Many cultures, one table: Thanksgiving dinner with refugee chefs and families

Breaking bread at the International Rescue Committee fundraiser to bridge barriers in community

Story and slideshow by DANNY O’MALLEY

The International Rescue Committee hosted Breaking Bread, a pre-holiday feast on November 15, 2017, to bring the greater Salt Lake City community closer together. Guests enjoyed cuisine prepared by chefs with the Spice Kitchen Incubator, a program that helps refugees launch food-service businesses. The Breaking Bread event was held at This Is The Place Heritage Park and drew nearly 250 attendees including refugee families in the community.

Upon arriving, guests were greeted by volunteers who guided them to one of dozens of tables in the high-ceilinged room. A 10-foot tall curved chalkboard wall stood near the podium, covered in decorative art and Polaroid photographs filling the shape of Utah. A flowery inscription reading “This is the place we all call home” emblazoned the top.

An elaborate video setup occupied a side room, where guests recorded live greetings to welcome newcomers to Salt Lake City. Guests and volunteers flowed around the central seating, filling the mountain lodge-style space with a cheerful buzz of conversation between old friends and new acquaintances.

At the bar, local startup Kiitos Brewing donated a selection of beer from its new lineup. The craft beer operation is a newcomer to the Utah brewery scene, but already setting itself apart as a leader in sustainable business and local collaboration. Natalie El-Deiry, deputy director of IRC, said Kiitos donates spent grain from the brewing process to the East African Refugee Goat Farm, a project benefiting refugee farmers on the west side of the Salt Lake Valley. The brewery is located in the Granary District south of downtown, and celebrated its grand opening to the public over the weekend of December 1, 2017.

Food from four entrepreneurs took center stage at the feast.

For appetizers, guests enjoyed Mediterranean and Middle Eastern fare, courtesy of two sisters. Suha and Mayada run Olives & Thyme together. Originally from Baghdad, they arrived in Utah in 2012 and started cooking with the Spice Kitchen Incubator in 2015. “Americans like to try new things, but there is nothing like what we make — they don’t know Arabic food here,” Mayada said.

The sisters spent hours in the Spice Kitchen the day before the event, rolling dough and wrapping it around spinach and cheese. Savory pastries, falafel sliders and small rice and beef bites called “kubbah” filled guests’ platters during the pre-dinner mingling. The hors d’oeuvres proved too scrumptious to remain for long — the sizeable serving trays were stripped clean by the time dinner was served.

The entree course was served family-style in huge bowls and deep dishes. Each table was assigned a different cuisine — Burmese or Somali.

Haymar, originally from Burma, runs Januhongsar as her catering endeavor, as well as a specialty grocery store called Sonjhae Asian Market. Haymar has lived in Utah since 2008, and has been with Spice Kitchen since in late 2012. For the dinner, she served a chicken and kabocha squash curry with mixed seasonal vegetables over rice. The seasonal squash tasted like a tender semi-sweet pumpkin, and lent a vibrant orange glow to the plate like a late fall sunrise. Haymar’s mouth-watering dishes can be found often through the rotating Spice Kitchen To Go ordering on Facebook.

Najati, from Somalia, lived in the refugee camps in Kenya before coming to Utah in 2008. She learned Swahili recipes cooking with her mother in the camps. “There were no fresh vegetables, but here there is regional organic food I cook with,” she said. Najati dubbed her catering business Namash Swahili Cuisine, and wants to open a food truck or a restaurant someday. “I am used to cooking for 400 or so people. This event I only have maybe 100, much easier.” For the dinner, she served roasted goat from the IRC goat farm, and vegetable curry over Somali-spiced rice with a hot sauce known as “pilipili.”

