “I’m so excited for everybody to try our food here and our authentic culture,” she added.