From civil unrest to the crossroads of the West: The young refugee’s journey to Salt Lake City

Story and slideshow by BLAKE HANSEN

 The current worldwide refugee issue continues to grow. In fact, the World Economic Forum reported in June 2017 that one out of every 113 people on the planet is now a refugee. A refugee is made every three seconds due to life-threatening violence and persecution worldwide.

Under United States law, “a refugee is someone who is located outside of the United States, is of special humanitarian concern to the United States, demonstrates that they were persecuted or fear persecution due to race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group, is not firmly resettled in another country and is admissible to the United States.”

In order to be granted access to a new life here in Utah, refugees go through an extensive approval process. But do you know what that process is and what it’s like for young refugees to start an education here?

Refugees must first receive a referral to the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) for consideration as a refugee. After receiving a referral for application, refugees must apply and then wait for an interview where a USRAP official will decide whether or not they are eligible to be considered a refugee. Only after that interview, which can sometimes be months to years of waiting, can one be granted official status as a refugee.

Before and after receiving official status, refugees typically live in refugee camps until they are granted access to the U.S. These camps are mostly makeshift communities as there are more people in need of help than the help that is available. Some camps are better equipped than others. A lot of the time, however, people will build or rebuild huts or tents out of the available supplies lying around in the camps.

Refugees who live in these camps are almost always dependent on the local organizations for things like food, water and living supplies. The UN Refugee Agency is a leading organization that provides care for refugees but most camps are managed by the UNHCR as well as other assorted local entities as the needs continue to increase.

The UNHCR gives refugees a stipend of roughly $30 per month, which is never enough to live off of. In fact, most refugees actually do their best to return to their old line of work once living in refugee camps.

The UNHCR estimates that “60 percent of working age refugees are employed to some degree. Even 13 percent of children labor some, a number missing school as a result.”

In Salt Lake City, refugee children are getting help accessing education, but not without a fight. Alexx Goeller is the refugee youth services coordinator at the state Refugee Services Office and she oversees state budget allotments for programs that help young refugees to integrate into life and education here in Utah. “This funding is directly correlated with how many refugees the government allows to enter the U.S.,” Goeller said. The recent cut in refugees allowed into the U.S. directly correlates to the proceedings in her office. “People here are already seeing the effects of the cutting. Less funding not only affects new refugees who are trying to integrate, but it also affects refugees who have been here for five years and are still utilizing these programs,” Goeller said.

Speaking of education, the UNHCR also reported that roughly “3.5 million refugee children did not attend school in 2016. Only 61 percent of refugee children attend primary school, compared with a global average of 91 percent.”

Out of the refugee children who do make it to primary school while in camps or otherwise dislodged from their homes, only 1 percent of those children move on to any form of higher education. This is compared to the rest of the world’s 36 percent average for making it to a form of higher education.

Michelle Love-Day, associate director of educational equity at Granite School District in Salt Lake City, is in charge of the district’s student refugee programs. She manages multiple district-wide programs and they are meant to help integrate these children who haven’t had very many opportunities in terms of education.

The Tumaini Welcome and Transition Center, a Granite school district program managed by Love-Day, helps newcomer students successfully transition into their home schools. Participants receive an intensive two-week instructional program focusing on academic and social skills in English.

The district also has a language academy for the older kids that takes place at Cottonwood High School as well as a summer school for all school ages called Jump Start. These programs are all meant to help refugee children integrate into the American schooling system successfully.

“These refugee students have a lot of resilience, they’re eager to learn. They want more and they come ready. Their resilience is astonishing,” Love-Day said in a telephone interview. “The students coming to us are bringing culture and language that you couldn’t even imagine. I couldn’t imagine being a teacher and not being able to use my skills in a different country.”

Granite School District also has a community center with community integration programs for all refugees. These programs are for parents, students and refugees without kids alike. Everyone can benefit from the community programs that Granite offers. For more on those programs and tools please see “What happens to Refugees who come to Utah?


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