To top it all off, the dessert course was capped with an intricately-designed cake featuring the event logo, thanks to M Bakeshop. Michaela started M Bakeshop with Spice Kitchen in early 2017, but has been baking her entire life. “I always loved to lick the bowl, ever since I was young. I could live off sweets,” she said. Born in Austria, she has lived in the U.S. since 1986 and Utah since 1995. In the last two years she has started to experiment with a different process that she calls “inside-out cake,” allowing her to bake delicate hand-drawn designs into her cakes. Because of her precision and care on each piece, Spice Kitchen approached her to add an upscale dessert to the event. “I love seeing the reaction of people to my creations,” she said.

Patrick Poulin, executive director of IRC Salt Lake, welcomed attendees and spoke about the importance of sharing cultures between community members.

Natalie El-Deiry presented awards to local groups that were integral in their contribution to the refugee community. One of the awards went to St. Mark’s Family Medicine for its work on the VeggieRx program, a pilot to help refugees address critical nutrition needs.

This is the second year of the Breaking Bread event. Proceeds from ticket sales, as well as additional in-person donations, will help the IRC continue its work and promote new opportunities for refugees. As the Spice Kitchen Incubator continues to aid more local entrepreneurs ply their palate-pleasing trade, the event is sure to grow. Details about next year’s event, as well as the chance to purchase advance tickets, will be available on the IRC’s website or the Facebook page.

“We need to paint a picture of refugee contributions to the community,” said Natalie el-Deiry in a previous interview. This event is just one part of that picture, growing a closer, stronger community through sharing a table and enjoying a meal together.

Refugees given tools to adjust to a new culture


What makes a home? Is it the people you live with, or is it the pictures and decorations within the house? Is it the home-cooked meals, or the fun and games with family and friends? No matter what it is, a home can be defined in many ways. However, leaving the place you call home often is only described in one way: difficult.

Gerald Brown, the Utah state refugee coordinator and assistant director of the Refugee Services Office, has dedicated his life to helping refugees.

Throughout his lifelong career, he has constantly been “trying to make the world a little more fair.” He has found his motivation to do his work based off what he has seen and experienced. “Leaving their country is difficult and traumatic,” Brown said. “And the resettlement process is just as difficult and often traumatic.”

On a daily basis, Brown works side-by-side with the International Rescue Committee (IRC) developing programs designed to make the resettlement process less traumatic. One of these programs that the IRC has established is called Adjustment Support Groups.

Jennica Henderson, the mental health program coordinator for the IRC in Utah, said in a phone interview that the curriculum of these groups consists of three parts: adjusting to the U.S. and a new culture; mental health; stress management and community wellness and development.

Henderson said the curriculum was designed by a company in Seattle called Pathways to Wellness. She said the curriculum and groups are designed to “provide education and skill development around mental health and well-being. It is also designed to develop community support for one another so that our participants can rely on one another.”

Following the curriculum, refugees participate in an eight-week course featuring a new topic weekly that falls under one of the three key concepts of the curriculum. These topics in order are: introduction to the group and establishing guidelines and rules; culture shock and moving from one country to another; refugee experience; mental health and tools to overcome stress; mind and body connection; goals and dreams.

Adjustment Group at the Central Park Community Garden. Photo courtesy of New Roots SLC.

In Utah, these groups are just getting underway, as they have only been in use since fall 2016. They are funded by grants and currently run in the spring, summer and fall and are only offered to women. However, the program is expanding to start its first male group in spring 2018.

For now, the program meets at the Central Park Community Garden, located at 2825 S. 200 East in Salt Lake City.

The signup process for the group is simple: there is none. When a refugee is resettled, their location is saved within a database. Henderson said one of the goals of the program is to make the ability to attend as easy as possible. Therefore, once a location for the group is chosen, based on their geographical location, refugees are then called and invited to attend.

When invited, refugees are asked what day and time would work best for their schedules. Based on the results, a day and time is chosen that is best suited for the majority. Refugees are also informed in that call that the IRC provides transportation to and from the meetings, food and childcare for who attend.

