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Refugees in Pittsburgh learn how Christmas is celebrated in United States

| Saturday, Dec. 21, 2013, 6:47 p.m.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Gad Yava, 7, a refugee from the Congo, decorates a Christmas tree for the first time at an event by Acculturation for Justice, Access and Peace Outreach at St. Benedict the Moor School in the Hill District on Saturday, Dec. 21, 2013. The celebration was for refugees and immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean, some of whom had never celebrated Christmas before.

Gad Yava celebrated Christmas while living in a refugee camp in Mambia with his parents and two sisters before settling in Pittsburgh earlier this year.

But it was nothing like the celebration he experienced on Saturday afternoon when he and several dozen other newly arrived refugees learned a bit of how the holiday is marked in his new homeland.

“I like decorating the tree and the gifts,” the shy, 7-year-old boy said as he unwrapped a Monsters Inc. puzzle and a pack of Ninja action figures.

Gad and his sisters Blessing, 11, and Jenis, 9, were treated to their first American-style Christmas party sponsored by the group Acculturation for Justice, Access and Peace Outreach — AJAPO — a nonprofit service that helps African and Afro-Caribbean refugees and immigrants to Allegheny County integrate into a new culture.

The event was in the St. Benedict the Moor Center on Bedford Avenue in the Hill District.

“Even though these families are from different countries, and some are of different religions, they've all heard stories about how Christmas is celebrated here,” said Alison Searle, a program coordinator for AJAPO. “This is an opportunity to bring them together to share each others' company, enjoy the food and experience some new ways to celebrate the holiday.”

While all the trappings of an American Christmas — from carols, a tree, presents and even a visit from Santa — were present, organizers stopped short of serving traditional dishes such as roast turkey and plum pudding.

“Kids love pizza, so that's what we went with for the menu,” Searle said.

With Christmas carols in the background, the party included trimming the tree, opening gifts, decorating sugar cookies and a chance to meet Santa.

“These are mine,” said Therese Kubwimana, 7, as she pointed to a pair of gold-painted glass ornaments on the tree while her sister Belize Nihorimbele, 9, and brother Jeanclaude Nsongiyumva, 12, looked on. “This is fun.”

Dismas Blzimana, a senior case manager for AJAPO, said introducing aspects of American culture is important to helping the refugees integrate into society.

“We tell them that it's OK for them to wear their traditional clothing, but that sometimes it may not be practical, such as when they go to work,” he said. “The same goes for holiday celebrations. We want them to keep their traditions alive, but at the same time, we think it's important to learn some new ways to celebrate.”

The Rev. Carmen D'Amico, who founded AJAPO in 2001 while pastor of St. Benedict the Moor Church to help Sudanese refugees, said the organization's mission has not changed.

“The goal is to help refugees navigate the American community,” D'Amico said. “But AJAPO also provides them with a place to meet and discuss their concerns with people who are willing to listen help. It also allows them to re-establish connections to their culture in much the same way ethnic churches did when European immigrants arrived here.”

Tony LaRussa is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7987 or tlarussa@tribweb.com.

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