The refugee experience: Integrating into American society

Story and photo by BLAKE HANSEN

Outside the Catholic Community Services building, refugees and others sit, waiting for help.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has reported in its “Projected Global Resettlement Needs 2017” that the number of people in need of resettlement for the calendar year will surpass 1.19 million. This number is the equivalent of the number of residents inside of Salt Lake, Davis and Weber counties. The number of refugees in desperate need of relocation equals the same number of people who reside from Draper all the way through Ogden, a distance of about 60 miles.

Many refugees who have been granted relocation to America, specifically to Utah, have a hard time integrating into a vastly different society. But with help of local organizations it is possible to successfully integrate.

The trek out of danger is only the first step for refugees, though. According to various statements made by refugees in an article by The Independent, they arrive in these safe zones. Some are injured, starved, alone, scared and all have suffered extreme loss. They settle in refugee camps where conditions are horrible.

The process to get resettled somewhere can take years, according to the UNHCR. Some people spend the rest of their lives in refugee camps because the lengthy and intense resettlement process can’t even handle the amount of people left without a country to call home. Kids who grow up in these refugee camps have little to no access to education. Doctors and lawyers who were once able to comfortably use their education and expertise to take care of their families are left building their families tin huts just to stay dry. Also, 51 percent of refugees are under 18. Many have narrowly escaped, and are without parents or siblings.

Aden Batar left Somalia with a law degree and with two of his brothers in the late 1980s. At a time when civil war took over the country, Batar and his brothers had no choice but to leave. They had to lie and disguise themselves as members of other tribes and factions just to make it past checkpoints where people were being shot and killed for trying to flee. Batar made it to Kenya alone after one of his brothers was killed for being found at a checkpoint and the other died from a sickness he got during their trek.

“Looking back, I don’t know how I did it,” he said. Batar lived in a refugee camp in Kenya and met his future wife there before finally making it to Utah in 1994. He was lucky enough to have a brother in Logan who helped with his resettlement. Batar is now the director of immigration and refugee resettlement at Catholic Community Services in Salt Lake City where refugees are helped and given the tools they need to integrate.

Atem Aleu escaped from Sudan in 1987. Similarly to Batar, Aleu also fled his country with two brothers. After a lengthy trek between multiple countries, Aleu eventually ended up in Kenya in 1992 with one brother after the other died during their trek. Aleu was 8 years old. Eventually though, after years of suffering through surviving with little food and water, none at times, Aleu made it to the U.S.

“We need to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. Judgement happens a lot here, people think that because you’re a refugee, you’re some sort of lower person,” Aleu said. He said his organization, which he declined to name, .helps refugees locally in Utah. “Without these organizations in place there is no one to talk to and nowhere to go for help finding jobs, transportation, appropriate housing, etc.,” he said.

Integration is a difficult and lengthy process for refugees after they have already gone through so much just to get here to the U.S. The local organizations in Utah are always looking for volunteers to help in a variety of ways. Some options include mentorship and job placement. Batar also stressed the importance of overall friendly interactions to show a welcome, safe environment where refugees are able to flourish in a new place with opportunity.