Utah nonprofit, ONErefugee, lending a hand to refugees

Story by KATHERINE ROGERS

Starting college and going out into the workforce are intimidating feats. Most students need all the help they can get, even if it is in their hometown. Then there are some who are facing the prospects, but with challenges many of us can hardly relate to.

They are facing them as refugees — people who were forced to leave their homes for fear of their safety, and are now thrown into an unfamiliar, sometimes unwelcoming environment.

In Utah there is a nonprofit for those who are staring down that road: ONErefugee.

ONErefugee’s goal is to help refugees do the best they can in their new home. This is done through financial aid, mentorship and much more.

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ONErefugee students at a student conference (photo courtesy of O.C. Tanner).

It was started just over five years ago through the Boyer Foundation. Roger Boyer, chairman of the Boyer Company, wanted to do something for the community that would have obvious results. So, he started the Refugee Education Initiative, a program dedicated to helping refugees succeed educationally.

The Refugee Education Initiative did its job, but the people involved noticed something. While the refugees in the program got into college and finished their degrees, they were having problems finding good, fulfilling jobs.

“Education was not the end goal,” says Selma Mlikota, head of careers with ONErefugee. “Good jobs were the end goal.”

At that point, the Refugee Education Initiative started to reach out to O.C. Tanner and other companies, and ONErefugee was founded.

Six Utah companies are involved with ONErefugee, including O.C. Tanner and Intermountain Healthcare.

The program is not focused solely on education anymore, though it is a major part of it. Those involved in ONErefugee also work with the participants on getting jobs. This is important, Mlikota points out, because when people feel fulfilled in their work it is better for the community.

To be accepted into the program an applicant must have a refugee background (whether it’s their own or their parents’ experience), or they must be an approved asylum seeker. ONErefugee have taken refugees from 28 different countries, including Guatemala and Kenya.

They must also be college ready, with at least a 2.5 GPA and have college-level math and English skills.

The program offers no set curriculum for their participants. Instead, ONErefugee tailors a path to fit each refugee’s skills and interests.

Some are in the program for school. ONErefugee helps them with applying for college and scholarships.

Others have already started or finished their education and now just need a good job in their field. That’s where the companies involved in ONErefugee come in. They help with job placement and internships.

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ONErefugee students at a presentation during the student conference (photo courtesy of O.C. Tanner).

This is a symbiotic relationship. These refugees get good jobs in fields they find interesting. The companies get the benefit of adding young, diverse talent to their work force.

Mlikota says the program’s process is how the organization got its name, from working with their participants one-on-one.

One of the most beneficial parts of the program is the access to volunteers.

Some volunteers, like Ken Monson, Ph.D., provide career advice for the newly or soon-to-be graduated refugees in the program.

As an associate professor in engineering at the University of Utah, ONErefugee often sends refugees with degrees in engineering to him when they need help finding a job or help with understanding the American workforce.

Monson recalls one example of a refugee who had an entry-level job at a tech company. He came to Monson concerned that he wasn’t getting the same quality of training as the other employees at his level. The professor provided him with advice on how to speak to his boss about these concerns.

Other volunteers give their time to help the students in the program academically. They will look over English papers and/or tutor them in math or science.

Then there are some who do all of the above, like retired lawyer Mike Jenkins.

Jenkins’ involvement began a year and a half ago, when some friends of his, refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, were trying to find a way to get their daughter into and through college. He wanted to help and, in the process, learned about ONErefugee.

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ONErefugee’s yearly graduation celebration (photo courtesy of O.C. Tanner).

With his retirement approaching, Jenkins knew he would have more free time and ONErefugee called to him.

He helps the participants with writing, and he mentors those who are practicing law or interested in it as a career.

For Jenkins this work is all about connecting with the people he helps. When he meets a man around his age who is a refugee, he sees himself. That empathy is what drives him to keep working with ONErefugee. “I hope someone would help me,” he says.

The women and men who have taken advantage of what ONErefugee has to offer have done some great work. Things like interning in Washington, D.C., for U.S. congressmen and heading the Women of Tomorrow Club at the University of Utah. Articles and videos about their achievements are available on the ONErefugee website.