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Festival of Cultures celebrates area's diversity

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Posted: Saturday, May 11, 2013 8:16 pm | Updated: 11:57 am, Sun May 12, 2013.

For a few moments in Lee Park on Saturday morning, it seemed as though the skilled hands of the Morro Azul Samba School percussion ensemble had cultivated world peace.

Faces and people from around the globe surrounded the stage. And nearly everyone was smiling, nodding and rocking as the performers enthusiastically pounded out Brazilian rhythms.

“Rhythm kind of speaks to the heart,” Cara Legal de Vadiar, the group’s leader, said after their performance. “Music touches people in a very specific way … I don’t know what it does, but it’s clear what the symptoms are — it’s contagious.”

Although achieving world peace might be a stretch, organizers of the 10th annual Festival of Cultures declared the event a success as far as its goal of building awareness of and appreciation for the diversity of cultures and people who call the Charlottesville area home.

“I thought it was great,” Katarina Turpeinen, a native of Finland and first-time visitor to the festival, said after the percussion performance. The festival’s smaller size, she added, is also a good thing. “If you come here with people, you don’t lose them,” the University of Virginia student said.

“People don’t realize how much diversity we have for a city this size,” said Debbie Tuler, one of the festival’s two lead organizers. The festival, she said, is “an opportunity and a time to increase that awareness, and celebrate and give newcomers an opportunity to share and show and participate in the community.”

“We wanted to have an opportunity to introduce all these newcomers in a kind of respectful and fun way,” said Heidi Gordon, the festival’s other lead organizer.

A decade ago, the festival drew about 200 people. This weekend, Tuler and Gordon said they expected more than 2,500 to attend.

Organized by the Charlottesville City Schools Adult Education program with the support of about 10 sponsors, the festival this year also featured cooking demonstrations and a one-day lecture series, which met at the Jefferson Madison Regional Library downtown.

Charlottesville’s size and diversity make it a good place to live for refugees and new residents who are arriving on more relaxed terms, said Barbara Cabell of the International Rescue Committee.

In addtion to a job, what new international residents need the most, Cabell said, is support in learning English and volunteers who will take the time to introduce them to the American way of life.

“Charlottesville is a great community because of people like you who come here and enrich our community in many ways,” Mayor Satyendra Huja said during brief remarks before the percussion show.

A Sikh who came to the United States from India to attend college at age 19, Huja has been in public service for decades. He became a U.S. citizen in the 1980s, was elected to the City Council in 2007 and chosen to serve as mayor by his fellow councilors in January 2012.

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