Komezakaranga Drummers: Keeping a Culture Alive

Photo credit to Rick D'Elia of D'Elia Photographic

Two Sundays ago The Welcome to America Project held a fundraiser celebrating the rich culture of Burundi.  Delicious food and inspiring stories filled the evening. One highlight of the night was the performance of a drumming group called the Komezakaranga (which means heritage). The syncopation of the powerful drums sounded like heartbeats as the troop members sang, danced, and pounded on their instruments. The drummers gracefully balanced their drums, which are made of hollowed tree trunks and painted like the Burundi flag, on their heads- which is quite a talent! The Komezakaranga drummers aim to spread a piece of Burundi wherever they perform in order to keep their culture alive.  To find out more about these amazing drummers, visit


2012 Prom Recap

Prom: the quintessential right-of-passage event reserved for high school seniors (and the lucky, popular juniors) nationwide. A night of limousines, rented tuxedos and more fun than most parents would ever want to hear about; for most, the prom marks the end of an era and the start of new beginnings. However, most remember prom as a night where everyone, regardless of who they were, their backgrounds, their cliques, their groups, mingled and mixed together and had an amazing time.

An amalgam of people laughing, fraternizing and enjoying a fun-filled night was the goal of The Welcome to America Project’s 2012 prom and it was a clear and apparent success.

Interestingly (and rather fortuitously), I ended up inviting and filling my table with all of my high school friends. These were the same people I attended prom with in the spring of 2003 and I knew it would be a great time. I was beyond elated when everyone agreed to attend as I knew from previous experience that the WTAP prom offers a fantastic opportunity, year after year, for groups of friends to come relive their own prom experience (or try prom for the first time). The major difference is that tickets, dresses and corsages were purchased to support not a school but a common and noteworthy cause.

The programming was captivating and led seamlessly by Channel 12’s James Quinones. Between his lively persona and banter between WTAP’s Executive Director Megan O’Connor, the night was certainly full of laughs. Megan’s own admission of her disastrous prom experience had the audience smiling endlessly and was a welcome addition.
James Quiñones and Megan O'Connor

Perhaps the most poignant part of the night was Alexis Niragira’s touching story of his journey to the United States and how WTAP helped him acclimate and assimilate. It was this story that really conveyed just how powerful the welcome can be and how absolutely vital The Welcome to America Project is to this population. I’ll admit, there was not a dry-eye at my table.

Of course the best part of the evening was seeing everyone let loose and enjoy themselves. Patrons and refugees alike moved from table to table, mingled and danced and the night brought together so many different backgrounds and cultures under the guise and premise of neighborly understanding mixed in with fun.

As a proud member of The Welcome to America Project’s Board of Directors, I was so elated to have my closest friends share in WTAP’s mission and get to see the impact this wonderful organization has on Phoenix’s refugees. The prom does a great job showcasing all that we work so tirelessly to achieve and is the signature event that not only strives for a fun-filled evening but to bring awareness to an organization that is truly one-of-a-kind. Hopefully patrons had as much fun as I did and were moved and prompted to sign up to volunteer or donate. If anything, I bet everyone who was there Saturday night are already waiting for their invitations for next year.

Adopt-a-Family Teaches the Meaning of Giving

Submitted by Nicole Digilio

The Welcome to America Project’s Adopt-a-Family event this past weekend was the second time I’ve volunteered for this amazing organization. Based on my past experience, purchasing Christmas gifts usually makes my head spin. Finding the perfect gift for the people you love is a fun way to show them you care, but running around through shopping malls with endless holiday music playing is the last place you want to spend your afternoon. This year, I was grateful to be given the opportunity by The Welcome to America Project to really understand the spirit of the season.

Before walking through the front door, I was excited about giving all these presents to a family in need. But what I didn’t know was that our roles were soon to be reversed. Within the first ten minutes I realized meeting such kind-hearted strangers was greater than any tangible gift I have ever received. The Iraqi family of five was shy at first but then opened up to laughter and discussion.

After serving us traditional Iraqi tea and baked goods, the family told us they have only been in America for three months. Their Catholic faith forced them to flee their home country of Iraq and into Syria. This is where they resided in a refugee camp for the past six years. The youngest daughter, Amira,* is seventeen years old just like me. I thought about how different her life has been from mine. The family told us how they plan to take English classes next month and their daughters explained their interest in becoming pharmacists. I could relate to their fear of going to college and joining the real world this year. I could also surely relate to their newfound love of the delicious In-n-Out burger.

Adopt-a-Family 2011

Adopt-a-Family 2011

We hope to keep in touch with this inspirational family and watch them grow and succeed. They are hardworking people who came here with just the clothes on their backs and are making due with whatever life throws at them. I am glad I got the opportunity to finally understand what the holidays are about and to welcome these refugees to America!

View pictures of this event on our Facebook page.

*Name has been changed to protect family’s identity.

The Congo in Context: A Volunteer Perspective

Submitted by Nicole Burke

The “Congo in Context” Cultural Dinner was a unique opportunity that brought the whole community together. Among the guests were refugee families, dedicated volunteers, board members, and newcomers—all of The Welcome to America Project’s family. As everyone mingled and explored the native handicrafts and linens on their tables, it grew apparent that this would be a special night. It would be characterized by Congolese tradition, music, and history.

The evening began with an exotic meal. Mouth-watering, traditional dishes such as spiced goat, curried rice, and bananas were served. Next, a Phoenix-based Congolese choir regaled us with stories of their heritage through song. The younger singers were friendly and all smiles. Colorful, flower-patterned wraps and beaded bangles decorated the girls as they kept in perfect harmony for every song. The crowd was mesmerized by their gift of singing and dancing.

