Bev Uipi, Marc Roberts, Jake Fitisemanu Jr. — Pacific Islanders in Utah politics

“If we truly believe in government that is by, for, and of the people,” Jake Fitisemanu Jr. said, “then by definition our governmental bodies should represent the makeup of our communities.”

Story by DIEGO ROMO

In the current social climate of the United States, even a half-mention of the word politics sends many fleeing. The word conjures feelings of distrust, misuse and abuse. But, in Utah’s Pacific Islander community, there is a different story to be told — a story of values, community and customs.

Bev Uipi, Marc Roberts and Jake Fitisemanu Jr. are three Utahns of Pacific Islander descent who are serving their communities in various governmental and political roles across the Wasatch Front. Their backgrounds and stories are unique and diverse, but the culture of community that has always run through the veins of Pacific Islander history connects them all and drives their political outlooks. This trait seems at odds with the current culture of American politics.

For Millcreek City Councilwoman Bev Uipi, politics is no unfamiliar game. The daughter of the only Tongan, and first Pacific Islander, to be elected to the Utah State Legislature, Uipi knows what it means to be truly at the service of her community. And through this firsthand experience of her father’s tenure as a Utah state legislator, she figured she would never put her name on the ballot.

“When he ran, I thought I would never do this,” Uipi said.

But all of that changed when Uipi was studying for a master’s degree in public administration at the University of Utah. It was there that she found a new interest in city management, which sparked the idea to run for office.

Uipi found herself conflicted as she was faced with the decision to pursue a path she never thought she would be traveling.

“For all of that pushback you’d think I wouldn’t want to run, but I did,” added Uipi.

And in 2016 Bev Uipi put her name in the hat for the office of Millcreek city councilmember for District 4 and won by a landslide. Uipi credits the win to the fact that her campaign had far more resources than all of the other campaigns.

“We raised and spent more money than all other campaigns combined,” Uipi said. “I learned a lot of strategies from Dad.”

When she was a young girl, her father told her “Don’t think outside the box, live outside the box.” Phil Uipi also spent time teaching his children about their Tongan heritage and about the epic stories of transoceanic voyages that their ancestors undertook. He shared, too, their keen ability to adapt to new situations and places because they were frequently on the move.

“We were given the skills to survive this far,” Phil Uipi would say, encouraging his children to pursue their dreams.

Uipi credits these lessons with her ability to navigate the very white, very male world of Utah politics.

“Water moves, so does politics,” Uipi said, commenting on her ability to adapt fluidly in this strange environment.

Marc Roberts, state representative for Utah’s 67th district, also never saw himself running for office. But, in 2012, he found himself in a new district after the 2010 census called for redistricting within the state. This change led him to become a more active member of his community, and eventually to office.

Roberts’ fellow community members noticed his newfound passion and encouraged him to run for a leadership position within his community.

“I was looking at people like, you’re crazy, I don’t want to do that,” Roberts said in a telephone interview. “But, push came to shove.”

Roberts ran against four longtime and well respected residents in his community and beat them in the caucus.

“I still remember going to vote. Sitting there standing in line realizing that everyone there is going to vote for me,” Roberts added. “And here I am in jeans and a hoodie looking like a regular guy.”

Roberts grew up in a very large family: nine siblings to be exact. And although he was reared in a household that taught him the core values that are prevalent in many Pacific Islander families, he was not raised in a home where Polynesian culture was at the forefront.

“I’m one foot in, one foot out when it comes to the Pacific Islander community,” he said.

But to Roberts, like many Pacific Islanders, family has always come first.

“To me family is the first level of government,” Roberts said. And that is how he views his role as a political leader in his community. “The stronger the family, the stronger the community.”

Jake Fitisemanu Jr., the current West Valley City councilman for District 4, grew up in both Hawaii and Utah. He never saw himself running for office, either. But during his time in college, Fitisemanu came to find himself elected to student senate on somewhat of a whim.

“I didn’t really campaign in any formal way, I just put my name on the ballot and hoped for the best,” Fitisemanu said in an email interview. “To be completely honest, at that stage in my life, I felt that getting involved would be great for my resumé. It wasn’t really out of a sense of civic duty, but more like an experiential challenge.”

Fast forward a few years and the experience that he thought would only be a footnote on his resumé became a full-time responsibility as the new councilman for West Valley City’s District 4.

In this new position, he hoped to connect his community to policies and resources that would impact their lives in a positive way.

