Columbia celebrates a global village

With song, dance and food, annual International Day marks local links with cities in Spain, France


It seemed unbearable in 90-plus-degree heat. Four girls twirled across the stage in floor-length, long-sleeve dresses that ballooned out as they spun to a drumbeat. The dancers who followed wore brilliant red-and-yellow robes. They peeked over purple-trimmed fans, looking more tired than flirtatious.

Heekyung Lee's Korean Traditional Dance Team of Columbia put on a 30-minute performance at the 12th International Day on Saturday at the Town Center lakefront.

"It is so hot," said Linda Won, a parent of one of the dancers and assistant principal of Bethel Korean School. "I can't believe they pulled it through."

The Columbia Association started International Day to celebrate Columbia's foreign exchange program with two other planned communities, Cergy Pontoise in France and Tres Cantos in Spain. The three cities -- part of the Sister Cities program -- trade information and create cultural, business and athletic exchanges.

Meredith Jaffe, program manager, could not attend International Day because she was accepting an Innovation Award for Youth & Education from Sister Cities International at a ceremony in Washington. The organization has named Columbia's program the best youth program for cities with fewer than 100,000 people.

International Day has become a large event, drawing about 5,000 people annually, said Michelle Miller, director of the Columbia Association Division of Community Services. Crowds were thin during the hottest part of the day, but the hillside in front of the stage filled by late afternoon as the heat subsided.

To help people cool down, the association distributed cardboard paddle fans. People bought drinks at booths that sold ethnic staples such as Chinese spring rolls, Greek gyros and Mexican burritos.

The heat did not deter Deborah and Glenn West, although they decided to drive rather than walk to the waterfront so they would not have to carry their folding chairs. They arrived about 10:30 a.m., about an hour and a half before the festival began, to choose a shady spot, and planned to stay until 11 p.m. to hear the last band, TMD and the Brass Solution.

The Wests started coming to International Day events four years ago. Deborah West moved to Maryland because of a job, but she chose to move to Columbia because she was impressed that people of different races and ethnic backgrounds seemed to blend more readily into the community. Neighborhoods in Northern Virginia tend to be more segregated, she said.

"That's what drew us here," West said. "It was just really nice to feel comfortable somewhere."

Heather and Enrique Herrera, who moved to Columbia five years ago, took in their first International Day. The couple brought their 2-year-old son, Kevin, to expose him to the Latino salsa and merengue music that brought them together. Enrique Herrera emigrated from Colombia in the early 1990s. He met Heather, a Spanish teacher, while salsa dancing at a club in Washington. They married in 1999.

The couple tries hard to maintain a bilingual household. Heather is not Hispanic, but she has joined a Latina mothers' group in Columbia. Kevin attends a private Spanish preschool.

Enrique Herrera relaxed in a chair with his 2-month-old daughter, Carolina, asleep on his chest. He always has felt welcome in the United States, despite the immigration debate that has centered on controlling the flood of illegal immigrants. Maybe, he said, that is because as a geneticist at the Johns Hopkins University, he travels mostly in open-minded academic circles.

"It's important for people to see what people from other cultures are like," he said as he listened to Sol y Rumba, a Latin Jazz band. "When they get to know other cultures, they are more accepting."

For that reason, a Muslim education group set up a booth at International Day to dispel myths about Islam. Part of a nationwide project, Why Islam? handed out free bottled water, along with copies of the Quran, the Muslim holy book. Brochures explained terms, such as jihad, or struggle, which have been misused by terrorists, said Safiyah Blake, a former Episcopalian who converted four years ago. She manned the booth with her husband, Loay Abukwedar, who emigrated from Syria. The couple live in Columbia.

"You fear things until you know about them," Abukwedar said.

The Sister Cities program also helped dispel stereotypes among the foreign exchange students. Yann Eouzan, a 17-year-old from the Parisian suburb of Cergy Pontoise, said he thought that Americans were fat, fast-food addicts before his two-week visit. Instead, he found that Americans were more fit than he imagined and much friendlier. Eouzan was fascinated by the size of American vehicles -- especially Hummers -- and low prices on clothes. He said he doesn't have anything against Americans, though he does not agree with the war in Iraq.

"It's only the political thing where I think something is wrong," Eouzan said. "American people are very nice."

Alison Cramer, 17, of Columbia returned July 10 from France where she stayed at Eouzan's home. She worried that the French did not like Americans. When she arrived in France, she said, she was surprised by how much the French still consume American culture, such as music.

Cergy Pontoise might be smaller than Columbia, but the French city is not nearly as hot, Eouzan said, wiping his brow.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.