From camps to cities: refugees and their path to self-reliance

Story and photo by DEVON ALEXANDER BROWN

Many refugees resettled in the United States have survived horrors of war and persecution in their homelands. Others have endured years of scarcity in refugee camps. Utah Health and Human Rights, an organization that specializes in mental health services for refugees with severe trauma, estimates there are 17,500 survivors of trauma located throughout Utah.  For those granted asylum that trauma is not left at customs — it is carried with them as they ease into new lives. This process ultimately means finding employment and navigating an unfamiliar world, all within a goal of six months.

An individual with refugee status is very different than someone issued an immigrant visa. An immigrant voluntarily takes up residence in a new nation and has the luxury of returning home. A refugee does not have the same luxury. By federal law, anyone granted refugee status must have a “well-founded fear of persecution” based on religion, political opinion, race or social status.

Aden Batar, director of immigration and refugee resettlement for Catholic Community Services, is well aware of the distinction between refugees and immigrants. A former refugee, he fled his native Somalia due to civil war. After two weeks of hiding he traveled alone by road to neighboring Kenya. Once in Nairobi, he paid a pilot to return for his family — with money he kept secretly stitched to the inside of his trousers.

“Looking back I don’t know how I did it,” Batar said while chronicling the measures he took to secure his and his family’s safety. “Thinking about it now, it seems crazy, but it was worth it for peace and a new life.”

Batar endured challenges, but he says he was fortunate. He was a college graduate and had a brother in Logan, studying at Utah State University, who helped him and his family obtain refugee status in the early 1990s. And he managed to quickly land a manufacturing job while studying at USU himself, before relocating to Salt Lake City and joining the CCS staff in 1996.

But many new arrivals are resettled with little or no formal education. And without any ties to their new home, resettlement can be an unnerving and difficult process.

Catholic Community Services is a social services organization located at 745 E. 300 South, in the Avenues neighborhood of Salt Lake City. CCS helps resettle approximately 1,200 refugees a year (a number that is subject to change in 2018) with the primary mission of preparing arrivals for self-sufficiency within six months. Batar estimates 85 percent of the refugees CCS receives meet this goal.


The Rev. Terence M. Moore initiated the refugee resettlement program in 1974.

Ali Abid, a job developer for CCS, is a refugee from Iraq. And like Batar, he is college educated — having earned a degree in computer science from a university in his homeland. He says he felt self-sufficient by his sixth month because he was proficient in English and secured a decent paying job at a call center. He also resettled alone and did not need assistance for medical conditions or disabilities, although he has struggled to further his education here in the U.S. Abid says English is one of the primary challenges for new arrivals seeking self-sufficiency, but not knowing what’s available in the community is an equally ongoing struggle.

“Let’s say you come [to America], you speak English very well, but you don’t know where to go, how to start, what’s the best option for you,” Abid said while sitting behind a desk in his sun-filled office. “Types of resources like the libraries we have and online education … they might not be all that familiar or popular in some countries, [but] there are many benefits provided from visiting the library and having a membership with libraries and many refugees don’t know about this.”

All refugees are met by agencies like CCS, which places new arrivals in fully furnished housing. They also receive counseling, medical care, a monthly stipend and are advised on different aspects of employment. But caseworkers are often overloaded and limited in how they can aid new arrivals. And after three months of assistance, refugees are expected to pay back the cost of their travel and begin paying their own rent. Abid says it takes around two months for new arrivals to get the documents they need to begin applying for jobs and when they are finally placed with employment, the jobs are generally entry-level.

Most refugees are not college graduates or proficient English speakers. Many are unable to read and write in their native language. And there isn’t a standard definition of what self-sufficiency is. Regardless of the disparities among new arrivals, they’re held to the same timetable. Gerald Brown, director of refugee services for the Utah Department of Workforce Services, strongly believes the rate of achieving self-sufficiency is dependent on background.

“It depends on what community you’re from,” Brown said in a telephone interview. “Iraqis as a group are the most educated and westernized refugee group and speak English better so they should do better faster than any other group.”

