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Refugee families given gift of play day at Iowa Children's Museum in Coralville

Maria Mateo, 6, shakes bells as Cassye Dunkhase of Ward, Colo., plays #x201c;Jingle Bells#x201d; on her cello at the Iow
Maria Mateo, 6, shakes bells as Cassye Dunkhase of Ward, Colo., plays “Jingle Bells” on her cello at the Iowa Children’s Museum in Coralville on Wednesday, Dec. 25, 2019. The museum opened specially for refugee families who are currently being served by the Iowa City Catholic Worker House. Dunkhas is the daughter of former museum director Deb Dunkhase. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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For many, the holidays are an opportunity to spend time with family, exchange gifts and stuff ourselves with food and sweet treats.

But for a handful of refugee families living in Iowa City, this Christmas is bittersweet — a time to be grateful they are safe in the United States.

It’s also a reminder that they are in a new country, some of them 2,000 miles from friends and families.

That’s one reason why Deb Dunkhase, the former director of the Iowa Children’s Museum, decided to open the Coralville museum to five refugee families on Christmas Day.

“I just wanted to give them something special,” she said. “So many of these families live in isolation from the community, it’s as if they’re invisible. And I guess I just wanted them to know that this community cares about them.”

With the help of friends, Dunkhase treated the families to a chili lunch and a few hours of relaxed play in the museum. The kids had free rein to explore the museum and play. The families also were each given “Santa dollars” to use in the museum gift shop.

Catholic Worker House co-founder David Goodner said the trip to the museum is a welcome escape for the families.

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“This is just a wonderful moment where they can get away from the stress of their current situations and have a normal day,” he said.

“It’s a beautiful gift to be here,” said Jacky Torres-Toro, 31.

She and her son Isaac Lopez-Torres, 11, fled Honduras last year after Torres-Toro’s father was slain and two of her brothers were extorted.

“Isaac is very happy to be here,” she added. “It’s a wonderful gift for him to be able to run around and play and just be a kid.”

Torres-Toro and Isaac walked for two months to get to the U.S. border where, with the help of the Catholic Worker House in Iowa City, they were allowed to enter the country. They arrived in Iowa City on Christmas night 2018.

This year, Torres-Toro said she is overwhelmed with gratitude for the help she has received from CWH founders Goodner and his partner Emily Sinwell. But, she said, she wishes the rest of her family were here.

“It would be wonderful if we could all be together today,” she said. “That would be the most beautiful gift in the world.”

If she were in El Salvador, 33-year-old Glenda Juliza Aguilar de Cortez said she would be spending the day with family and friends.

“It would be very joyful,” she told The Gazette with the help of an interpreter. “Here, it’s totally different because we are alone. It’s hard to be without our family and friends.”

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Cortez came to Iowa about seven months ago. She and her husband left El Salvador, fleeing threats of violence and extortion, and came to the United States seeking asylum. Cortez, who was pregnant when she fled, was allowed to enter the country. Her husband was not.

The help she’s received from the Catholic Worker House has been a blessing, she said.

“It’s been really good for me coming from another country without family or a roof to cover our heads,” she said. “It’s been a blessing to find help. Even just having food to eat and a roof over our heads is amazing.”

Her hope for the coming year, Cortez said, is that her husband will be allowed to enter the U.S. and that she will obtain a work permit and find a job so she can help family members still in El Salvador.

“It’s beautiful to be living here, but it’s also hard because my husband is not here and it is hard to be happy without him,” said Nancy Carolina Raudales Martinez, 35, a refugee from Honduras.

Five months ago, Martinez arrived in Iowa with her two daughters, ages 8 and 12. Martinez, her husband, Ronald Josue Garcia Colindres, and their daughters fled Tegucigalpa, Honduras, after multiple gang threats to her family.

The family arrived June 24 at the border, Martinez said, but her husband soon was deported back to Honduras.

Though she misses her family and home in Honduras, Martinez said she is happy in Iowa, and the help she’s received from CWH has been more than she could have wanted.

On Christmas afternoon, as she watched her daughters play at the children’s museum. Martinez said seeing her daughters safe and happy feels good.

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“Today has been very good for my girls,” she said. “Right now we’re alone here — we don’t have family here or a space of our own where we could celebrate. But, today we’re not alone — we’re around lots of people, and the kids get to run around and play, so it’s good.”

Martinez, who was a hair stylist for nine years in El Salvador, said she hopes the new year brings work so she can help her family back home.

Torres-Toro said she also hopes she is able to find work.

“I hope for more blessings from God,” she said. “I hope to have health and I hope to find lots of work, and I trust that God will help me. And, of course, the ultimate hope and dream is that we will be together with our family again soon.”

Comments: (319) 398-8238; kat.russell@thegazette.com

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