How the Refugee Services Office fights discrimination and empowers refugee women

Story and gallery by ALAYNIA WINTER

Approximately 60,000 refugees from all over the world live here in Utah. Unlike other traditionally red states, Republican Gov. Gary Herbert has openly pledged to keep Utah’s doors open to refugees. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) reports at least 50 percent of refugee populations are women and girls. This means there are somewhere around 30,000 resettled women and girls attempting to pick up their lives and integrate into Utah’s society.

Women are especially vulnerable to violence when displaced or during times of war during the process of migration. According to a report by Amnesty International, women in refugee camps are raped every day while collecting water. This is just one example of the incredible hardships women face during the resettlement process. Gerald Brown, assistant director for the Refugee Services Office, said, “Five to six years ago, we realized women needed more resources. Just more.”

The Refugee Services Office (RSO), a division of Utah’s Department of Workforce Services, is a government organization filled with individuals working hard to improve the lives of refugees by assisting in finding employment, providing mental health services, and much more.

As a government organization, Refugee Services Office can’t have a volunteer program. Programs are primarily supported through the Know Your Neighbor program through the city mayor’s office. This program is very supportive, said Halima Hussein, a Somalian refugee herself and women’s refugee coordinator for RSO.

“There is always a need for more programming,” Brown said. Whether it’s funding for more women’s programs, or daily and after-school programs, help from the community is always appreciated. RSO has workshops available such as: family planning, domestic violence and sewing classes. Anyone is welcome to participate.

Issues facing women are often serious, ranging from domestic violence to public harassment stemming from antipathy to facial coverings. “If they go to the bathroom, or try to get on TRAX and someone is yelling at them — and it happens in any of those public spaces — we have [a safety escort] specifically assigned who walks with the refugee community,” said Hussein, referring to resources RSO offers to refugees when faced with abuse or harassment. She puts her hand down on the table with conviction. “But for Utah, I think compared to any other place it’s been better. I think it’s been better for our community. The community around us has been extremely supportive, including the LDS church.”

Despite the occasional incident, Hussein maintains Utah is a welcoming community. She warmly shares a story of a Utah family and a Somalian family who have become dear friends through the Know Your Neighbor Program.

There are a variety of resources available to refugees who experience discrimination or abuse. “We have a lot of mental health patients in the community, because of the trauma. And some people cope better than others,” Hussein said. “We are very big on therapy and medication — that kind of thing. We have social workers and therapists in the office who work very closely with domestic violence, sexual abuse, discrimination and gender identity issues.”

Hussein is highly respected, Brown said, and many women feel comfortable speaking to either her or Asha Parekh, the organization’s director. However, the caseload is large and Hussein is often stretched thin. “Halima is one of the few resources we have for these women,” Brown said.

In addition to struggling with roadblocks such as language and cultural barriers or not having a car, female refugees also face additional hindrances stemming from lack of equal opportunities and sociocultural factors. Such opposition can substantially hinder establishing friendships and support systems, which can lead to unhealthy alienation, depression and loneliness.

Due to a lack of trusted confidants and support systems, women refugees often struggle with having limited resources in talking about certain sensitive, yet vital topics. Brown said, women are often not comfortable discussing complex family issues, physical or sexual abuse, or hygiene issues in front of men and the organization needs Utah women to be involved.

The Refugee Services Office is committed to empowering women by also strengthening their families. Alexx Goeller, youth services coordinator for RSO, works directly with Utah school districts to help refugee families to know their rights and facilitate success in refugee children’s education.

Refugee women frequently struggle to communicate with their children and with the education system after resettling here in Utah. Goeller said, “Often families will know a kid is acting out and don’t know why and when we hear about things like this, we will facilitate a meeting with a translator.” Schools are legally mandated to communicate with parents in their native language, she said. RSO works diligently to partner with translation services and companies. Sending home letters to parents in their native languages is the school’s responsibility.

“It is costly for school and some schools are better than others,” Goeller said. “It’s important that schools are cognizant that New American families have different needs. It’s not that they don’t want to be involved, often they just don’t have the resources to now how.”

In many instances, refugee children’s parents aren’t able to communicate with the teachers, Halima said. The language barrier is much easier to overcome for children than for adults.

“For women to have stronger families, we really need to work with their kids especially because school is so hard for them” Hussein said. “Some will drop out and go to wrong places. The school system here is according to age and you cannot put a child who studies from kindergarten here and has had all the privileges from the school system in the same level.”

The Utah State Board of Education has been a huge support as far as letting families know their rights when it comes to education, said Goeller. The Utah Education Network (UEN) has a website that is designed for supporting refugees and Utahns in finding resources for education.  There are also parent resources specifically for refugee parents, such as translations in 30 languages.

“We see a lot of kids that get really discouraged because they can’t catch up in school or can’t learn English fast enough. We see these kids getting involved in gangs, or substance abuse,” Goeller said. “When we hear about these situations we have social workers visit the families and become involved.”

Despite the many barriers and setbacks refugees face, Hussein firmly believes in the perseverance and resilience of refugees. She has seen many positive changes and is hopeful for the future.

Looking forward, Halima hopes to see thriving, self-sufficient communities. She believes a more personalized and collaborative approach would empower communities to better serve members who are struggling.

“There are 17 communities, each with a woman leader. … So, my dream is to see each community apply for grants and do their own thing,” Hussein said. “And each community can work on something they need specifically. Maybe one community needs to focus on health issues. They can start their own programs — community-based programs. That’s my dream.”

Hussein encourages Utahns to dig deeper and to build friendships with communities that may be different from the mainstream population. “Some people see refugees, but don’t really know them. Many people are surprised by what they find.”

To get involved, read about opportunities to work with refugees in Salt Lake City.