Working with refugees in the Salt Lake Valley

Story and photo by ZACH CARLSON

Chandra Sapkota lives with his wife and children in Salt Lake City. Sapkota currently works three different jobs. He works as a translator, he helps refugee families with children under the age of 3  at a local organization called Discover, Develop, and Impact (DDI) and he assists students part time at Cottonwood High School through the Granite School District.

Sapkota began educating people and helping parents while he was living in a refugee camp in Nepal. Sapkota lived in this camp for 18 years before the United States accepted him as a Bhutanese refugee in 2009 — one year after America began taking these refugees in.

Once Sapkota came here to Utah he met a friend who was working for DDI who helped him get a part-time job as a translator. Sapkota began to work his way up the corporate ladder and began to get more hours. He quickly became a full-time employee going into homes and doing what Sapkota referred to as “parenting.” This means that he helps the parent give their kid a better childhood, hopefully leading to a better adulthood and life.

“The DDI focuses on education and parenting,” Sapkota said. He goes into homes that have children up to 3 years old and helps the parent raise the children while honoring their culture. How Sapkota helps the family honor their culture varies from background to background, but with most cultures it involves making sure that they eat the proper foods to get enough nutrition without compromising their values on what foods are acceptable.

DDI works with families of all incomes and ethnic backgrounds in the Salt Lake Valley. Sapkota specializes in refugee families that typically fall beneath the poverty line. “I visit and work with 11 different families and spend 90 minutes with each of them,” Sapkota said.

One of the biggest unseen challenges that refugees face is not only getting enough food, but also getting healthy food. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, undernutrition has been reported in many cases with refugees. The CDC also stated that “although undernutrition is often associated with refugee status, concerns are increasing about overweight/obesity among refugees resettling to developed countries. Overweight and obesity are frequently assumed to be associated with assimilation to a U.S. lifestyle (increased availability of high-calorie foods, reduced physical activity), compounded by lack of nutritional education.”

This is where Laureen Carlson comes in.

Carlson is a frequent collaborator of Sapkota’s, working together to help Nepalese families. Carlson is an employee of the Expanded Food Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP), whose goal is teaching people and families, particularly those who are lower income, how to eat healthy on a budget.

EFNEP is available in every state and most territories, according to Carlson. EFNEP is funded in Utah by Utah State University in Logan, through its agriculture department.

She met Sapkota while teaching a Nepalese family with whom he was working as a translator. Sapkota contacts EFNEP and asks for Carlson to come and help these families with nutrition. He requests her because she is good with the families and everyone else working for EFNEP in the Salt Lake area has quit, citing low pay for their leaving within the last five years, according to Carlson.

Carlson said she has taught roughly 20 different refugee families about nutrition, most of them from Nepal. She said it has been quite a culture shock for her as well as the families she teaches. She said, “One of the things that surprised me the most was how many people live in these small living spaces. You’ll oftentimes have three or four generations of a family living in a two- or three-bedroom apartment.”

Another aspect of living that astounded her was the sleeping arrangements. “A lot of these families do not have enough mattresses for everyone. In some cases, everyone sleeps on the floor with blankets. One family had couches along the edge of their living room where they slept in shifts,” Carlson said. “Family members who worked the night shift would be sleeping on the couches during the day, then the rest would take the available couches when the others went off to work.”

Laureen Carlson with the cute puppy of a family she was teaching in Kearns, Utah. She is an avid dog lover.

Carlson said that one of the hardest parts of working with refugees is helping them eat healthy while also honoring their traditions and customs. When working with Nepalese families she said that most of them want to eat goat, lamb, or yak, which happen to be some of the more expensive types of meats. “Our goal isn’t for them to eat like us. Our goal is for them to eat healthy and affordably,” Carlson said.

What can be especially hard for some refugee families, Carlson said, is making food for everyone in the family. Carlson said that in every refugee family she has taught nutrition to, the children receive free breakfast and lunch from their schools, due to the family’s low-income status. Carlson said the kids really like the food here and ask her to teach their parents how to make it, which can cause problems at home.

“The kids like some western food like tuna casserole, and the parents are willing to make it for them. The problem comes in with the grandparents and great-grandparents. They only want to eat their home food, which is understandable, but sometimes the kids don’t. A lot of these families don’t have the money to make two separate dinners, so it can lead to a sort of rock and a hard place,” Carlson said.

Sapkota has been an active member of the refugee community in Utah since he arrived here, but Carlson is a much newer addition to the community. As Carlson works with the refugee families she becomes closer and closer with them, with her even being invited to some family parties and functions. Sapkota and Carlson both work hard with refugees trying to help them provide for and take care of their family.