In Utah, up to three separate support groups are offered at once. These groups are led by three instructors — Jennica Henderson, Alex Haas and Sara Franke — all of whom are employees of the IRC and have completed hands-on training to know the curriculum and know how to best help the refugees in their process of settling in a new culture.

One of the instructors, Alex Haas, said in a phone interview that he believes these groups are helping refugees become self-sufficient and that they are creating a “community of wellness.”

As refugees come and participate in the program, they meet new people and develop new relationships. Although the programs may never replace everything that a refugee lost, they are succeeding in what they were meant to do: helping resettle in a new home.

University of Utah’s Center for Research on Migration and Refugee Integration builds on success of first year

Story and photos by ZACH CARLSON

The Center for Research on Migration and Refugee Integration is housed in the University of Utah’s College of Social Work. The CRMRI is located in Caren Frost’s office.

The Center for Research on Migration and Refugee Integration opened as part of the College of Social Work at the University of Utah in 2016. Leading this center is Dr. Caren Frost. The CRMRI’s main focus is on obtaining federal grants and analyzing data that it receives from groups like the Catholic Community Services and the International Rescue Committee.

Aden Batar is himself a refugee who works with the Catholic Community Services in Salt Lake City, helping to resettle refugees. With roughly 60,000 refugees here in Utah and hundred more coming each year, these two organizations are working together to help make Salt Lake City home for refugees from around the world.

Each year, the CCS helps resettle roughly 400 to 500 refugees, according to Batar. These refugees are from all over the world, with 53 percent of them migrating or hailing from Afghanistan, Somalia and Syria. Batar says he expects the Syrian Civil War to lead to an influx of Syrian refugees, making Syria the largest source of refugees in the coming years.

As the individuals integrate into Salt Lake City, they obtain education as well as work. Batar says that about 85 percent of refugees become self-sufficient within six months of arriving in Utah. While most parents don’t pursue a higher education once arriving, their children are more likely to go to college, says Caren Frost of the CRMRI.

No information is collected on how many refugees go to the U, but the CRMRI estimates that there are at least 500 students with refugee backgrounds. The CRMRI describe itself as active with students on campus, but it thinks it can always be more involved. It finds itself interacting more with younger children in junior high and high schools, Frost says.

Over the summer of 2017, the CRMRI hosted a workshop at the U for about 25 high school seniors from the Salt Lake Valley who were interested in college. Delva Hommes, the administrative manager for CRMRI, says it had a broad range of students, with some having been in America from two months to two years. The students spoke about a dozen different languages.

Students who attended the summer workshop. Photo courtesy of Delva Hommes.

Volunteers discussed with the students what different aspects of college and campus life are like at the U, why they think the students should go there, and how to help them achieve their goals. The CRMRI hopes to do similar workshops every summer, Frost says.

Frost writes grants and articles, and analyzes data for the CRMRI. “We have information about what country the refugees are coming from, how long they were in camps, what languages they speak, what are their healthcare needs,” Frost says. “We also have information about jobs that they have once they get here, how much they’re getting paid per hour, what other training needs they might have.”

CRMRI celebrated its first year at the U in August 2017. Frost described the program’s first year as “fact finding,” citing repetitive redundancy, also known as tautology where the same idea is said twice but with different words, as an issue that it deals with often. Because it is trying to put people in touch with others, she says it can sometimes be a challenge to coordinate and work with everyone’s schedules.

The hallway leading to the CRMRI, which is on the second floor of the College of Social Work.

The research center has three main goals for its second year. First, Frost says “working to define integration. This isn’t just trying to get refugees to assimilate,” she says, “but to encourage a two-way exchange of ideas about different values, different cultural systems, between refugees and those hosting them.”

Her second goal for the center is to create a geospatial map of the Salt Lake Valley. An earlier draft of this was created for the Refugee Women’s Committee, which Frost has chaired for more than five years, she said in a subsequent email interview. This map pinpoints where these women lived in the Valley, the public transportation routes near them, where libraries are and where they can go to get health and dental care.

