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Unity in the Community brings global flair to Riverfront Park

Catherine Fessard recalls having a special feeling about Spokane when she traveled from Europe to visit a friend during Expo ’74.

“There was such a joy for life in this country because it’s new,” said Fessard, 59.

Fessard grew up in Niort, France, but she was so enamored with the opportunities she discovered in the U.S. that she decided to make Spokane her home in 1980. On Saturday, she hosted a new French-themed booth at the 18th annual Unity in the Community festival at Riverfront Park, an event created to highlight and pay tribute to diversity in Spokane.

The celebration drew thousands of spectators and more than 125 vendors. Locals who once lived in Iran, Finland, Sweden, Mexico and other countries set up booths along with Fessard’s to give the community a chance to learn something about their cultures.

“I love the diversity,” Fessard said. “It’s something that is very special.”

The occasion is an educational experience, she said. Fessard particularly enjoyed watching children get excited about unfamiliar cultures when they saw someone speaking a foreign language.

“Their eyes just open,” said Fessard, who teaches French and Spanish. “They open to new ideas.”

Some, like Da Xiong, have made the event a yearly family tradition. Xiong, 26, and his family have hosted a Hmong booth at the festival for the past 11 years.

Xiong’s father, Vang, came to the U.S. in the late 1970s as a refugee from Thailand.

Hmong people helped fight the Vietnam War in Laos, but once the U.S. pulled out, they had to flee to Thailand, Xiong said. Because they assisted the U.S., the American government promised to help them get to the States.

Xiong’s parents came to Spokane in the 1980s to live with relatives in the area. The family estimates that about 350 Hmong live in Spokane, and they are a tight-knit group.

“Any Hmong person that shows up, we know who they are,” Xiong said. “If we don’t know them, we’ll make sure that we invite them to make sure who their family is.”

For Xiong, the event is an opportunity to teach the community about Hmong culture. Unlike his parents, Xiong was born in the U.S. He said the Hmong have often been pegged with an inaccurate and offensive reputation as “freeloaders” since the U.S. government helped them get here.

“Our people shed blood for freedom,” Xiong said. “We fought our way to be here. We sacrificed lives, so I feel as American as anyone else.”

Unity in the Community has grown considerably since its inception in 1995. Originally, Liberty Park hosted the event, but the turnout became too robust for the venue by 2006. The following year, organizers moved the festival to Riverfront Park, where vendors would have enough space to spread out and the event would have even more room to expand.

Ben Cabildo, chair of the event’s fundraising committee, said organizers hope to attract the largest attendance ever at the event for its 20th year in 2014.

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