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.


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.


The refugee experience: Integrating into American society

Story and photo by BLAKE HANSEN

Outside the Catholic Community Services building, refugees and others sit, waiting for help.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has reported in its “Projected Global Resettlement Needs 2017” that the number of people in need of resettlement for the calendar year will surpass 1.19 million. This number is the equivalent of the number of residents inside of Salt Lake, Davis and Weber counties. The number of refugees in desperate need of relocation equals the same number of people who reside from Draper all the way through Ogden, a distance of about 60 miles.

Many refugees who have been granted relocation to America, specifically to Utah, have a hard time integrating into a vastly different society. But with help of local organizations it is possible to successfully integrate.

The trek out of danger is only the first step for refugees, though. According to various statements made by refugees in an article by The Independent, they arrive in these safe zones. Some are injured, starved, alone, scared and all have suffered extreme loss. They settle in refugee camps where conditions are horrible.

The process to get resettled somewhere can take years, according to the UNHCR. Some people spend the rest of their lives in refugee camps because the lengthy and intense resettlement process can’t even handle the amount of people left without a country to call home. Kids who grow up in these refugee camps have little to no access to education. Doctors and lawyers who were once able to comfortably use their education and expertise to take care of their families are left building their families tin huts just to stay dry. Also, 51 percent of refugees are under 18. Many have narrowly escaped, and are without parents or siblings.

Aden Batar left Somalia with a law degree and with two of his brothers in the late 1980s. At a time when civil war took over the country, Batar and his brothers had no choice but to leave. They had to lie and disguise themselves as members of other tribes and factions just to make it past checkpoints where people were being shot and killed for trying to flee. Batar made it to Kenya alone after one of his brothers was killed for being found at a checkpoint and the other died from a sickness he got during their trek.

“Looking back, I don’t know how I did it,” he said. Batar lived in a refugee camp in Kenya and met his future wife there before finally making it to Utah in 1994. He was lucky enough to have a brother in Logan who helped with his resettlement. Batar is now the director of immigration and refugee resettlement at Catholic Community Services in Salt Lake City where refugees are helped and given the tools they need to integrate.

Atem Aleu escaped from Sudan in 1987. Similarly to Batar, Aleu also fled his country with two brothers. After a lengthy trek between multiple countries, Aleu eventually ended up in Kenya in 1992 with one brother after the other died during their trek. Aleu was 8 years old. Eventually though, after years of suffering through surviving with little food and water, none at times, Aleu made it to the U.S.

“We need to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. Judgement happens a lot here, people think that because you’re a refugee, you’re some sort of lower person,” Aleu said. He said his organization, which he declined to name, .helps refugees locally in Utah. “Without these organizations in place there is no one to talk to and nowhere to go for help finding jobs, transportation, appropriate housing, etc.,” he said.

Integration is a difficult and lengthy process for refugees after they have already gone through so much just to get here to the U.S. The local organizations in Utah are always looking for volunteers to help in a variety of ways. Some options include mentorship and job placement. Batar also stressed the importance of overall friendly interactions to show a welcome, safe environment where refugees are able to flourish in a new place with opportunity.


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