With this, researchers can see where people are versus the resources individuals need. Frost says these women are in a sort of “resource desert.” The medical care they need is far away, and in case of an emergency those without vehicles might not get the necessary medical attention, Frost says. Frost is looking to further enhance this project by working with individuals within the Department of Geography and with the Social Research Institute, to try to make something useful with this information.

The Center’s final goal of 2017-18 is trying to get more community partners to help the program and do research with it. The CRMRI is constantly learning from its partners, like the Catholic Community Services and International Rescue Committee, about each group’s on-the-ground work, Frost said in a subsequent email interview. It would really like “to be doing more cross-cutting discussions about what research actually is, what we can actually say with things, what kind of data do we actually need,” Frost says.


Beyond mental health: welcoming refugees to Utah

Story and photos by ALAYNIA WINTER


That was the resounding answer from the three refugee panelists who spoke on Sept. 23, 2017, following a documentary movie screening held at The Leonardo museum in Salt Lake City. Each was asked the question: “What were the most difficult aspects of transitioning to living in Utah?”

Everything is different. The weather. The food. The language. The culture and customs. The ethnicity.

Visitor information is posted on the front door of the IRC located at 221 S. 400 West in Salt Lake City.

One of the panelists, Kamal Bewar, came to the U.S. as a refugee from Iraqi Kurdistan during the Iraqi Kurdish Civil War at 22 years old. Since then he has made Utah his home.

“I have been fortunate to have had people who made a difference and made me feel welcome. It has been the individuals who have made the difference in my life,” said Bewar during the event.

He is an example of a political refugee who has successfully created a new life after arriving with close to nothing. Bewar graduated with a Ph.D. from Argosy University in higher educational leadership. He now has a flourishing career working at Salt Lake Community College. He also is president of the Kurdish Community of Utah.

So, what happens when refugees arrive in Utah? First, they are welcomed by International Rescue Committee or another resettlement organization. After they have food and shelter and immediate safety, they are given English classes and tasked with adapting to the new environment.

What is the western answer to this often traumatic experience? IRC, Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS) and many other organizations offer therapy, medication and mental health programs. These programs are beneficial. However, the clinical concept of mental health may be foreign to some New Americans.

Hannah Fox, who was an intern at IRC before accepting a position as a social worker with DCFS said a problem many healthcare workers, social workers and others are seeing, is a systemic disconnect in the way we, as Americans, understand other cultures — and vice versa.

The IRC is nestled between The Rose Establishment and the historic W. S. Henderson Building.

“Our programs take mental health from a very western perspective,” Fox said, “versus where many of them [refugees] come from, they likely do not. So, while we might diagnose and medicate, they might believe in a spiritual or traditional folk remedy.” Visibly exasperated, Fox added, “So when they go to health care workers, and they give them a western experience of mental health care, it really f**** with them. It discourages them from trying again.”

What is found to be actually helpful, said Fatima Dirie, refugee coordinator for the University of Utah, is making a community. Once the programs are over, it’s the relationships and friendships made that create lasting change and true integration.

“As a community, we are not there yet,” Dirie said. “To truly feel welcomed you have to understand each other.”

Fox added, “With refugees that is their ‘therapy.’ It’s home and it’s talking about their culture. It’s sharing their experiences on their terms — not just some white person who has a degree behind a desk.”

Utahns can help make people feel welcome by saying hello, simply smiling, or inviting someone over for dinner. If interested, sign up for a Family Mentor Program, or complete a volunteer orientation at IRC.

Fostering meaningful relationships is what truly matters.


Fresh starts and fiscal success: refugee businesses are booming in Salt Lake City

Story and graphics by DANNY O’MALLEY

Refugees are opening new businesses and bringing new solutions to Salt Lake City, thanks largely to the International Rescue Committee and other local organizations that coordinate resettlement.