The Congo in Context

In addition to being entertained, the guests were also educated on the current state of affairs in the Congo. A university professor highlighted the past, present, and future of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, noting the resilient spirit of the Congolese peoples and their struggle for peace in their war-stricken country. It was a somewhat bittersweet moment for me that night, because despite the celebration and happiness of the peoples’ extraordinary culture, I knew there were still many issues to solve in the country overseas before there is truly peace.

The Congo in Context

In the end, I really enjoyed all the elements of the evening, because it felt like a well-rounded look at the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s people, tradition, music, and history. I would not have wanted to spend my Sunday night anywhere else!

Photography by Nicole Burke

Volunteers and Refugees ‘Get in Gear’

Submitted by Sentari Minor

“Get in Gear”, a WTAP partnership with HandsOn Greater Phoenix was a rousing success this year. As part of a series of programming to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the tragedies that occurred on September 11th, “Get in Gear” partnered community volunteers with refugee families. Held at LifeBridge Community Alliance, refugees, volunteers and WTAP staff were all able to partake in an exciting event that connected diverse cultures and multiple generations.

Starting with a piece to memorialize and remember September 11th, volunteers shared stories of how they felt that day and how their lives were subsequently affected. We brought in the story of how WTAP was founded and how out of the tragedies of September 11th came an amazing organization that is still fully devoted to its mission 10 years later.

Excitement began as refugee children arrived and participated in the fun games and crafts. With something for everyone, kids were able to play ring toss, finger paint, make cards for troops serving overseas and get their faces painted. The three-legged race was by far the most popular activity, with children running, falling, and laughing with volunteers and WTAP staff. It was easy to see that everyone was having a great time and that the refugee children were truly enjoying themselves.

For all parties involved, it was a pleasurable experience that can hopefully be replicated next year. Mixing volunteers (of various ages and backgrounds) with refugee children–a population many had very limited experience–with was perhaps the most rewarding part of the event. With positive feedback from both camps, it seems as though everyone was happy interacting and learning while also having a little fun.

An Intimate Evening of Music

Music can bridge cultures and bring people together. This was certainly true when 70+ individuals gathered to support Baritone Ballads from Bach to Broadway, a benefit concert held August 19, 2011. Paul Hillebrand, the featured baritone of the evening, provided an excellent variety of show tunes and classics. Paul is the Director of music at St. Patrick Catholic Community in Scottsdale, who graciously hosted the event. Deborah Offenhauser provided piano accompaniment and wowed the crowd with a Beatles medley.

Major support for the event was provided by Alexander and Rosemary Cudzewicz, who raised over $1,500 that evening to support WTAP programs. Megan O’Connor thanked attendees for supporting such a worthy cause and reminded that, “Each refugee we touch has fled persecution, war, and fear of death. From the day they arrive, they contribute their talents and skills to our economy, educating their children and building a home here.”

If you are interested in hosting your own fundraising event contact us today.

An Afghan Anniversary

An Afghan AnniversaryThe recent WTAP event An Afghan Anniversary: A Celebration for Families was a huge success. Thanks to the warm outpouring of support, this dinner raised nearly three times the average amount of previous cultural events. As a way to thank everyone involved, here is a recipe to the delicious tender lamb kebab made by Leave It To Elizabeth Catering. Enjoy!

Tender Lamb Kebab with Cinnamon
½ cup Greek yogurt
2 tbsp. olive oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tbsp. dried ground coriander
½ tsp. black pepper
2 tsp. kosher salt
2 lbs. lamb stew meat, cut into 2-inch chunks
2 large onions, peeled, sliced thin
Ground cinnamon

  • In a large bowl, mix yogurt, oil, garlic, coriander, pepper and salt and stir well.
  • Add the lamb and onions and coat evenly with the yogurt mixture.
    Cover and refrigerate at least one hour, preferably refrigerate overnight.
  • Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
  • Take the lamb out of refrigerator 30 minutes before you are ready to cook. Put the lamb into large pot or Dutch oven and cover with a lid. Place in oven and cook until the lamb is very tender (about 1 ¼ to 1 ½ hours).
  • Remove the lid, stir, and continue to cook another 20 to 30 minutes until some of the liquid has reduced and you have a thick, oniony sauce.
  • Sprinkle the meat lightly with cinnamon and serve with warm naan bread and plain yogurt.

Note: You can season the yogurt with a little salt and stir in grated cucumbers or chopped mint if you prefer. Serves 4

The Annual Prom Fundraiser

The Welcome to America Project Prom 2011Over the past 10 years, The Welcome to America Project has held an annual prom fundraiser. Last year, WTAP kicked off the 10th anniversary with more than 200 guests and raised over $20,000 to help serve local resettled refugees.

This past year’s theme, Some Enchanted Evening, celebrated the moods and Music of Broadway and included musical performances by Paul Hillebrand and Michelle McLaughlin. Presenters included inspirational Iraqi refugee, Farman Muhammad and U.S. Congressman, Rep. David Schweikert who presented the Helping Hands Award to Carolyn and Phil Manning for their commitment to refugees over the past decade.

The 2010 disco-themed prom was equally a huge success, raising awareness and support for WTAP with the help of over 200 attendees. Refugee guest speaker, Saad Ghulam, gave a riveting speech to thank WTAP supporters for helping families like his.

Thank you to everyone who has contributed to the success of our annual fundraiser, we’re looking forward to the 2012 prom and we’ll keep you updated as details emerge.