It is unclear what it means for a refugee to be self-sufficient, but Brown says he thinks it means having a job and being able to pay the rent — and it comes in stages. For a family, self-sufficiency might mean being able to “negotiate important systems” like their children’s school enrollment and healthcare programs. Brown says that some refugees can do this very quickly, but others can take five years or longer.

Despite the obstacles refugees face, Ali Abid believes Salt Lake City is ideal for resettlement because of resources like the Refugee Training Center — which provides educational courses and job seeking services — and programs offered by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He says this makes self-sufficiency easier to attain and always encourages new arrivals to get a degree or certification.

“It’s better for their future and getting better jobs and better opportunities,” Abid said. “Even if you decide to move, to live in a different state … you maybe can get a better job and will have some skills instead of starting at ground zero.”

Su banco opening up opportunities


Su Banco is not just a “survival skills” language program.

Instead, graduates leave Su Banco with advanced English skills in speaking, reading and writing.

“The purpose of the program is to give students the English skills they need to pursue the career they want here,” said Rick Van De Graaf, the program coordinator.

Many of the students already possess professional knowledge that they acquired in other countries, Van De Graaf said. However, their proficiencies with English may not be quite good enough to break into the jobs they desire.

Su Banco was launched in the spring of 2005 to help these individuals. It is offered through the English Language Institute at the University of Utah.

The class was the vision of Theresa Martinez, assistant vice president for academic outreach at the U. With the help of Zion’s First National Bank, her vision now is a reality.

The name Su Banco came from Zion’s involvement. It refers to banking services that the bank markets to the Latino community.

All students who are admitted to the program receive scholarships from Zion’s. The scholarship covers 80 percent of the $1,400 cost, and if students complete the three-month class they receive reimbursement for the remaining 20 percent.

“We owe a huge debt of thanks to Scott Anderson,” Martinez said.

Anderson, the president and chief executive officer of Zion’s, was instrumental in getting the program started, Martinez said.

Martinez, a member of Zion’s board of directors, brought the idea of an advanced English language program to Anderson in 2005 after spending a semester interviewing her colleagues in continuing education about her objectives.

Within months Su Banco became a reality and Van De Graaf was hired to coordinate the program and teach the classes.

He brought experience from community-based English language programs and looked forward to teaching students in an advanced class.

“Most of the people at this level are extremely concerned with education,” Van De Graaf said. “They are completely committed to learning English, or they wouldn’t be here.”

Wilder Guadalupe came to the United States with a degree in animal science engineering from Universidad Nacional Agraria La Molina in his home country of Peru. One of his goals is to receive a master’s degree in business administration from a university in the United States.

However, in order to be admitted to many universities he must pass the TOEFL, or Test of English as a Foreign Language. Students take the test near the end of the Su Banco class.

“Passing the test will help me reach my goals,” Guadalupe said. “I want to get an MBA degree and after that maybe a Ph.D. I think it’s very important for me to get this type of degree, and it’s another opportunity to improve my English level.”

Guadalupe plans on combining his experience in animal science and business with his continually improving English skills.

His experience buying, selling and trading grains and animal food commodities gives him valuable business expertise along with is understanding of the agricultural industry, Guadalupe said. “After graduation I want to look for a position in a financial institution focusing on agricultural topics and international trade.”

Gloria Villarreal, another Su Banco student is thankful for the opportunity Zion’s Bank has provided students like her.

While Guadalupe looks toward opportunities in business, Villarreal has a different career in mind.

“I like working in computing,” Villarreal said. “I also work for the Salt Lake school district and I am so happy. Everyday, seeing the kids makes me so happy.”

Villarreal took English classes at the Horizonte Instruction and Training Center in South Salt Lake City, but the classes focused mainly on grammar and written English. The Su Banco classes are giving her new exposure to vocabulary and words she never heard before, which helps her communication in all aspects.

“I would like to continue to study until I learn perfect English,” Villarreal said. “I’m not going to stop.”

With her improvements in the English language she brings another skill to her job in the school district.

She serves as a translator between parents, teachers and administration when language barriers exist, she said.

