The Refugee Club at Salt Lake Community College

Story and photo by WESLEY RYAN

Starting college is a wonderful time in people’s lives. However, it can also create moments of terrible stress. Being a refugee student intensifies many of those problems, but the Refugee Club at Salt Lake Community College (SLCC) plans on helping refugee students overcome them.

“On paper, they, the refugees, look like a resident. There was no way to distinguish them apart,” said Jason Roberts, one of the founders of the Refugee Club and a current advisor for the group.

Roberts said many organizations throughout campus noticed there wasn’t a direct source helping refugee students reach excellence. To resolve this issue the school created the Refugee Club in the fall of 2013 to act as a safe space for refugees. At the Refugee Club, members can share their stories and meet people with similar stories.

While Roberts isn’t a refugee himself he understands some of the challenges affecting refugees on a daily basis. Before Roberts, an English professor at SLCC, began working with the Refugee Club he was employed by the Granite School District, teaching English as a second language to students.

“American culture is different from others,” Roberts said. In Syria and the African countries where club members are from, there is a distrust toward authority out of fear of being wrongfully punished. For many of these refugees this mindset is ingrained into them. This leads students to not ask questions, even if they aren’t completely understanding the literature being taught to them. This frame of mind can devastate their academic career and can dissuade them from pursuing what they are passionate about.

“Teaching them how to support themselves and to teach them to ask questions,” Roberts said. Creating an environment where these refugees can feel comfortable enough to ask questions. Roberts believes that this cultural shift from fear and submission to empowerment and individualism is important to the advancement of refugees’ understanding of survival here in the U.S.

Keeping track of how many members the club regularly helps has been a challenge for Roberts and the president. Roberts has said the number fluctuates between six and 10.

The welcome sign to the international department, where the Refugee Club regularly meets.

“What I care [about] is you come sometimes, and get some help,” Roberts said. As an educator, he emphasized his desire to educate and help people. Roberts doesn’t want to force club members to come to the meetings, saying that a forced education will only create problems further down the road. That could be the reason for the fluctuating attendance.

The club meets every Wednesday from noon to 1 p.m. The first half of the meeting is dedicated to learning a new skill such as writing with commas, giving a proper presentation or learning more about American culture. They will then spend the next half of the meeting discussing relevant topics in the news or things from their everyday life. They treat these meetings as a safe place for everyone to communicate about their troubles and for the group to give positive advice toward fixing the problem presented.

Even though the club is called the Refugee Club, Peter Muvunyi, the acting chair and president of the club, wants it to be a place where everyone can come.

“So, if I say Refugee Club the first thing that should come to mind is everybody; it’s more inclusive,” Muvunyi said. As a refugee from Zambia, he decided to join this group because he wanted to meet other refugees. He wanted to share his story with others. It’s the same reason he visits the Black Student Union (BSU).

Muvunyi and the club teamed up with the BSU and the American Indian Club in late November 2017 for a cultural potluck. They’re also planning, at the beginning of March 2018 to go to schools in Cottonwood and assist these other refugee students with their applications.

This desire to help refugees receive a higher education is an important belief for many of these people. Aden Batar, the director of immigration and refugee resettlement for the Catholic Commuter Services, has said that “very few actually do” go to college.

“Many of them are illiterate and it can take years for them to fully understand the language,” Batar said. He and Roberts have found that language is a huge challenge for refugees. This could be another reason why they don’t further their knowledge.

The purpose of the Refugee Club is to help refugees find these resources to further their education and their life here in the U.S. However, when it comes to helping refugees, Roberts said “we’re definitely not doing enough.” This desire to continuously do more for refugees could be for a multitude of reasons but each person answered the same way, refugees are human beings who deserve equal treatment.