Volunteer programs aiding not only refugees, but volunteers as well

Story and slideshow by SCOTT FUNK

Do you know what a refugee is? Do members of society take the time to know who these people are, or do they simply walk past and question why they are here? What if you knew? What if you understood their story and why they are here? If you did, would it make a difference?

Gerald Brown, the Utah state refugee coordinator and assistant director of the Refugee Services Office, said in an interview that refugees “don’t have any American friends. Being nice to people is most important to them. Even just a smile at them. Many refugees have said that just a smile from the mainstream is meaningful.”

Why would a smile be so meaningful? To understand that, it’s important to understand what a refugee is. Brown said a refugee is someone who has been forced to flee their country because of persecution, war or violence. Persecution must come from one of five scenarios: race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership within a particular social group.

“Leaving their country is difficult and traumatic,” Brown said. “The resettlement process is just as difficult and often traumatic. They are so inspiring. You can’t believe what they’ve gone through, and what they’ve done.”

So why would a smile be so significant? Because of the trials refugees face to get here. A smile can signify happiness to them — something that some have been lacking for a long time.

There are many ways to share your happiness with refugees in Utah. One of these ways is by joining a volunteer program in Salt Lake City called Know Your Neighbor (KYN).

KYN is a volunteer program that offers over 20 different opportunities to volunteer with local refugees. Some of these opportunities include: helping a refugee prepare to take the citizenship test; helping refugees learn a new language; helping teach life skills such as sewing; becoming a tutor to help learn English, math or even to learn to drive; teaching technology skills such as typing or how to use programs; presenting and leading class on a topic of your choice; and becoming a family friend.

Rachel Appel, the program coordinator for KYN, said there are roughly 200 active volunteers helping over 350 refugees who have enlisted in KYN. The opportunity that has had the most success, and the one that Appel believes is the most beneficial, is the family friend.

A flyer provided by KYN describes a family friend as an individual, family, or small group, who will develop a friendship with a refugee family through weekly gatherings on their own schedule.

One volunteer who participates in this is Kim Watson.

Watson has a family of her own and is just as busy as everyone else, but one day she decided she wanted to volunteer. She has been involved with KYN for over a year, and she loves it. In an interview at an orientation, she described what it is like being a family friend.

Watson said there is no such thing as a typical visit, because each one is different. But what she has found to be the most beneficial to the individual whom she works with, is just being in their home to talk. Watson said that some days she’ll go over and ask what they want to do, and occasionally all they’ll say is just talk; talk about anything and everything in life. (Families can not be identified due to confidentiality guidelines.)

Sometimes, with the permission of the family, she’ll even bring her kids so that they can play with the kids of the refugee she is visiting. Watson made it clear that there is in no way any form of financial aid going on. She said that if she has some extra veggies from her garden she will take them, or if she is going to donate items to the Deseret Industries, she’ll take them to her refugee family first to see if they want them. Watson says her purpose of being there is to be a friend and to develop a relationship.

At the orientation, Watson shared that at her own home, her house is filled and yet she still thinks she needs things. One day, when she was visiting with her refugee friend, they were sitting and talking outside on a curb and her friend told Watson that she believed she had everything. Watson went on to explain that in her friend’s home, there was barely anything, especially compared to her own home. And yet, with barely anything, her friend said that she had everything.

“I could listen to NPR for 100 years and never have the same experience as I did than when I was with my friend on a curb,” Watson said. “I now have a sign in my home that says ‘I have too much here’ and it’s a constant reminder to me of what I have, and what others don’t have.”

Appel, the program coordinator for KYN, said making friends and developing relationships, like the one that Watson has made, is the goal.

“It’s bigger than just matching families together,” Appel said. “It’s for refugees to have the opportunity to participate in social activities. So they can have an American friend to break down barriers and to ultimately have a unified community in Salt Lake.”

To become a volunteer and a family friend, there is a process that one must go through. The first thing to do is get in contact via email with Rachel Appel (Rachel.Appel@slcgov.com). Second is filling out a volunteer application and attending one of the monthly orientation meetings — Appel will have that information —  held at the City and County Building in downtown Salt Lake City.

At these orientation meetings, potential volunteers will introduce themselves to each other and then they will receive a “Refugee 101” from Gerald Brown, the assistant director of the Refugee Services Office, where they will learn more of what a refugee is. They will then learn the volunteer opportunities, role-play volunteer situations and also have the opportunity to hear from a current volunteer and hear their story. At the end, there is an opportunity to ask any questions that may have not been answered.

Once they have completed the orientation, the next step is to schedule an interview with Brown. This interview also consists of a background check, and will help determine which opportunities are best for the volunteer as an individual and which refugee family they would pair with the best if they chose to be a family friend. Once that is completed, they may begin to volunteer based upon their availability.

“We want a good community,” said Brown at a November 2017 orientation. “We have to help refugees integrate. These people have gone through things I can’t imagine. They are so inspiring. And if we make them feel like they belong here, it will add value to them.”