“I feel like local government is the closest access point for everyday people to connect with the policies that impact our daily lives. I wanted to help improve the community where I live and I knew that representing my neighbors on the city council would be an effective and meaningful way to do that,” Fitisemanu said.

Regardless of their background, it seems that for most Pacific Islanders, it all comes back to the family and to the community, which makes them great candidates for leadership positions in their communities. Unfortunately, there are not enough role models in the community.

According to a 2016 article in “@ the U,” Representative Marc Roberts was one of four Pacific Islanders who were elected and had served in some form of Utah politics. That is only four out of about 37,000 Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders who reside in Utah, according to 2010 census data. Millcreek City Councilwoman Bev Uipi credits these staggeringly low numbers to representative bureaucracy.

Something has to change.

“If we truly believe in government that is by, for, and of the people,” Fitisemanu said, “then by definition our governmental bodies should represent the makeup of our communities.”

The consequences of COFA for Utah’s Micronesians

Story and photos by MARISSA SITTLER

Sitting in a third-grade classroom, surrounded by miniature sized chairs, bright colors and other seemingly “elementary” things can make what is outside of those four walls seem inconsequential. Yet, the words that Melsihna Folau speaks about the Compact of Free Association, or COFA, inside the classroom are quite the opposite.

Folau is a third-grade teacher at the Pacific Heritage Academy charter school in Salt Lake City. She is one of some 2,300 Micronesians living in Utah, as reported by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2016. She is Micronesian, born in Pohnpei, but has lived in Utah since 1989 and is married to a U.S. citizen. Folau chose not to become a U.S. citizen, despite being married to one. She says being able to have that connection to her roots holds a sentimental feeling for her. 

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Melsihna Folau continues to work as a third-grade teacher at Pacific Heritage Academy in addition to passionately fighting for Micronesians’ rights.

COFA was signed in 1982 between the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) and the United States to “provide for U.S. economic assistance (including eligibility for certain U.S. federal programs), defense of the FSM, and other benefits in exchange for U.S. defense and certain other operating rights in the FSM, denial of access to FSM territory by other nations, and other agreements,” according to USCompact.org.

Under the COFA federal law, Micronesians in Utah are not U.S. citizens. This means that they do not hold a permanent ID. They must renew their driver licenses every year, which is a time- consuming process. In a situation like Folau’s, she must take a few hours off from her teaching to wait in line at the DMV for license renewal.

In some cases, she says it can take months for licenses to arrive. For families who do not have relatives already settled in the United States, that waiting period can be harmful to their financial well-being. Folau says, “Anytime you’re new, you know you have to put food on the table, you have to work and with the little money you have, six months of waiting. People don’t understand that six months of waiting, it’s a detrimental thing for a family that is just new.”

 It was not until 2010 that she became aware of the limitations that Micronesians have in Utah. Folau went to renew her driver license at the Utah Division of Motor Vehicles and started getting questioned when an agent told her that she was part of COFA. She was equipped with all the right documentation, but was given a hard time. The DMV agent said, “It’s part of September 11,” and “We need to protect our borders,” referring to the REAL ID Act of 2005. This instance is what sparked Folau’s research into the COFA bill. She heard rumors about the mistreatment of Micronesians in Utah, but did not think much of the gossip at the time. “Stories will be stories until you experience that,” she thought.

The REAL ID Act of 2005 changed everything for Micronesians in Utah. Folau says, “Most of us have been here in the United States for ages, you know, lived, schooled, worked, law-abiding citizens.” The REAL ID Act clumped Micronesians, being under the protection of the United States, as non-citizens who have indefinite stay. “We’re not illegals, we are treated like one. It’s just frustrating for somebody that’s lived here freely all these years,” Folau says about the injustices that COFA has created for Micronesians in Utah.

On Micronesian driver licenses, the word “limited” appears. This draws questioning from state and federal entities. “Banks question you. Any agency that hires you questions you and any cop that catches you wherever you are, questions you,” Folau says. A non-permanent ID can make it difficult for Micronesians to rent or buy a house. “Some people are OK with what we call ‘sardine,’” where families live in very close quarters, but she adds that it can only take a couple years for there to be friction and meltdowns within a household. A recurring question that Folau has is, “Why are these things happening when it’s not necessary?”

