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International festival entertains, educates

At left: Gaby Martinez, 7 of Worthington, shows off the mask she made at the children’s activity area Saturday in Worthington. Brian Korthals/Daily Globe1 / 2
European accordionist Mark Stillman entertains with a mix of polka, waltz and other folk music Saturday afternoon on stage at the International Festival in Worthington. Brian Korthals/Daily Globe2 / 2

WORTHINGTON — Did you know that when God parted the Red Sea for Moses and the children of Israel, they were on the shores of Eritrea?

Or that over 80 different languages are spoken in Ethiopia, which is home to nearly 40 million residents of Oromia?

Or how about those Germans and their proclivity for Freundschaft, which resulted in Worthington and Crailsheim, Germany, laying claim to one of the most enduring sister-city relationships in the world?

If you didn’t learn something at this past weekend’s International Festival in downtown Worthington, you might not have been paying much attention.

A wealth of geographical, historical and cultural lessons surrounded the hundreds of International Festival attendees in the form of Worthington’s very own ethnically diverse citizens, many of whom were eager to share about their homelands by way of food, dress, sport, information and customs.

“Yes, I love Worthington,” professed Yergalam Ghirmai, an eight-year resident of Worthington and a JBS employee.

The mother of a 6½-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son, Ghirmai had been grinding beans and sharing the Eritrean coffee ritual with dozens of interested people “all day” Saturday.

“Most people under 18, 20 years old don’t want the coffee,” she said.

Another Eritrean representative, Tesfay Ghebremichael, displayed his driver’s license to ensure his name was spelled correctly for the newspaper in the midst of relating details and distinctions of the nine Eritrean tribes.

“Some are Muslim, some are Christian,” he said, proudly adding, “I am Christian.

“There are 20 to 25 Eritrean families in Worthington,” he estimated.

Ghirmai and Ghebremichael were only two of the numerous individuals happily engaged in interacting with any interested people who came their way at the two-day International Festival, now in its 21st year.

Sponsored by Worthington’s Cultural Awareness Organization and the International Festival Committee, the weekend’s schedule of events included everything from amazingly strong and flexible Kenyan acrobats to the South American fusion music of Alma Andina to the Elk River German Band to local talent, including Worthington High School (WHS) senior Ivan Parga.

Parga happens to be one of three WHS students chosen this year for a select All-State choral group, and he was relishing the chance to sing and play his guitar for the assembled audience — as well as sample different foods.

“I can get Mexican food at home all the time, so I like coming out to see what everyone else has,” said Parga. “Right now I’m really liking Zory and Zalea Hamblin’s barbecued ribs.”

Rod Sankey, a Worthington City Council member, had also dropped some dollars with several food vendors in between visiting the cultural exhibits.

“I’ve been eating all day,” he admitted. “I’ve tried all the food, and it’s all good.”

Sankey approves of the International Festival’s approach, as it offers a venue for Worthington’s diverse residents to mix and mingle.

“I think even more people should come down here because it’s a good way to begin understanding other cultures instead of just having negative attitudes about our diversity,” said Sankey.

“They’re all just people like we’re people.”

Among the cultures represented was that of the Oromo people, with a large tent dedicated to Oromo traditions. The friendly Oromians within were happy to talk about their home country and the political problems there that had driven them to the United States.

“There is no freedom of speech in Ethiopia,” said Dureso Koji, 26, an articulate English speaker despite having only been in the U.S. for seven years.

“If you say something the government does not like, they might just kill you.

“The governor is a dictator who takes land from the farmers and sells it to the highest bidder, leaving the farmers homeless,” Koji continued. “Students are protesting this, and many of them have been killed because of the protests since last March.”

Koji, whose father was a former employee of the Ethiopian government who was jailed several times because he did not agree with the government’s policies, came to the U.S. at 19 and is now a pharmacy technician. He hopes to begin nursing studies soon at Minnesota West Community and Technical College.

“The green in our flag represents our land, the red is for the blood that surrounds it — and I still don’t know what the yellow is for,” he said, smiling.

On the north lawn of the Nobles County Government Center, dozens of children were busy (after the noontime rain cleared away) with numerous activities — a ping pong ball game, a beanbag toss, a soccer goal shootout, sack races, African face painting, hair braiding and more.

“I like watching all the people and seeing all the little kids,” said Worthington Lions Club volunteer Patty LeBrun, who confessed she’d indulged in popcorn, cotton candy and more during her gig at the Lions Club booth.

By evening, an impromptu soccer game had replaced the organized children’s games on the site’s north side, with music carried by the breeze from the south courtyard.

Worthington resident Brad Bonnett said he was enjoying the International Festival entertainment, and his children had participated in many of the kids’ activities throughout the day.

“I like the international mix of people that come out for this,” said Bonnett. “It’s fun — and it’s even more fun when it’s not raining.”