World Refugee Day celebrated at Edmonds College

Event emcee Betty Koteles (left) introduces Everett College alumni Vitalii Shvets, who had immigrated from Ukraine. Shvets shared his challenges of learning English and adapting to living in Washington.
Members of the Vietnamese Community of Snohomish County show off their traditional Vietnamese fashion (áo dài).

The Second Annual World Refugee Day at Edmonds College on Thursday drew more than 150 people from at least a dozen countries to acknowledge and celebrate the resilience and contributions of refugees in Snohomish County.

Edmonds College Spanish GED instructor Betty Koteles emceed the event and described refugees as people who fled their home country because of “a well-founded fear of persecution because of his or her race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion,” based on the definition given by Article 1 of the 1951 Refugee Convention.

“In a way, we are also refugees – all the immigrants – trying to have a better life for our families and for ourselves,” Koteles said.

Executive Director of Refugee and Immigrant Services Northwest Van Dinh-Kuno, who started the first annual World Refugee Day in Snohomish County, recalled the day of her escape from Vietnam before the fall of Saigon April 30, 1975. 

“I had 20 minutes to pack my bags and find the boat to escape with my parents, my grandfather and my siblings,” Dinh-Kuno said. “We wore three layers of clothes and [carried] small backpacks. We ran to the Saigon harbor, we barely made it to the boats before they take off.”

The boat was supposed to carry the passengers to a carrier that would pick them up. Because of the boat’s “large” size, Dinh-Kuno said they were asked to travel directly to Taiwan, Malaysia or the Philippines.

Taiwan was the closest destination, but when they neared the coast of Taiwan, Dinh-Kuno recalled a speed boat came out and the military personnel armed with machine guns told them to leave.. 

“Taiwan didn’t want to welcome any refugees at all,” Dinh-Kuno said. “We didn’t know what to do. We were completely lost.”

Van Dinh-Kuno shares her story about her escape from Vietnam after the Fall of Saigon during the Second Annual World Refugee Day.

Dinh-Kuno, her family and other refugees bobbed up and down on the Pacific Ocean for 11 days with no shade and limited food and fresh water. On the seventh day, three people died on the boat.

Toward the end of the ninth day, Dinh-Kuno saw an American Navy helicopter that circled the boat several times before leaving. 

Forty-five minutes later, a second helicopter approached and two military personnel descended onto the boat with a rope ladder. 

The refugees were supplied canned food, water and fuel, but Dinh-Kuno said they did not give them a can opener and had to improvise to open the cans. 

Eventually, the refugees arrived at Subic Bay, Philippines, and Dinh-Kuno and her family moved to Guam where they stayed for seven days before moving to Arkansas in the U.S.

“We stayed there for a little bit more than four months, and then we got a Lutheran church who sponsored us, and we moved to [northern] Minnesota,” Dinh-Kuno said. 

Dinh-Kuno earned a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry from the University of Minnesota and in 1985 moved to Washington state, where she worked as a job developer at Refugee and Immigrant Services Northwest. She became the executive director in 1991 and had served thousands of refugees in Snohomish County.

“I hope that refugees should not give up hope,” Dinh-Kuno said. “We welcome you in Snohomish County. You made the right choice to Snohomish [County] your new home  because it’s the best place to live, to work, to obtain your education and raise your children. I received a warm welcome to this country 49 years ago, and the welcoming hasn’t diminished at all.”

Dr. Yvonne Terell-Powell speaks at the Second Annual World Refugee Day at Edmonds College.

Edmonds College Vice President of Equity, Inclusion and Belonging Dr. Yvonne Terell-Powell said that World Refugee Day “serves as a crucial reminder of the hardships, persecution and sacrifice of millions and millions of refugees as well as their resilience, fortitude, radical hope and courage.”

“It also serves as a reminder that we all must continue to advocate and work together for their protection, well-being and human rights – and to receive support and opportunities to rebuild their lives,” Terrell-Powell said.

Edmonds College President Amit Singh, who could not attend the event earlier in the day, acknowledged in a video recording the work of Snohomish County elected officials to help provide housing, employment and education opportunities for refugees.

“Edmonds College is proud to be part of this compassionate effort,” Singh said.

Since October 2021, Snohomish County has collaborated with Refugee and Immigrant Services Northwest, Volunteers of America Western Washington and other community partners to develop a coordinated service delivery system for more than 5,500 refugees, including those from Afghanistan, Ukraine, Russia, China, Cuba, Syria, Haiti, Venezuela, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Guatemala.

Together, they provide housing, language and employment support, community connections and assistance with the immigration process.

State Sen. Marko Liias

“I cannot imagine what it would be like to pack your whole life up in 20 minutes and have to leave,” 21st District State Sen. Marko Liias said during the event. “We need to make sure when refugees arrive to Washington state, they have the support and resources they need to be strong and survive here. We have made great efforts to make sure every Washingtonian has access to food, housing [and] health care so everybody can start a great life in Washington state.”

Liias read a proclamation that he and Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers had worked on to recognize June 20 as World Refugee Day in Snohomish County.

“There are more than twice as many refugees worldwide today than there were 10 years ago and the most refugees today since World War II,” Liias read. He noted that Refugee & Immigrant Services Northwest had also served refugees in Whatcom, Skagit and San Juan Island counties since 1977.

