Gerald Brown, the dedicated man behind Salt Lake City’s refugee community

Story and photos by KAYA DANAE

Gerald Brown, the assistant director of refugee services and state refugee coordinator at the Utah Department of Workforce Services, has lived a life dedicated to refugees.

Gerald Brown at his office in the Utah Refugee Education & Training Center at 250 W. 3900 South, Bldg. B.

Born and raised in North Carolina, Brown’s passion for humanitarian work began after college, when he spent two years working in Cairo, Egypt, developing programs for the YMCA. He then went on to teach English in Taiwan for a little over a year. When he returned to the U.S. he inquired about jobs that meshed with the work that he had been doing overseas. He learned about a refugee resettlement program in the U.S. that had started while he was out of the country. He got a job at its Houston location, where he says his real education began.

The first family Brown helped resettle was Cambodian. They arrived the same day Brown started his job. “There were four people in the family. A father, mother, baby and a little boy– the little boy was very malnourished,” Brown said.

A photo given to Brown when he left his job in Houston. The man holding the sign is the Cambodian refugee whom Brown hired. Photo courtesy of Gerald Brown.

“They had been at the Khmer Rouge forced labor camps. The father told me their story and I couldn’t believe it. They were almost starved to death, it was very, very brutal,”  he said.

Throughout the ’70s tens of thousands of Cambodians fled to the Thai border because of the ongoing civil war and U.S.- led bombings. Khmer Rouge was a rebel-political group that established makeshift camps along the Thai border where Cambodian refugees were living under awful conditions. About one-fourth of the 8 million Cambodian people were murdered or starved during this time.

Brown spent four years working as a refugee resettlement job developer in Houston, and established a relationship with the father. Brown ended up hiring him to work the night shift at the refugee welcome center. The family has gone on to own a home and live a happy, healthy life, Brown said.

“He taught me that people are very resilient. It’s possible to overcome horrible experiences and go on. This job has shown me what people are capable of,” he said.

Brown was later hired as the director of refugee resettlement in New York City, where he met his wife and lived for 13 years. He began working for Asylum Corp. in 1995 and led a project where he brought social workers into Haiti with a military operation. After four years he felt restricted by the position and left.

He and his wife moved to Kanab, Utah, where he worked remotely giving technical assistance to a resettlement organization in Washington, D.C. Through this position he traveled to Saudi Arabia, where he worked with a U.S.- vetting organization. He also traveled to Macedonia, where he worked to prepare refugees for asylum, and Croatia, where he conducted the UN’s initial interview for Bosnian refugees.

Rachel Appel, the volunteer coordinator for the Know Your Neighbor Volunteer Program, has worked closely with Brown and emphasized his breadth of knowledge on refugees. “If I ever have any kind of question, he has the answer. He knows the policy, the cultural aspect of working with refugees, the history of refugees in the U.S. — really just all-encompassing,” Appel said. “He’s got really strong relationships with refugees here in Salt Lake City. One of the refugees, Joe Nahas, once said to me, ‘That man’s got heart,’ which just perfectly describes Gerald.”

Brown said with a smile, “I think working with refugees has enriched my personal life. It’s hard to imagine the two (work and personal life) being separate.” 

Utah Refugee Education & Training Center, where Brown, Appel, and Dulal work.

Gyanu Dulal, the refugee center program coordinator at the Utah Department of Workforce services, was a refugee from Bhutan. He recalls Brown’s dedication to his work. “I was introduced to Gerald in 2008 by one of our community members. Since then I have a very good relationship with him. I have never seen anybody so dedicated, motivated and committed to help the refugees.”

Dulal continues, “In these nine years that I have been working with him, I have never seen him say this cannot be done. Every refugee here has access to his personal cell phone. He is willing to talk to anyone at any time to find help the best way he can.”

Speaking about the most challenging aspect of his job, Brown said, “The way they (refugees) have been treated is infuriating. It’s very depressing and it just keeps getting worse and worse it seems. And that’s hard. I’ve had a hard time working within bureaucracy. There’s always red tape when you just want to cut to it and get stuff done. But, you know, you do what you can do.”

Brown quickly turned to the most rewarding aspect of his job. “Knowing refugees,” he said. “I know several people that have come out of camp with nothing. They are totally shell shocked, and there is PTSD and you just wonder how in the world are they ever going to make it, and they do. It’s perseverance, you know? It shows you what people can be capable of.”

While working with refugees has benefitted Brown in his personal life, Dulal emphasized how Brown has benefitted the refugee community.

“His tireless and dedicated effort to the Refugee Resettlement Center has been so helpful for all refugee communities to get the support that they need. We have employment, treatment, education, everything here. And this is a hub for people to come and learn about refugees as well, so it is an integrating space. Gerald reaches out to individuals to come forward, learn about refugees, make friends with refugees, that way they understand each other and help.”

Pamphlets advertising resources available to refugees.

Becoming emotional, Dulal said, “Gerald is the man I have known, he’s the best person I have ever found in my life. If anybody has a heart for the refugees, and knows more about refugees than anyone, it’s Mr. Gerald Brown. I have never found anybody so willing and so open to help refugees.”

Brown stressed the importance of education – learning about the global refugee crisis and understanding the situations facing people who are forced to flee their homes due to war and persecution.“Refugee resettlement is incredibly important. These people are refugees by no fault of their own. If anyone deserves support, it’s refugees and asylees,” Brown said. The Utah Refugee Education & Training Center offers many volunteer opportunities.

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