Bryan Boaz, who is part of the Marshallese community in Utah, noted in an email interview that COFA negatively impacts Micronesians in more ways than housing alone. Boaz wrote that it affects the Marshallese people in Utah “in employment, school, doctor and all the state and government assistance because of our status.”

Folau and other Micronesians have taken it upon themselves to try to correct the injustices of COFA by working on putting together a bill that is modeled after one that successfully passed in Oregon. Jake Fitisemanu Jr., councilmember for District 4 in West Valley City, Utah, says that their main goals are: 1) to redefine COFA citizens, 2) to obtain permanent state licenses for Micronesians and 3) to extend Medicaid, although he notes that their third goal may be less likely.

Jake Fitisemanu Jr. after speaking to University of Utah students about the Pacific Islander community.

In addition, Folau also wants the bill to recognize the differences of the Micronesian people, which she adds will require a lot of public education. She says, “Yeah, we’re Micronesians, but we’re not one group. We don’t speak each other’s languages. Even here in Utah with a very highly educated population, people are still calling me Polynesian.”

Folau and the others who are trying to re-work the COFA bill have not been able to find someone in Utah’s senate to sponsor it. With support from community resource groups including Pacific Island Knowledge 2 Action Resources, the Utah Pacific Islander Civic Engagement Coalition, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah, and advice from the Oregon group of COFA Alliance National Network, they have encountered great empathy and help. Despite this, Folau says, “We are just not moving forward at this time.”

Their next steps entail resilience and perseverance. Folau says the Micronesian group will keep “being patient and going from there. We’re not going to give up, it’s been eight years, so we’ll keep going until somebody sees this is really an injustice.”

Refugee Services Office, Catholic Community Services support integration of refugees in Utah

Story and slideshow by BLAKE LANCASTER

When a refugee resettles in a new country, oftentimes they are in a new community with new rules, a new language and a new culture. How do they approach this challenging situation and become integrated members of American society? Organizations such as Utah’s Refugee Services Office can help with the transition.

Gerald Brown is currently an assistant director and state refugee coordinator at the Refugee Services Office, which is one of these organizations. The Refugee Services Office help refugees learn English, find and gain skills for employment and build connections with locals who can help show them the way things work in their new community.

Brown became interested in working with refugees during a year-long trip to Egypt with the YMCA where he experienced a culture with hardship unlike what we know in America. This sparked his passion for social justice. He went on the service trip expecting to help people, but when he finished he realized he learned the most.

Since his eye-opening service trip, Brown has worked in refugee agencies from Houston to New York to Cuba before becoming one of the godfathers of major Utah refugee programs.

For several years, Utah held monthly town hall meetings to discuss the state of refugee resettlement programs in Utah. In 2008, Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. approved the addition of refugee services and Brown was appointed to direct and lead the new program toward success.

Brown hasn’t stopped serving refugees since then and can be credited with the efficient success the Refugee Services Offices is able to accomplish when it comes to the integration process.

“If you can accomplish integration, then you have the strongest community possible,” Brown said.

From all of his experiences, one of the things Brown has learned that he stresses is understanding the important distinction between integration and assimilation.

Integration can be defined as incorporating individuals from different groups into a society as equals. Though similar, assimilation means to adopt the ways of the new culture and fully become part of it resulting in an immense loss of cultural identity.

Danielle Stamos, public relations and marketing director for Catholic Community Services, said it is important we make it acceptable and comfortable for refugees to continue their traditions and maintain their culture.

“Not only do they preserve their culture, but they also share their culture with the community in Utah,” Stamos said. “I love when we see refugee communities creating their own events taking some of their traditions from their own countries and implementing them here.”

Catholic Community Services is another organization with programs in place to help refugees integrate into Utah. Catholic Community Services provides case managers to refugees as they are resettled in Utah who help them get on their feet. They provide them with housing, teach them the way the American system works when it comes to everyday life, help them learn the language, find them jobs, and much more.

One way Stamos suggested the everyday community member could help with integration is approaching refugees and being welcoming and friendly. If, however, you’re really feeling ambitious and eager to get involved, finding an organization that helps refugees and interests you to volunteer with can be rewarding to all parties involved.

“Once you work one-on-one with a refugee you can see daily how easy it can be to help support them in their goals and support them in maintaining their culture,” Stamos said. “There will always be a lot of fear out there of change and things that are different, but if we instead embrace it we can see how much more strong and beautiful our community and relationships can be if we share and work together.”

