Catholic Community Services assisting Utah refugees

Story and photo by BLAKE LANCASTER

Over 60,000 refugees have been resettled in Utah. Integrating into a new community can prove to be just as difficult as getting there, but several organizations — and volunteers — in Salt Lake City help with resettlement.

One such organization is the Catholic Community Services of Utah, whose Refugee Resettlement Program helps individuals reach a point of self-sufficiency by providing them with necessary tools and assistance.

For over 21 years, Aden Batar has been a part of immigration and refugee resettlement at Utah’s Catholic Community Services. Batar himself is a refugee from Somalia who came to Utah with his family in 1996. That same year he got involved with the Catholic Community Services and five years later he became the director of the program.

Now Batar and his organization help refugees from around the world arriving in Utah with housing, financial aid, acquiring jobs, learning the language and much more.

Concepts that seem simple to those who have lived here their whole lives can be brand new to a refugee who has lived a completely different lifestyle in their home country.

For example, a lot of these people have never seen what we would consider everyday appliances like microwaves or refrigerators. Batar and the staff and volunteers from the Refugee Resettlement Program teach them how to adjust to a new way of life. But they can’t do it all.

One of the major obstacles these refugees face is simply learning how to interact with their new community. Batar said volunteers can help new Americans overcome this obstacle by interacting and welcoming refugees to their new home.

“Volunteering can go a long way,” Batar said, “It can teach new refugees a lot of things.”

Volunteers for the resettlement program help in the best of two worlds by assisting with the resettlement process as well as helping teach refugees how their new world works. They assist with tasks including grocery shopping, tutoring school-age refugees and teaching them the English language. The organization understands that not everyone can be a volunteer, but that doesn’t mean you can’t help out in your everyday life.

“It almost feels like people are even scared to have any sort of interaction with refugees around here,” said Robert Dean, a student at Salt Lake Community College. “Locals act like refugees aren’t equal because they aren’t the exact same as the rest of us.”

Dean has a unique perspective on refugees. His mother was a counselor at the school he went to at a young age where a couple of refugee families also had their children attend. To help with these children’s integration into their new lifestyle and school, Dean’s mother helped them make friends by setting up play dates with other students including Dean and his siblings.

He’s maintained his relationships with several of these refugee students, and through them has developed friendships with other New Americans. Dean said that being introduced to refugees at age 7 made it easy to look past the kids being any different than him. He attributed this to his still budding concept of the world as he recalled a memory of his friend Emmanuel, a refugee, who had never seen video games before visiting Dean’s house.

“I can’t even imagine going on the crazy journey all these guys have,” Dean said, referencing his friends. “Making it a little easier can go a long way for them and it only takes a little from us.”

Alyssa Williams, an attorney and coordinator of Utah’s Catholic Community Services Immigration Program, said that no matter what sort of life refugees led in their home country, starting a new beginning and integrating into a brand new culture is one of the toughest parts of what refugees have to go through. It has become clear that help and personal interaction from the community add to a smooth transition to their new lives. But Williams also said that while we need to do our part as a community to help, refugees also help us.

The mural above the Catholic Community Services building by Ruby Chacon depicts the organization and the city’s ability to bridge cultural divides.

“Refugees provide a tremendous value both economically and through rich and diverse cultural experiences to our community,” Williams said. “As a community we need to make them understand the importance they bring as an addition to Utah.”

This becomes more relevant as the Trump administration focuses on allowing fewer refugees into the country.

Williams and the Catholic Community Services want those in charge see that they are politicizing this global issue and affecting lives.

Aden Batar said the month of September, which ends the organization’s fiscal year, is usually the busiest time for CCS. However, 2017 was a different story due to a drastic reduction in the number of refugees coming to the U.S.

Catholic Community Services encourages people to contact their representatives and let them know that they do not support the administration’s policies regarding refugee resettlement.