Some of Pittsburgh's recent arrivals celebrate their first Fourth in parade, pay homage to homelands


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In less than a week's time, Elizabeth Chol will celebrate two independence days.

Originally from what is now South Sudan, she spent years at a refugee camp in neighboring Uganda. Then, about five months ago, she moved to Whitehall Place apartment complex in the South Hills with her husband and 4-year-old daughter.

Wednesday marked Ms. Chol's first U.S. Independence Day. And on Monday, despite a challenging year of border violence and an economic crisis, South Sudan -- the world's newest nation -- will celebrate its first year as a sovereign African state.

Clutching flags from both countries, the 27-year-old reflected on the value of freedom here: "This is America," she said. "You can do what you want."

Ms. Chol walked with about 50 other immigrants and refugees in Brentwood's Fourth of July parade Wednesday. All take English as a Second Language classes at the Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council and live at Whitehall Place, formerly Prospect Park. They hail from countries around the world, including Nepal, Burundi, Myanmar, Thailand and Afghanistan, to name a few.

Immigrants and natives alike also flocked to Downtown Pittsburgh for the region's signature fireworks show at the EQT Pittsburgh Three Rivers Regatta, a show entitled "Flashes of Freedom" by New Castle-based Pyrotecnico, which put on the display.

A huge crowd lining the city's three rivers watched as Pyrotecnico tried to outdo its show last year, adding as a signature feature this year a flaming "35" on its launch barges, in honor of the 35th anniversary of the regatta.

Show producer Derek Weber of Pyrotecnico said the goal was simple: "We want to be the best there is. And the number one goal here is to put on one of the top 10 best shows in the country."

So, after lighting up the confluence for 25 minutes, did Pyrotechnic deliver, according to the regatta's website, the promised "pyro wizardry and pageantry ... [and] vivid kaleidoscopic intensity?"

"That's a lot of big words," viewer Travis Morrow said of the website's description, "but, they did it."

Mr. Morrow, originally from Muskogee, Okla., but temporarily living in New Stanton, is a foreman for a company laying a natural gas line here, and he brought his wife, Tammy, and their four children, ages 3 to 12, to the show.

The kids said they had never seen as good a show, and the Morrows' daughter, Madison, 9, declared her favorite part was "the ending; all the fiery colors."

At the Brentwood parade, clad in their native dress and carrying American flags and flags from their homelands, the students waited to step into line Wednesday morning, awed by the marching band, wailing sirens and other parade spectacles passing by.

Som Dhital of the tiny South Asian country of Bhutan pulled away from the group to get a better view. He wore traditional Nepali dress (many Bhutanese are ethnically Nepali) and flashed a bright, wide smile while talking about the parade.

"I'm very happy," he said.

When they finally took their place in the lineup, the students waved their flags before a large crowd lining Brownsville Road.

There were some challenges in preparing the group for the event, said Cindy Nelson, family literacy coordinator and instructor at the literacy center.

For one, some students' native lands have been conflict zones over the years and have had more than one flag. Ms. Nelson and Whitehall Public Library director Paula Kelly, who also helped prepare the students, consulted with students to determine which flag they identified with.

For example, Myanmar, formerly called Burma, adopted a new flag in 2010.

The Karen ethnic group in Thailand claims its own flag, rather than the country's emblem.

And Ms. Chol of South Sudan made it clear she wanted to carry that country's flag, not that of Sudan, Ms. Nelson said.

Volunteers also spent a lot of time showing parade photos in class, explaining that the group would walk in the parade -- not just watch. For many, their only knowledge of a parade was a military parade. Others were altogether unfamiliar with the event.

"I did a lot of this," Ms. Kelly said, laughing, mimicking a parade marshal.

The literacy center was invited to participate in the Brentwood parade after Ms. Kelly presented a video at a recent Brentwood-Baldwin-Whitehall Chamber of Commerce meeting about its bus program and the students it serves.

The bus program, called Library Easy Access for Residents in Need, or LEARN, transports immigrant and refugees families from Whitehall Place to the library by school bus each month for activities and use of library resources.

Ms. Kelly said the Brentwood parade coordinator at the meeting was so impressed that he invited the students that same day to march in the parade.

AmeriCorps volunteer and ESL teacher Susie Backscheider said her students were excited to be part of the Brentwood festivities.

They told her, "We want to understand what it's like to be American," she said.

region

Molly Born: mborn@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1944. Sean D. Hamill contributed to this report.


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