Nirmala Kattel provides a unique understanding of assisting the integration process of refugees as she is a refugee herself as well as an employee at the Refugee Education and Training Center.

The Refugee Education and Training Center is located at the Meadowbrook campus of Salt Lake Community College where Kattel also attends as a student. Kattel said one of the center’s most popular services utilized by refugees is help with jobs similar to Catholic Community Services, but the Education and Training Center is there to help after refugees no longer have their initial case manager.

Another popular service at the center that Kattel has noticed are the English classes. Some refugees come with very limited knowledge of the English language, which is a key hurdle for refugees to clear as once they can surpass the language barrier, it makes the rest of the steps in the integration process a little easier.

Kattel came to Utah as a refugee from Nepal in 2009 and quickly learned that isolation is another of the bigger barriers refugees face upon arrival for her and other refugees alike. She had to wait six years before the rest of her family was able to resettle in America.

“Refugees who come alone feel isolated and depressed missing their families and their past lives, so involvement and engagement in outside activities can help them through these feelings,” Kattel said.

Kattel said the elderly refugees can especially struggle with the isolation and loneliness. Since they don’t have a job or school to go to, it confines their reasons to leave their home. This seclusion can lead to difficulties with learning English and understanding the system of our community as a whole.

“The system is hard to understand at first. Refugees from almost everywhere come from somewhere with a totally different system in their countries or the refugee camps they waited in before coming here,” Kattel said.

Showing interest in refugees as a person and who they are culturally can help them with almost all of their integration barriers. Additionally, it can make them feel more comfortable in sharing their culture with their new community. Kattel said a friend with experience in the community always proves to be a valuable asset to refugees trying to make sense of their new home and sharing their cultural values.

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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.

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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.

 

Social media fundraising for refugees: A dream nightmare come true

Story and slideshow by JACE BARRACLOUGH

The creation of social media has connected people worldwide. For some, it’s a tool used to help refugees of war-torn countries. Through various organizations, a person can simply click a link that redirects them to a donation site where they can send money to provide relief to refugees struggling to survive financially, medically and educationally. But, knowing where the money is going is crucial.

Humanwire is a website geared toward assisting refugee families. It claims 100 percent of donations go to the cause. It was founded by Andrew Baron in Boulder, Colorado, in November 2015. It has marketed itself by encouraging its followers to share personal stories of their supported refugee families and donation campaigns via social media. Just like most businesses, Humanwire understands that word of mouth from those you trust bridges the gap between hesitation and execution when it comes to buying a product — or in this case, donating money.

“I was made aware of it because of another friend who posted about it on social media,” says Molly Jackson of Park City, Utah, in a phone interview. “When I saw her experience and how easy it was … [I said] I’m going to do that.”

Humanwire allows donors to choose a refugee family to support by way of social media-like profiles on its website. The amount that is donated, whether all at once or collectively, allows donors greater or lesser degrees of interaction with the family. Individuals providing smaller donations are awarded limited information about the family they have sponsored, whereas larger donations allow you to interact with them via live-stream on Skype.

Jackson says she hasn’t donated or posted about it for months. However, she receives email notifications that friends and strangers alike continue to donate to her chosen family as a result of her old social media posts. She’s received single donations to her Humanwire account totaling $1,000 to support her refugee family. Some are from people she doesn’t even know.

“It’s as easy as posting an Instagram post,” she says. “You just say, ‘Look at these people. They are in need. I’m the host. Here’s the link. Donate your money.’”

Trusting that their friends and loved ones are vetting the organization, it has left little thought for many to follow through with the research portion of the company before handing over their hard-earned dollars.

In the summer of 2017 it was claimed in a YouTube video, posted by Humanwire’s co-founder Andrew Baron, that the director of its “Tent to Home” program, Anna Segur, had stolen $10,000 via ATM withdrawals.

“The theft was followed by intense slander, criminal activity and harassment,” Baron says in the description portion of his video. “She caused many people to join her cause, misleading volunteers to believe that she owns and controls Tent to Home, and causing many of our staff members to quit out of pure fear for her slander.”

The other co-founder of Humanwire, Mona Ayoub, was living in Lebanon, taking care of the company’s donations, schools, students, teachers, employees, and registering refugees. In August 2017 after the funds stopped, Ayoub said via Facebook Messenger, she flew to the United States to get to the bottom of the issue. Unfortunately, she discovered Baron had mismanaged the funds and misrepresented the way they were being used. She said Baron claimed the money had gone toward operating costs even though Humanwire had promised all donated funds would go to the refugees.