“The refugee and immigrant community has a higher rate of entrepreneurship than natural-born citizens,” said Natalie El-Deiry, deputy director of development and strategic initiatives at the International Rescue Committee office in Salt Lake City.


Her eyes light up when talking about the growth she has seen. While no one may be able to quantify the exact figures, she estimates that dozens of businesses owned and operated by refugees have opened since 2012.  “They’re a thread that weaves through the community and brings us closer together,” she said.

Immigrant-owned businesses in Utah employed over 31,000 people in 2007, according to a report from the Partnership for a New American Economy. Another NAE report shows that refugees and immigrants brought an estimated $56.3 billion of spending power to the national economy in 2015. They paid $20.9 billion in taxes.

Such colossal numbers also serve as a bittersweet reminder of greater struggles.


The global number of forcibly displaced people is over 65 million, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency. Refugees comprise nearly one-third of that number. On average, Utah takes in around 1,200 refugees per year through the two primary resettlement organizations: the International Rescue Committee and Catholic Community Services.

Aden Batar, director of immigration and refugee resettlement at Catholic Community Services, reports that the final fiscal quarter of 2017 brought less than half of the people expected.

“We take a capacity survey every year, and report that we can handle a certain number of cases. We only got 20 [assigned] for September. It’s normally more than 50,” he said. Utah is unlikely to receive any more refugees in 2017, although the groups within the state could help resettle many dozens more. The current administration is apathetic, the New York Times reported, to fixing the global humanitarian crisis through open doors. That story pointed out that the economic contributions of refugees were apparently censored by White House officials. The released document excluded anything but the cost burden presented by initial resettlement and government assistance. The White House is ignoring billions of dollars of income tax, discretionary spending and wages paid to employees by refugee business owners.

Fewer refugees means that fewer opportunities for integration of new ideas — not to mention potential jobs and workers — will arrive in the near future.

Batar said that about 85 percent of the refugees CCS works with are self-sufficient within six months, and generally start contributing to the local economy immediately. A report from the National Bureau of Economic Research estimates that refugees have higher employment rates than native-born citizens once they have lived in the U.S. for several years.

But as much as refugees want to work, they must be welcomed into a community to do so.

Batar, a Somalian refugee himself, is unwavering about this global plight of humanity. “It is the hardest thing a human being can ever do,” he said, referring to the journeys undertaken by refugees. “When you don’t have a choice, it doesn’t matter where you’re going, as long as it’s a peaceful place,” he said, his voice firm and insistent.

“Someone may come with a myth in their mind of the United States providing everything,” he said, so instilling new concepts like paying bills and making rent on time can take some adjustment. Programs such as those offered by the International Rescue Committee, Catholic Community Services and their partners are crucial for stability, smooth transitions and the livelihood of the community overall. Thanks to local initiatives, volunteer outreach and business incubators, refugees can start to lay a foundation for future success.

The Spice Kitchen Incubator has provided a hands-on educational workspace since 2012 to launch food service businesses. Refugees and underprivileged people prepare and profit from their native cuisines in a new place. With over 30 businesses introduced to the greater Salt Lake City region, including a baker’s dozen just since 2016, the results are unmistakably successful.

Ze Min Xiao, director of the Office of New Americans in Salt Lake County, has hope that the successes outweigh the challenges for the refugee population and the groups serving them. “Utah is doing relatively well compared to other parts of the country when it comes to refugee integration, but the situation always has room for improvement,” she said in a phone interview. “We’ve recognized the need to ensure groundwork is laid down early for long-term opportunities,” including mentoring and business resources for immigrant and refugee entrepreneurs.

“Government agencies can’t do everything,” she said. “My office right now is just me and a temp. But we are convening outside stakeholders and bringing a vision together.” Those outside stakeholders include businesses employing or founded by many of the refugees in Salt Lake City. The chance to work with new arrivals every year demands big-picture thinking, as evidenced by the New Americans Task Force Welcoming Plan.

