IRC helps Salt Lake City refugees enjoy local culture


On a warm fall Saturday morning a handful of Burmese refugees gather outside of the International Rescue Committee building in downtown Salt Lake City.

They are meeting to catch the light rail system of public transportation, TRAX, across the street on 400 South to go to a University of Utah football game. The university donates the tickets to the IRC. This is just one example of an activity refugees experience when arriving in Utah.

Throughout refugees’ first few months of resettlement in the United States the IRC provides activities and recreation for the foreign families and individuals for a number of reasons.

“When people are spending time with Americans and feeling comfortable it avoids the awkwardness or fear rather than giving them a sense of an outsider,” said Jonathan Codell, acculturation PORTAL coordinator at the IRC located in Salt Lake City.

Located at 231 E. and 400 South, the IRC, is an organization that provides refugees with aid throughout the resettlement process. The IRC works with refugees for the first six months of their residency and helps to offer essentials such as food, shelter and employment.

According to the United States Department of State a refugee is a person who may be fleeing from their country to escape from war or persecution on account of race, religion or nationality.

Codell said the IRC brings certain cultural groups to at least one activity per month, but typically it is more than that. Other activities the IRC offers to the groups is trips to the parks, mountains, and bringing them to the library for educational purposes.

A piece of the big picture the IRC wants to reach by providing these outings is to relieve some stress of the movement procedure for the refugees.

“The resettlement process is dramatic,” Codell said.

Nyaw Paw, 33, a Burmese refugee who has been in Salt Lake City for two months feels getting out and being with Americans helps the process.

Paw said through Han Win, a Burmese speaking IRC interpreter, that she feels happiness, a sense of freedom, stress relief and enjoys just being part of the American culture.           

Paw grew up in Burma, but moved to Thailand with her family when she was 6. There she was not allowed to get out and be involved with the activities like the IRC provides.

Paw finds the freedom she has discovered in the United States lets her do anything that she wants. 

Within the activities the IRC reaches out to makes sure the refugees feel more welcome and feel home in the United States.

“The more someone feels comfortable the more likely they’ll return and be more integrated into our society,” Codell said. “They won’t be so marginalized.”

A key for resettlement is introducing places around the homes of refugee is a key for resettlement, Codell said. Even something as small as a park close to home where they can go have a picnic will help he said. He feels showing the refugees places to go does help, especially, when he sees a refugee doing this on it own.

This is what the IRC is aiming for.

“One big thing is it shows them what is out there,” said Emily Fishbein, education program coordinator for the Salt Lake City IRC. “It shows what they can do on their own.”

An American football game is something many refugees have never seen.

The only football game they are familiar with is soccer. Codell admitted that seeing American football can be strange and maybe confusing to the refugees. However, it allows them to be out there with the public, which benefits the resettlement process.

“This is a way for them to see what being in the U.S. is all about,” Fishbein said.

Bringing activities and recreation is only a small part of what the IRC does, Codell said. However, it does show where the refugees can access resources when they want them. It also brings camaraderie throughout the groups.

“A main aspect is just bringing them all together so that they can be in a social setting and get to know the other refugees,” Fishbein said. “It’s sort of nice for them all to be in one place together.”

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