In September 2017, Baron later admitted to the Denver Post to have taken as much as $80,000 over the last two years. However, after a police investigation, it was discovered that Baron had taken over $100,000 from Humanwire and was arrested on felony charges of charity fraud and theft.

Ayoub submitted her letter of resignation on November 1, 2017.

“Had I known the extent of mismanagement and misrepresentation prior to traveling to the United States, I would have resigned immediately,” Ayoub said.

Yet more problems have surfaced since the claims against Humanwire. The organization has started to lose its partnerships with other organizations dedicated to helping refugees.

“Standing With Alana” is a group whose mission is bringing awareness and aid to the Yezidi people from Syria who are facing a genocide at the hands of ISIS.

On October 8, 2017, Standing With Alana announced via Facebook, “Standing With Alana is no longer working through Humanwire due to financial problems within the organization. We are now communicating directly through Yezidi Emergency Support (YES).”

Yezidi Emergency Support team leader Anne Norona was one of Humanwire’s contacts overseas. As Baron tried to extinguish the flames of ridicule on Humanwire’s Facebook page, Norona added more fuel by expressing her frustrations in a reply to Baron’s YouTube video, which he later shared on Humanwire’s Faceboook page.

“I asked you in JUNE to send the money when I last went to Iraq,” she says. “There are FOUR Yezidi families you owe a LOT of money to.”

With allegations publicized, both internally and from its partners, it has left donors wondering what happened with the money intended to help their refugee families.

“I did photo shoots and donated all the money I made to them,” says Terra Cooper of Syracuse, Utah. “It was a sacrifice for my family since usually that’s how I pay for our Christmas.”

Through Humanwire, donors like Cooper have their own financial account to hold money for their refugee family. Whenever the family needs certain items they can use that money to purchase them on Humanwire’s site and have it delivered by local representatives. At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work?

“I’ve released money for surgeries and medical bills and they’ll send me a picture of them holding the check,” Cooper said in a phone interview. “They’ve been good at sending that kind of stuff.”

However, she says she’s noticed over the last few months things haven’t quite been the same. Cooper has had approximately $1,000 left of the $3,000 she raised in her family’s account, but she has been unable to use it.

“I’ve been trying to release that $1,000 for their rent for three or four months and it still hasn’t been released,” she says. “I have been emailing them and I haven’t heard back.”

Cooper even went as far as commenting on Humanwire’s Facebook page asking for answers, but says her post was deleted by the company. When trying to get in touch with her point of contact, she was made aware that person had left the organization.

“I’m sick about it,” she says. “I don’t care about me, though. That money was supposed to be rent money for my refugee family.”

Cooper’s love for her refugee family, with whom she has kept in contact, is what has fueled her to investigate the dealings of her funds. After all, at the end of the day it’s the refugees, not the donors, who suffer the biggest loss.

“The organization did do a lot of good in the beginning,” says Laurel Sandberg-Armstrong, a donor of Humanwire. “My guess is they expanded too fast and lost control,” She said in a phone interview.

The Federal Trade Commission encourages anyone who is thinking about donating to a charity to do research beforehand. Well-known organizations such as the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Rescue Committee (IRC) are generally good options for those wanting to donate.

Humanwire was contacted for comment. An employee replied via Facebook Messenger saying the accusations were misunderstood and they still encourage people to support their organization.

“Humanwire is awesome,” a representative from Humanwire said in a Facebook message. “Please give it a try and see for yourself.”

 

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Tom Huynh brings experience as Vietnamese refugee to West Valley City Council

Story and photo by EMILY ANDERSON

When he first arrived at Philippine First Asylum Center (PFAC) in the island province Palawan from Vietnam, Tom Huynh was shocked by the “horrible” conditions of the camp.

“It was a sad place, very depressing,” Huynh said. “But people had no choice.”

He was immediately placed in a 12-by-12 room with seven other people. His unit was given a card identifying everyone in the flat, which allowed them to obtain two cups of rice, one piece of broccoli and two pieces of fish to be divided among the occupants each day.

As Huynh was standing in line to collect the food during his first few days in the camp, he met a man in his 60s. The man told Huynh that he had a lot to learn in the coming years — the refugee camp was a whole new world.