While improving job opportunities is a focal point of all the students, Jaime Mendoza brought up an additional motivation for improving his English skills.

“I have a son who is 4 years old,” Mendoza said. “He spends most of his time with people that speak English. He speaks more English than Spanish, and I want to be able to understand my son. Someday in the future I would like for him to speak Spanish and English well.”

Mendoza, who came to the United States from Peru, began learning English from friends and classes in school. However, he became too busy working to continue with classes.

Now he is dedicating more time to learning.

“It’s very good and very interesting,” Mendoza said. ” I really want to go to school for my family and for myself to be better.”

Su Banco is more than a basic English language class. It demands students’ time and effort.

“We have to study every day,” Gloria Villarreal said. “If we do not do our homework we must go home and not come to class. But I like that. If the teacher is not pushing us we will not study.”

Nevertheless, all of the participants recognize that their hard work will open new doors.

“If we improve our communication we can get a better job,” said Dinora Melendez, another Su Banco student. “That means a better life.”

A big change is coming for the IRC in SLC


Imagine you have just contracted a life-altering disease. You find a specialist who knows how to treat it and the two of you work together to improve your quality of life. Now imagine that after six months you are told you have to go to a new specialist. The new doctor is just as qualified, but knows very little about your specific needs. You now have to go back and find a system that works for you both.

This is what life is like for newly arrived refugees in Salt Lake City. They are given six months to grow accustomed to one aid organization, and then their case is handed over to another, Patrick Poulin said. Poulin is the resettlement director for the International Rescue Committee in Salt Lake.

The IRC is an international nonprofit organization that specializes in resettling refugees from around the world in the United States.

The IRC is also the first doctor in the scenario given above.

When the U.S. State Department decides who will be given a new home here, they approach groups like the IRC and ask them how many refugees their organization can take on. The IRC then gives them a number. When the two agree which cases will be handled, the IRC is given all the information on each person being resettled.

The next job is deciding which of the IRC’s 17 U.S. regional offices will handle each case.

Once the local office has the information and has arranged for the refugee to enter the country, the staff have six months to do everything they can to help people get resettled and become self-sufficient.

According to the IRC’s Web site, staff and volunteers work together to help refugees obtain “the tools of self-reliance: housing, job placement and employment skills, clothing, medical attention, education, English-language classes and community orientation.”

This is where the second specialist gets involved.

After six months of assistance from the IRC the refugees and their cases are transferred to the Asian Association of Utah.

The AAU, which is also a nonprofit organization, works with refugees to improve their situation by upgrading housing, finding permanent employment so they can become completely self-sufficient. The goal of the AAU is to have refugees settled into a job, a community and a way of life that will best facilitate their individual needs.

Both organizations have similar goals, but Poulin says it’s a difficult transition for someone coming from a completely different world to have to adjust to a new aid organization so quickly. That is why he and the IRC have been trying to extend their involvement with refugees from six months to as many as 24 months. Poulin feels this is ample time for refugees to get settled into their new surroundings and firmly anchor their new life in America.

Lina Smith, program director for resettlement for the Asian Association of Utah, agrees with Poulin. “I think whatever works for the refugee, I’m for it,” Smith said.

The AAU currently handles all refugee cases in the state including those managed by other nonprofits.

Smith said the IRC will begin working with refugees for up to two years beginning in January. She feels this will help ease the workload of the AAU’s four full-time caseworkers who currently oversee more than 80 cases each. Her organization will still be there to help refugees who need assistance after the first two years.

Smith and Poulin agree that a more equal share of the responsibility between the two organizations is beneficial for the refugees and the nonprofits. But they still worry about money.

Both organizations receive funding from the State Department, but Smith and Poulin feel that it is not enough. Currently, refugees receive $425 a month on which to live.

Poulin said Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. has set aside an additional $200,000 from the Utah state budget for refugee services in 2009. Poulin also says The George S. and Dolores Dore Eccles Foundation has promised the IRC a $50,000 grant.

Poulin is convinced the additional funding will help greatly with the overall success of their program. He said, “If we are able to provide more quality services to refugees … then we are successful.”

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