WORTHINGTON - Representatives of many nations will converge in downtown Worthington for this year’s International Festival. These representatives, though, aren’t special envoys from the United Nations - they’re our neighbors, coworkers and friends.
Some of these Worthingtonians - whether they hail from Scandinavia or the Horn of Africa - will provide the community with a friendly, educational look into aspects of their culture and traditions.
As is tradition, Worthington residents representing many cultures and countries will have booths where interested festival-goers can learn and connect. One of these booths will be headed by Ayayou Bejacka, representing the Oromo people of Ethiopia.
“The Oromo are the majority in Ethiopia - almost 52 percent of the population,” explained Bejacka. He also explained that another ethnic group that comprises only six percent of the country’s population rules the government, which often leads to strife and unfair treatment of the Oromo.
After leaving Ethiopia behind and coming to the United States in 1991, Bejacka soon found his way to Worthington and became one of its earlier Oromo residents. He now works both for the local UFCW 1161 union at JBS and as a translator for Sanford in Worthington.
“When I came here in 1996, over 20 years ago, there weren’t too many (Oromo) people here. About 10 years ago, people started to arrive, and we started to build a community,” Bejacka said.
In the past decade, the community has grown significantly, which eventually sparked the creation of an Oromo cultural booth at the International Festival a few years ago. This year, Bejacka said, the Oromo booth will feature a wide variety of culturally significant objects.
“We are going to bring all the cultural stuff - pillows, plates, clothes, wedding clothes - all made back home in Ethiopia. We will put it all on a table so people can see it, and put pictures on the tables about governance, wedding customs, and more,” detailed Bejacka, while adding that there will be English-translated information cards about the items for people to read.
A popular highlight of the Oromo booth is the coffee ceremony, said Bejacka.
“We will do the Oromo coffee ceremony as well. In our culture, in Ethiopia, the people like coffee, and it’s very popular - Ethiopia is a major coffee producer. That’s why we try to show that it’s part of our culture, and it’s just great; we cannot forget that even when we come to the United States,” said Bejacka with a smile.
Beyond the Oromo cultural booth at the festival, Bejacka invites all area residents to attend ‘African Night’ at the Long Branch at 8 p.m. Saturday night.
“Every year, JBS and the local union UFCW 1161 donate the money for our African Night, where all the African ethnicities and cultures come together in Worthington for one night, for dancing, music and food. For one night a year, people can feel at home and connect with everybody,” Bejacka enthused.
Throughout his two decades in Worthington, Bejacka said he has greatly appreciated the community and the ways Worthington authorities have worked with his community.
“The city of Worthington, the police department and everyone else, they have handled everything very well - we have good relations with the police chief, and generally the Worthington population. Despite all the different ethnicities in Worthington living together, you see very little crime - generally Worthington is a great place to live, and people should appreciate that,” Bejacka said.
Paw Bra of Worthington, along with other community members, will represent the Karen culture and ethnic group with a booth at the International Festival this year. The Karen people are an ethnic minority in the country of Myanmar, formerly known under British rule as Burma. They have suffered persecution for many decades, leading many to flee the country as refugees and eventually first arriving in Worthington around a decade ago.
According to Maylary Htoo, a friend of Bra’s who has staffed the booth in past years, Worthington Karen residents have had a cultural booth at the International Festival since 2012.
Festival attendees can expect a host of unique cultural items - and food - at the booth this year.
“We will have necklaces and posters, and also traditional buckets and traditional clothes,” Bra said with Htoo as an interpreter.
“We will show how to make clothes, with traditional weaving, because it is Karen traditional,” Bra said. Added Htoo, “I work with the Nobles County Integration Collaborative, and especially when we are working with diversity, we like to share things about our culture with people. In my experience, when we did the weaving before, a lot of people were very interested.”
For those interested in Karen food, Bra will prepare a coconut soup with rice, and a pickled dish with a tea leaf and bean salad. On the whole, Bra is looking forward to participating in the festival this year.
“I am excited to teach other people about how to weave and I am happy to share our culture with people.”
These two booths aren’t the only options for those attendees looking for an international cultural experience. Other booths include traditional Scandinavian Hardanger embroidery, Scandinavian Rosemaling (folk art), and cultural representatives from Worthington’s Eritrean, Mexican, Ghanaian and Guatemalan communities, among others.