The pair arrived at the front of the line. The fish given to the man was rotten, although there was a heap of fresh fish behind the refugee who had been assigned to pass out the rations. Huynh said he protested the unjust treatment, but the man stopped him. He told Huynh the pile of newly-caught fish was being saved for the distributor’s family and friends.

After thanking Huynh for standing up for him, the man said, “Tom, promise me that if you’re ever in a position of power, you will treat people fairly.”

Huynh said he has always remembered the man’s plea and it has influenced the way he lives his life.

Vietnamese refugee Tom Huynh has served on the West Valley City Council for six years.

Since coming to the U.S., Huynh has pursued a career in politics while working as a real estate agent. He was elected to the West Valley City Council in 2011, and is in his second term in the District 1 seat.

Huynh’s journey to government leadership began with his father’s efforts to defend his own government.

Journey to Safety

In the aftermath of the Cambodian-Vietnamese war, in which the Socialist Republic of Vietnam invaded Democratic Kampuchea to remove the Khmer Rouge from power, the Vietnamese military continued to fight against armed Cambodian groups who opposed the new regime until 1989.

The government continued to tap all men above age 18 for military service. Many of Huynh’s friends had been drafted to patrol the Cambodian borders. Many were killed. Some returned home with missing limbs, he said.

Huynh’s father, a South Vietnamese soldier, was killed in the Vietnam War when Huynh was 5 years old. This left his mother to care for her children alone, which included bribing military officials to keep Huynh out of the military.

When the financial pressure on his mother became too great, Huynh said he fled the country on a boat with his 15-year-old sister Tiet in 1986 to avoid being conscripted.

Between 1975 and 1995, others were leaving the country to escape economic despair brought on by U.S. sanctions and destruction left in the wake of the Vietnam War.

Huynh and 99 other refugees packed into a boat that was approximately 10 feet by 30 feet. The group was so densely crowded that Huynh was confined to a singular spot the entire trip.

At one point on the journey, the boat became lost. The party ran out of food and water, then people began dying.

“Everyone was scared to the point that they were like, ‘I see you and you see me, but we’re not human beings anymore,’” Huynh said. “They knew they were going to die.”

It was a miracle that Huynh made it to the refugee camp, he said.

“At that moment, I was not a religious guy,” Huynh said. “But I looked into the sky and I said, ‘I really don’t want to die. I’m only 19. So please help me out.’”

When he arrived, Philippine First Asylum Camp hosted about 3,000 people on approximately 1 square mile of land. The refugees were desperate and crime rates were high.

“There was everything there,” Huynh said. “I witnessed a fight where someone stabbed someone else about 2 or 3 feet from me, for no reason really — it was over the water.”

Huynh was trying to avoid being lured into crime like the other men his age in the camp, he said, so he volunteered to pass out mail to other refugees.

“I didn’t want to waste my time,” Huynh said. “I like to work, and the employees at the camp center could see that.”

After three months, he was promoted to deputy of the planning commission. His job was to keep records of how many people were staying in each housing unit, then assign rooms to new arrivals.

“It kept me very busy, all day every day,” Huynh said. “I was lucky, because then I stayed out of trouble.”

Despite the success he found in the camp, Huynh wanted out. The refugees were plagued with rampant alcoholism, drug addiction and violence, while many young women were forced into sex work as a means to make money.

Six months after Huynh arrived at the camp, representatives from the U.N. came to interview refugees to be considered for admission into the U.S. They prioritized people like Huynh, who were children of South Vietnamese soldiers. However, there was one stipulation — refugees had to provide multiple documents to prove their parents’ position.

“My dad sacrificed his life, so I had the privilege to go to the city center to speak with the delegation,” Huynh said.

Huynh slid his father’s military ID — one of the few things he brought on the boat — across the table at his meeting with a U.N. official. This was the only document he had, because his mother, like many other South Vietnamese, burned documents connecting their family to the American forces to avoid persecution from the new government.

The official, whose name Huynh recalled as Pam, told him that although she wanted to sponsor him, she couldn’t. The ID wasn’t enough documentation to prove that he was the son of a South Vietnamese soldier.

Huynh said he began to worry that he would never be able to leave the camp.

Then, as part of what Huynh called another miracle, there were a series of coup attempts on the Filipino government — one of which resulted in a fierce battle on the streets of Palawan.

The U.S. government became concerned about the welfare of refugees on the island, so it gave a number of those living in PFAC another opportunity to be interviewed for acceptance into the country. Huynh was given a second chance to get out.

