Adapting to a new home in Salt Lake City


Have you ever been in an airport and seen a person or family holding a small white bag that says IOM in blue writing? Unless you know exactly what you are looking for, these bags may seem pretty common. However, the bags tell a surprising story that is both incredible and often very sad.

The International Organization for Migration gives these bags to refugees to carry all of their belongings. The small bag, no bigger then a grocery sack, has plenty of room for this task.

Refugees, whether alone or as a family, come from all over the world. Some countries include Ethiopia, Somalia, Burma, Vietnam, Cuba, Bhutan, Iran and Iraq. Many have experienced war, poverty or other hardships that make it necessary to begin a new life far from home. Since January 2008, a total of 388 refugees have been resettled in Utah. Another 75 to 100 are expected to arrive by the end of 2008, said Patrick Poulin, resettlement director for the International Rescue Committee in Salt Lake City.

“When I arrived here in the States there was a shock that went through my body,” said Regina Barbouza, 42, a refugee from Brazil. “I was scared and felt alone but was happy to be safe.”

Some people arrive not knowing what to expect. Many times the families have lived in refugee camps all of their lives. Barbouza and her three children, David, 11, Angelina, 9, and Jose, 6, lived in a small camp before being resettled in the US. They had no running water. Wooden walls provided some shelter from the elements; the floor was dirt. Barbouza declined to comment on the actual reason for fleeing Brazil, but said if she and her family had stayed, she would most likely not be alive today.

Gerald Brown, director of the Refugee Services Office in Salt Lake City, oversees the resettlement process for people who are arriving here for the first time. Many of them are just “fighting for their existence,” Brown said, regarding their state of life.

Brown started working with refugees in Cairo, Egypt. He said he found his “true calling” during the two years he spent there. “It was so crowded [in Cairo] people lived in graveyards. There, I learned the world was not fair,” Brown said. After serving the people of Egypt from 1976 to 1978, he decided he had found his path and began to focus on helping those who could not help themselves.

After a stint in Taichung, Taiwan, teaching English and studying Mandarin, Brown resettled in the US. From 1981 until he accepted his current position with the Department of Workforce Services in May 2008, Brown held a variety of jobs that allowed him to work with Bosnian, Iraqi, Haitian and Cuban refugees.

Six months into his new job, Brown has discovered that helping can be challenging. “With the economy crisis as it is, it has been very difficult to get the support we need,” he said. “We need money. Money for gatherings, clothes, beds, funerals, activities and any other basic needs.”

Brown described a scene of a new refugee family from Karen that is in need of such support. “As you walk in the apartment door of a Karen family, for example, you see shoes left at the door,” he said. “After you take off your shoes they bring the only chair they have for you to sit on. They offer watermelon and bring letters for you to read. Bills, school letters and others all in English.”

The Refugee Services Office helps people understand correspondence, enroll their children in school, find jobs and locate suitable housing.

“If you want support from someone, take that person to visit the refugees in their new home,” Brown said. “Once you see these people and get to know them you will have no problem getting the support you need.” 

The International Organization for Migration continues to safely bring refugees into the country and organizations like the International Rescue Committee and Refugee Services Office help once they arrive in the United States. These organizations persist in the ongoing battle of resettling refugees like Regina Barbouza and her family who need a safe haven and a new start.

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