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World Refugee Day: Thousands attend fair as Ecuador kicks off World Refugee Day early

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QUITO, Ecuador, June 18 (UNHCR) - More than 25,000 people flocked to a cultural and trade fair in the capital Quito at the weekend as Ecuador kicked off World Refugee Day celebrations early.

Ecuadoreans and Colombian refugees sold handicrafts, food and other goods at some 220 stands that were open for business at the UNHCR-backed fair Saturday and Sunday in Itchimbia Park. Up to 250,000 Colombians are believed to have sought shelter in Ecuador, though only 45,000 have registered with the government or UNHCR.

The colourful annual event in this high-altitude city in the Andes was also a showcase for Ecuadorean and Colombian talent. There were puppet shows, drama and music, which had visitors dancing and cheering under the clear skies.

The fair was made possible with funding from UNHCR and logistics and management help from non-governmental organizations such as Procultur and Fundacion Ambiente y Sociedad. Another partner agency present was the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, whose staff organized games and face painting for children.

"It is becoming a tradition in Quito and we plan to continue because it really promotes the integration of refugees," said Procultur's Yumac Ortiz. "It helps to reduce discrimination against Colombians because participants learn to work together and complement each other," he added.

Colombian refugee Manuel had travelled from northern Ecuador to sell sugar cane juice squeezed in his home-made wooden press. "This is something that brings a lot of memories to Colombians because it is a typical product in small towns in Colombia," he said.

In the food section of the fair, refugee Samuel sold lechona - Colombian-style roast pig - while cook Eva at the next stall offered hornado, baked pig prepared to a traditional Ecuadorean recipe.

One participant at the fair, 25-year-old Roberto, said it had made him feel better just four weeks after fleeing to Ecuador from his home near Bogota to escape threats from armed groups. Roberto had been studying to become a chef, but now lives with a fellow Colombian exile.

"Until one week ago I felt very lost. I still do not know the city. Over these last two days I have had the chance to meet other Colombians who have offered to help me. Just a few days ago I was very sad but now I feel like I have many new friends and the future is looking a little brighter," said Roberto, who has applied for asylum.

On World Refugee Day (June 20) itself, a similar fair will take place in Lago Agrio close to Ecuador's northern border with Colombia. Another large fair will be held in another northern town, Ibarra, on June 22.

Although World Refugee Day is still two days away, many people have been celebrating early. Seminars, exhibitions, fairs, sports tournaments have already been taking place in cities, towns, villages and camps around the world.

By Xavier Orellana
In Quito, Ecuador