When Kayse Jama's home country of Somalia descended into war, he had two choices — take part in the war or leave.
Jama chose to escape from Somalia and begin a journey as a refugee that would take him through 16 countries before he finally found sanctuary in Portland. There he became a social justice organizer and has since been the recipient of multiple awards.
Jama detailed his inspirational tale during Ashland's 26th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Celebration at the Historic Ashland Armory on Monday.
He said he is proud to be an American, but believes the country has taken a detour when it comes to fulfilling the slain civil rights leader's vision.
"We have to find our way back to the road of justice," Jama said.
He said he hopes the nation will become a place where refugees and immigrants are seen as members of communities, rather than outsiders.
Jama encouraged the overflow crowd at the armory not to think of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday as a one-day event, but as a reminder to work daily to create justice.
He encouraged audience members to find their inner King, Mahatma Gandhi or Cesar Chavez.
Ashland's 26th annual celebration coincides with the 50th anniversary of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Master of ceremonies D.L. Richardson noted the act was finally signed into law that year by President Lyndon Johnson after it survived a 54-day filibuster.
Students from Central Point's Crater Renaissance Academy delved even further back in history, giving a spoken word performance of President Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.
The students then jumped into contemporary times with a movement piece juxtaposed with photographs of homeless people that appeared on large screens.
Adorned in colorful traditional costumes, the Mexican dance group Ballet Folklorico Ritmo Alegre entertained the crowd with a performance set to a song about oppressed people.
The Rogue Valley Gospel Choir got people tapping their feet and clapping along to an upbeat song, girls and teens from Ashland Danceworks mixed energetic dancing with gymnastics moves and the audience heard an excerpt from the rock operetta "The Last Year in the Life of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr."
After Walker Elementary School students sang two inspirational songs, Richardson said, "Those kids — that's the realization of the dream. That's why we celebrate."
Other events to mark the day included a broadcast of King's famous "I Have a Dream" speech on the downtown Plaza, an American Red Cross blood drive and a series of late afternoon and evening events at Southern Oregon University.
Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or firstname.lastname@example.org.