Although Huynh was unable to obtain additional documentation, the official he met with told him he had been cleared to leave the camp, and would be transported to the Philippine Refugee Processing Center (PRPC) in Bataan. His next and final stop would be the U.S.

He left PFAC in 1987. Soon after, the U.N. stopped accepting refugees into the camp and began reducing its size. Some people volunteered to return to Vietnam, while others fought the guards and committed suicide.

Huynh was elated to be relieved of the uncertainty associated with being a refugee.

“You don’t know where you’re going to go, where you’re going to end up or how your life is going to be,” he said. “Are they going to send you back to Vietnam? Are they going to send you to Canada, Australia or somewhere else? You just don’t know. Your destination, your life, depends on someone else. It leaves you feeling powerless and useless.”

While at PRPC, Huynh met missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who were teaching English.

He said he was curious about the religion, because he had been on a quest to find the right religion for him since his plea to God earlier on the boat. Huynh’s family was Buddhist, and he previously attended Catholic and Baptist churches.

“I just wanted something that felt comfortable,” he said. “At the Mormon church, I had a sense that they were nice people.”

When Huynh was processed and relocated to the U.S., he was baptized into the church and served a mission in Washington, D.C., from 1990 to 1992. Huynh credited the changes the religion forced him to make and the lessons he learned on his mission for many of his life’s successes.

“I wanted a different path in my life, and my decision brought me to where I am today,” he said.

Ongoing Political Journey

Huynh later graduated from Brigham Young University with a degree in Asian studies. Upon graduation, he was appointed president of the Vietnamese Community of Utah. He hopes to eventually go to law school, but for now he wants to continue his political career.

“Politics are very complex,” Huynh said. “In China, Vietnam or any communist country, they don’t trust government. They don’t trust police. Then when [people from those countries] come here, they stay away from government and police — but I want to be different. I want to do something to help people around me.”

His determination to forge a path for marginalized communities in politics not only increases the diversity of voices at the table, but also encourages other minorities to be involved in the community.

“It is inspiring to see someone so close to home break down socio-cultural barriers and proving that we are capable of taking on larger roles like politics,” said the Vietnamese-American Student Association at the University of Utah in a prepared statement. “The younger Vietnamese-American can often feel detached from the government due to lack of [Vietnamese] representation, often discouraging them from participating in civic engagement. Tom Huynh’s position as the West Valley City Councilman empowers the younger generation and encourages them to strive toward active political awareness.”

Caren Frost, the director of the Center for Research on Migration and Refugee Integration at the University of Utah, said in a telephone interview that civic engagement is the last step of integration for a refugee. She feels that as Huynh continues to succeed, his political involvement will extend beyond Vietnamese-Americans to inspire all refugees in Utah.

“If a refugee is visible in the community participating in government, then all refugees will feel more comfortable taking the next step and getting involved,” Frost said.

As a city councilman, Huynh focuses on mending the problems of not just refugees, but other groups who are also frequently forgotten. He reaches out to senior citizens in the community to listen to their perspective. Since 2013, Huynh has gone on twice-monthly ride-alongs with police in an effort to solve the city’s crime problem.

“In government, you can change things,” Huynh said. “And that’s what I’m doing.”

Gerald Brown, the dedicated man behind Salt Lake City’s refugee community

Story and photos by KAYA DANAE

Gerald Brown, the assistant director of refugee services and state refugee coordinator at the Utah Department of Workforce Services, has lived a life dedicated to refugees.

Gerald Brown at his office in the Utah Refugee Education & Training Center at 250 W. 3900 South, Bldg. B.

Born and raised in North Carolina, Brown’s passion for humanitarian work began after college, when he spent two years working in Cairo, Egypt, developing programs for the YMCA. He then went on to teach English in Taiwan for a little over a year. When he returned to the U.S. he inquired about jobs that meshed with the work that he had been doing overseas. He learned about a refugee resettlement program in the U.S. that had started while he was out of the country. He got a job at its Houston location, where he says his real education began.

The first family Brown helped resettle was Cambodian. They arrived the same day Brown started his job. “There were four people in the family. A father, mother, baby and a little boy– the little boy was very malnourished,” Brown said.

A photo given to Brown when he left his job in Houston. The man holding the sign is the Cambodian refugee whom Brown hired. Photo courtesy of Gerald Brown.