Lynnwood Mayor Christine Frizzell

Following Liias was Lynnwood Mayor Christine Frizzell, who said that Lynnwood is the most diverse city in Snohomish County, based on the latest statistics from Housing Authority of Snohomish County (HASCO). 

She also mentioned that Lynnwood’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Commission eight years ago created a sticker that says, “All are welcome,” which was made with the “intentionality that people feel welcome in Lynnwood.” 

“I took that welcome sticker and had the staff turn it into a flag,” Frizzell said. “And that flag flies at City Hall every day and it is at our parks…We want to be intentional because without intentionality, it’s just words on a page.”

Frizzell also read a proclamation declaring June 20 as World Refugee Day in the City of Lynnwood. 

Edmonds City Council President Vivian Olson shared her family’s history. One of her grandfathers was a German Jew – and an opera singer and a concert pianist – who fled to Austria during the rise of Adolf Hitler in the 1930s.

“He had established a life there and achieved success and found the love of his life,” Olson said. “When she was pregnant with his baby as a Catholic woman, it wasn’t safe for them anymore to stay … they had to leave Europe. We were fortunate to be survivors, and our family knows people who weren’t fortunate in that way, and I know you probably do, too.”

Olson said that outreach and education are ways that someone who hasn’t had a refugee experience can help.

“I recently watched the movie The Swimmers and found it extremely personally impactful about the more recent immigration crisis that’s going on in the world,” she said. 

Clockwise from left: Lynnwood Council Vice-President Julieta Altamirano-Crosby, Lynnwood City Council President George Hurst, Edmonds City Council President Vivian Olson and Executive Director of Refugee and Immigrant Services Northwest Van Dinh-Kuno.

Lynnwood Council President George Hurst said that he tries to reflect what happened in the past to understand today’s events. He said he recently thought about the Statue of Liberty, a “symbol of well-being for immigrants and refugees.” 

“If you remember, there’s a poem at the base of the Statue of Liberty, and I’d like to read part of it,” Hurst said. “I think it’s something we’ve forgotten in our current political climate.”

He read:

“Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

“There are some [who are] in politics right now that are talking about just being a little more isolationist in America,” Hurst said. “We think that’s something we do, and it’s not. It’s something that has gone through our history.”

Hurst quoted former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who said, “What has happened to us in this country? If we study our own history we find that we have always been ready to receive the unfortunates from other countries, and though this may seem a generous gesture on our part, we have profited a thousand fold by what they have brought us.”

What we’re experiencing in politics right now is not new, Hurst said, “but it has happened earlier in this century, it happened in 1939, and it’s something we’re going to overcome.” 

A lion greets attendees during a performance by Mak Fai Kung Fu Dragon & Lion Dance Association.
Folclor Oaxaqueño performs “Chinas Oaxaqueñas,” carrying baskets full of flowers as offerings to the Virgin of Solitude and the Virgin Mary.
Lijelbabub is a Marshallese group of women dancers originally from Majuro, the capital of the Republic of the Marshall Islands. They are performing the “Waini – Bobo Rice,” which is about a culinary treat made from rice balls coated with grated coconut.
Kathak is a classical dance from northern India that features intricate footwork, expressive gestures, and rhythmic storytelling. It blends Hindu and Muslim cultural influences, evolving over centuries from storytelling by traveling bards.
Kukkun Nemins (“Little Girls” in Chuukese) perform to contemporary songs that are popular among the Micronesian and Polynesian communities. The group was formed three years ago by first generation youth residing in Snohomish County originally from Nomwin Island in the State of Chuuk.

There were numerous dance and musical performances during World Refugee Day, including Mak Fai Kung Fu Dragon & Lion Dance Association, Yolihuani Aztec Dancers, Vietnamese Community of Snohomish County, Kukkun Nemins (“Little Girls” in Chuukese), Lijelbabub (female dancers from the Marshall Islands), Kathal Akruti School (a classical dance from India) and Folclor Oaxaqueño.

In addition to dance and musical performances, the event served a buffet-style lunch that gave attendees samples of various foods such as samosas, tamales, Vietnamese egg rolls (chả giò) and Afghan kabobs. 

A variety of food from different cultures was served during the event.

Dinh-Kuno said that when she first joined Refugee & Immigrant Services Northwest in the 1980s, she wasn’t part of the “hierarchy.” 

“The agency was run by Caucasian American people,” she said. “I don’t think they understand the trouble and sacrifice of the refugees. So when I was able to have a place in the organization, I got support from the city and county and beyond, and we began to organize [World Refugee Day].”

She said she had seen many more refugees coming into Snohomish County in the last two years, mainly because of the Russian-Ukrainian War and the Fall of Kabul.

“In February 2022, we had hundreds and hundreds of Afghans coming in,” Dinh-Kuno said. “That reminds me of the Vietnam War all over again. Then in February 2023, we had thousands and thousands of Ukrainians coming in. So I want to bring awareness and the community know the refugees are here to stay and need help.”

Dinh-Kuno said that she and several people are already planning next year’s third World Refugee Day, which she hopes will take place in Edmonds. 

“Hopefully the mayor [Mike Rosen] sponsors us to allow us to use the facility to do it,” she said.

— Story and photos by Nick Ng

  1. June 22nd of 2025 is on a Sunday, not a Thursday. Please update with a correct date. More of us would like to celebrate with the community next year. Thanks!

    1. Thanks for noting the conflict between the date and the day. We have not yet been able to confirm which is correct, so have removed that sentence until we can.

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