Beyond mental health: welcoming refugees to Utah

Story and photos by ALAYNIA WINTER


That was the resounding answer from the three refugee panelists who spoke on Sept. 23, 2017, following a documentary movie screening held at The Leonardo museum in Salt Lake City. Each was asked the question: “What were the most difficult aspects of transitioning to living in Utah?”

Everything is different. The weather. The food. The language. The culture and customs. The ethnicity.

Visitor information is posted on the front door of the IRC located at 221 S. 400 West in Salt Lake City.

One of the panelists, Kamal Bewar, came to the U.S. as a refugee from Iraqi Kurdistan during the Iraqi Kurdish Civil War at 22 years old. Since then he has made Utah his home.

“I have been fortunate to have had people who made a difference and made me feel welcome. It has been the individuals who have made the difference in my life,” said Bewar during the event.

He is an example of a political refugee who has successfully created a new life after arriving with close to nothing. Bewar graduated with a Ph.D. from Argosy University in higher educational leadership. He now has a flourishing career working at Salt Lake Community College. He also is president of the Kurdish Community of Utah.

So, what happens when refugees arrive in Utah? First, they are welcomed by International Rescue Committee or another resettlement organization. After they have food and shelter and immediate safety, they are given English classes and tasked with adapting to the new environment.

What is the western answer to this often traumatic experience? IRC, Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS) and many other organizations offer therapy, medication and mental health programs. These programs are beneficial. However, the clinical concept of mental health may be foreign to some New Americans.

Hannah Fox, who was an intern at IRC before accepting a position as a social worker with DCFS said a problem many healthcare workers, social workers and others are seeing, is a systemic disconnect in the way we, as Americans, understand other cultures — and vice versa.

The IRC is nestled between The Rose Establishment and the historic W. S. Henderson Building.

“Our programs take mental health from a very western perspective,” Fox said, “versus where many of them [refugees] come from, they likely do not. So, while we might diagnose and medicate, they might believe in a spiritual or traditional folk remedy.” Visibly exasperated, Fox added, “So when they go to health care workers, and they give them a western experience of mental health care, it really f**** with them. It discourages them from trying again.”

What is found to be actually helpful, said Fatima Dirie, refugee coordinator for the University of Utah, is making a community. Once the programs are over, it’s the relationships and friendships made that create lasting change and true integration.

“As a community, we are not there yet,” Dirie said. “To truly feel welcomed you have to understand each other.”

Fox added, “With refugees that is their ‘therapy.’ It’s home and it’s talking about their culture. It’s sharing their experiences on their terms — not just some white person who has a degree behind a desk.”

Utahns can help make people feel welcome by saying hello, simply smiling, or inviting someone over for dinner. If interested, sign up for a Family Mentor Program, or complete a volunteer orientation at IRC.

Fostering meaningful relationships is what truly matters.


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