“They had been at the Khmer Rouge forced labor camps. The father told me their story and I couldn’t believe it. They were almost starved to death, it was very, very brutal,”  he said.

Throughout the ’70s tens of thousands of Cambodians fled to the Thai border because of the ongoing civil war and U.S.- led bombings. Khmer Rouge was a rebel-political group that established makeshift camps along the Thai border where Cambodian refugees were living under awful conditions. About one-fourth of the 8 million Cambodian people were murdered or starved during this time.

Brown spent four years working as a refugee resettlement job developer in Houston, and established a relationship with the father. Brown ended up hiring him to work the night shift at the refugee welcome center. The family has gone on to own a home and live a happy, healthy life, Brown said.

“He taught me that people are very resilient. It’s possible to overcome horrible experiences and go on. This job has shown me what people are capable of,” he said.

Brown was later hired as the director of refugee resettlement in New York City, where he met his wife and lived for 13 years. He began working for Asylum Corp. in 1995 and led a project where he brought social workers into Haiti with a military operation. After four years he felt restricted by the position and left.

He and his wife moved to Kanab, Utah, where he worked remotely giving technical assistance to a resettlement organization in Washington, D.C. Through this position he traveled to Saudi Arabia, where he worked with a U.S.- vetting organization. He also traveled to Macedonia, where he worked to prepare refugees for asylum, and Croatia, where he conducted the UN’s initial interview for Bosnian refugees.

Rachel Appel, the volunteer coordinator for the Know Your Neighbor Volunteer Program, has worked closely with Brown and emphasized his breadth of knowledge on refugees. “If I ever have any kind of question, he has the answer. He knows the policy, the cultural aspect of working with refugees, the history of refugees in the U.S. — really just all-encompassing,” Appel said. “He’s got really strong relationships with refugees here in Salt Lake City. One of the refugees, Joe Nahas, once said to me, ‘That man’s got heart,’ which just perfectly describes Gerald.”

Brown said with a smile, “I think working with refugees has enriched my personal life. It’s hard to imagine the two (work and personal life) being separate.” 

Utah Refugee Education & Training Center, where Brown, Appel, and Dulal work.

Gyanu Dulal, the refugee center program coordinator at the Utah Department of Workforce services, was a refugee from Bhutan. He recalls Brown’s dedication to his work. “I was introduced to Gerald in 2008 by one of our community members. Since then I have a very good relationship with him. I have never seen anybody so dedicated, motivated and committed to help the refugees.”

Dulal continues, “In these nine years that I have been working with him, I have never seen him say this cannot be done. Every refugee here has access to his personal cell phone. He is willing to talk to anyone at any time to find help the best way he can.”

Speaking about the most challenging aspect of his job, Brown said, “The way they (refugees) have been treated is infuriating. It’s very depressing and it just keeps getting worse and worse it seems. And that’s hard. I’ve had a hard time working within bureaucracy. There’s always red tape when you just want to cut to it and get stuff done. But, you know, you do what you can do.”

Brown quickly turned to the most rewarding aspect of his job. “Knowing refugees,” he said. “I know several people that have come out of camp with nothing. They are totally shell shocked, and there is PTSD and you just wonder how in the world are they ever going to make it, and they do. It’s perseverance, you know? It shows you what people can be capable of.”

While working with refugees has benefitted Brown in his personal life, Dulal emphasized how Brown has benefitted the refugee community.

“His tireless and dedicated effort to the Refugee Resettlement Center has been so helpful for all refugee communities to get the support that they need. We have employment, treatment, education, everything here. And this is a hub for people to come and learn about refugees as well, so it is an integrating space. Gerald reaches out to individuals to come forward, learn about refugees, make friends with refugees, that way they understand each other and help.”

Pamphlets advertising resources available to refugees.

Becoming emotional, Dulal said, “Gerald is the man I have known, he’s the best person I have ever found in my life. If anybody has a heart for the refugees, and knows more about refugees than anyone, it’s Mr. Gerald Brown. I have never found anybody so willing and so open to help refugees.”

Brown stressed the importance of education – learning about the global refugee crisis and understanding the situations facing people who are forced to flee their homes due to war and persecution.“Refugee resettlement is incredibly important. These people are refugees by no fault of their own. If anyone deserves support, it’s refugees and asylees,” Brown said. The Utah Refugee Education & Training Center offers many volunteer opportunities.