When Raj Aluri entered the University of South Carolina in 1976 as an international student from India, he was one of only a handful of foreign students on campus. Raj, having since received two masters’ degrees and a Doctor of Education from USC, read that this past year the campus had almost 1,800 international students from 95 countries — he was thrilled.
Celebrating this fact is the 22-year-old Columbia International Festival, which takes place the first weekend of April at the State Fairgrounds’ Cantey and Goodman Buildings. Exhibitors from at least 60 different countries as well as unique foods, hand-made goods and cultural performers are on tap for the spring event. This past year, 22,000 people enjoyed the festival; the event’s first year drew around 3,000.
Raj had already earned a Bachelor of Arts degree and a Master’s degree in political science in India when he came to USC to pursue additional degrees. He knew no one. Another student picked him up and invited him to stay for the weekend, and then for a month, introducing him to 20 or so other Indian students on campus and helping him to get his bearings.
“I realized then that it was difficult to make the transition to life in a different country,” he says. This prompted him to eventually found International Friendship Ministries in 1981, which provides fellowship, guidance, assistance and meals to internationals in Columbia. As more internationals poured into the South for, as Raj believes, the mild climate, reasonable cost of living and the friendliness of Southern hospitality, it became apparent that a celebration was in order.
He notes that currently, nearly 10 percent of South Carolina’s population is made up of foreign-born people, and there are approximately 200 nationalities and 75 different languages represented in Columbia alone. Many of those nationalities host their own celebrations: Tartan Day South, Greek Festival, Italian Festival, Korean Festival, Latin Festival and Persian Festival. However, while the 1996 Olympics gathered athletes from around the globe in Atlanta, Georgia, Raj decided to host the first International Festival in Columbia.
At least 60 booths at the Columbia International Festival feature a country’s flag, maps, costumes, fun facts, arts and crafts, the language and take-home materials. There is a parade of around 100 flags and authentic dances performed. The Global Education Day is March 31 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Raj explains that this is a time when schools with students from kindergarten through 12th grade can provide a venue for hands-on engagement. Teachers can arrange for students to take a Travel the World Under Two Roofs tour and watch a cultural presentation, plus they can peruse the many exhibits. Cost on Global Education Day is only $5 for students, with free admission offered for teachers and chaperones. Schools must register at CIFOnline.org.
Anyone attending the festival can request a “passport” that includes each country represented, its flag and fun facts. Each country in the passport can receive a distinct stamp after the exhibit is visited. The weekend main event is packed with learning opportunities for grade school students and those enrolled in colleges. Those attending on Saturday and Sunday can enjoy performances by such groups as Walhalla Bavarian Dancers, Fil-Am Cultural Dance Troupe, Atlanta Chinese Dance Company and Steel Drum Group. Raj points out that exhibitors welcome questions as well as participants “practicing” languages with them.
Raj says that he has not only met countless people at the festival, but he also has made many friends and acquaintances from all corners of the globe because of the intense planning required to put together the event. At least 50 people are planning committee members; volunteers represent countries such as Iraq, Ethiopia, Germany, Mexico, the Philippines, Peru, Guinea and Switzerland –– just to name a few. He counts many of them, and those on the board, as friends.
“My great blessing is that my family and I have met and gotten to know people in Columbia who we never would have known had it not been for this festival.”
Echoes Bill Sweeney, a Columbia attorney who has served on the board for the ministry and the festival for many years, “Most people who have lived in Columbia all their lives don’t realize how many people living here are from other countries. There just are not opportunities to interact on a personal level and to get to know them. But the Columbia International Festival provides this great opportunity.”
Raj says that over the past years of the festival, awareness has increased. It is the state’s largest international event, and it has been designated as one of the “Top 20” events in the Southeast by the Southeast Tourism Society. Ongoing support is provided by Richland County and the City of Columbia, as well as a host of other local restaurants and cultural organizations, such as the South Carolina Philharmonic.
Raj says that while so many festivals involve alcohol and are geared toward a more adult audience, the Columbia International Festival is family-friendly. Alcohol has never been served; it is a smoke-free festival; and, there is something for every age — from young children to the elderly.
Attending the Festival
Columbia International Festival hours are 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday, April 1, and noon to 6 p.m. Sunday, April 2. Admission is $7 per adult and free for children ages 12 and under. Active military personnel are provided free admission with an ID. For more information visit CIFOnline.org.