What happens to refugees who come to Utah?

Story and photo by BLAKE HANSEN

The trek out of danger is only the first step for refugees. Once they arrive in the U.S. it becomes difficult to navigate a new culture, utilize assets and stay afloat. Doctors and lawyers who were once able to comfortably use their education and expertise to take care of their families are left to work minimum wage and start completely over.

ResistanceColombianRefugee

A Colombian refugee living in Salt Lake City.

According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), “The total number is slightly greater than 1.2 million which is above 2017 levels and reflects needs from 63 countries of asylum, from both protracted and more recent refugee situations.”

While some suffering and fear for life may stop upon arrival to the U.S., refugees are faced with a new and unique set of challenges. Some have come with families to provide for, some have come alone, but one thing is always common and it is that these refugees are in a unique, new place with a new set of survival tasks. No longer can they put together tin huts, wait for UN resources to keep them alive, and exist with so many other people in their same situation.

For many refugees who haven’t had much time with the language or culture, they can sometimes find it difficult to look for employment here. Their skills, degrees, and certificates, most of the time, are invalid in the U.S. as well. It is very possible for more refugees to make it here and to flourish but without local help from individual mentorship and entity funding, it is near very difficult.

Jadee Talbot, director of refugee programs at the Granite School District on the southwest end of Salt Lake City, said, “We have had a lot of success with different programs we run here for the refugee community.” The school district manages an app called “Serve Refugees”, which provides information for after-school programs as well as other programs around the community that help refugees integrate. The district has five main community centers, one at each school, and they offer different types of classes for kids, parents and refugees in general, teaching things like computer literacy and different ESL courses as well, all free of charge.

At the Refugee Services office in Salt Lake City, many refugees are receiving help finding housing, jobs and transportation. The department and other organizations like it are helping refugees to get help with some of the essential parts of living in the U.S. but there is still much more needed to help these people integrate fully into society.

Gerald Brown is the state refugee coordinator for the Refugee Services office and he says jobs are slowly getting easier to find. But this isn’t happening without a lot of hard work from programs like the one that Brown runs which help provide refugees with employment in hotels and restaurants doing things like cleaning.

Brown went on to explain that the work they do is meant to teach the refugees how to become self reliant. Refugees are usually supported for about six to eight months before they have to be cut off from funding and assume responsibility for themselves. This time is crucial for both program administrators like Brown and the refugees receiving support to learn and develop the skills needed to prosper in the U.S.

They start to learn English if they don’t already know it, they learn about how to transport themselves, where things are, how to shop, as well as what kinds of skills they have and where they can be utilized for employment locally.

“Programs like this don’t typically do enough for the refugees, simply because the resources can only go so far. At the end of the day, a doctor from Somalia cannot practice here in the U.S. Some refugees come from such starkly different backgrounds and cultures that they don’t know how to get anywhere once they leave their apartments other than by walking. They almost always cannot make enough money to support themselves, let alone families.” Brown said.

Community members also can help refugees integrate into the Salt Lake Valley by volunteering with organizations such as the Refugee Services office. They are always looking for volunteers as well as donations of different types. Many people who cannot volunteer due to varying circumstances, who would otherwise enjoy volunteering can always donate to any of the agencies in town who help refugees to settle in and get to living a normal life and those donations are always greatly appreciated.