The community has a lot to give to refugees. But refugees have even more to give back, whether it’s tax dollars or cultural diversity. They just need a safe place like Salt Lake City to start.



Spice Kitchen Incubator helps refugees start food businesses

Story and photos by RYAN CARRILLO

Spice Kitchen Incubator gives certain Utah residents a unique opportunity: a chance to plan and develop a food-based business.

The kitchen incubator primarily assists international refugees who have relocated to Salt Lake City, but also provides services to immigrants and lower-income individuals. The program is part of the International Rescue Committee in Salt Lake City, or IRC SLC, which helps in international crises and relocates refugees in 22 different cities throughout the U.S.

Spice Kitchen Incubator provides everything from ovens to large prep space for the chefs

Spice Kitchen Incubator provides everything from ovens to large prep space for the chefs.

Refugees are individuals forced to leave their native country due to political unrest, war or safety concerns. When they are relocated to the United States, they have to adapt to a completely new culture and way of living.

Spice Kitchen Incubator helps them adjust to some of these changes.

Entrepreneurs, or participants, in Spice Kitchen Incubator aspire to start their own business. These individuals will mostly likely run their own catering business, food truck or farmers market booth by the end of the program.

The program is designed to help each entrepreneur achieve these goals and be successful in the American business market.

“Every entrepreneur’s goals are different but our overall goal is to build self-sufficient businesses,” said Genevieve Healey, the program coordinator for Spice Kitchen Incubator. “Those are the things we are helping them with, [things] like accounting, marketing and connecting them to resources. At a certain point they are comfortable doing that all on their own and they know how to use those resources.”

Spice Kitchen Incubator is divided into two different levels: pre-incubation and incubation. Pre-incubation is designed to help entrepreneurs develop a business plan and teach them how to run a successful business. Incubation is focused on real experience and exposure, putting each participant in control of their business.

Entrepreneurs begin in pre-incubation. They participate in this level for six months before advancing to incubation, depending on their individual needs and progress. During this phase of the program, they are building the foundation for running a business.

Each Saturday, the kitchen incubator hosts workshops for those individuals, covering everything from profit-and-loss and advertising to marketing positioning and food costing. Additionally, each entrepreneur will participate in a focus group. The focus group plays an essential role in the development of the aspiring business owner’s business plan.

“Volunteers from the food industry and the community come and try the entrepreneur’s food and those are entrepreneurs in pre-incubation so they are just developing their menu and what they are going to sell,” Healey said.

Feedback from volunteers is essential. It helps the chefs make adjustments to the business plan. It also can help them develop a mentorship with people in the community.

Kamal is one of 10 entrepreneurs in the pre-incubation stage. As a Bhutanese refugee, he was resettled in the U.S. almost five years ago. He has participated in the Spice Kitchen Incubator for almost a year.

Kamal’s focus group met on March 11, 2015. The chef spent several hours preparing food to present to the group. He said he has enjoyed participating in the program and was excited to share his culture and food with the volunteers and staff. He said he is very appreciative for the help of his wife and daughter, as well as a local volunteer, while preparing for his focus group.

Kamal prepares for his focus group with the help of his wife, daughter and a community volunteer.

Kamal prepares for his focus group with the help of his wife, daughter and a community volunteer.

After pre-incubation, entrepreneurs advance to incubation. This portion of the program typically lasts for 4 to 4 1/2 years. In all, entrepreneurs are able to be in the program for five years. There are currently three entrepreneurs enrolled in the incubation portion of the program. Since the Spice Kitchen Incubator was only opened in 2013, no one has graduated from the program yet.

During incubation, the aspiring business owners begin running an operational business. They start by applying for their business license. Once received, the entrepreneurs begin catering events and participating in local farmers markets.

During the winter, the chefs sell pre-packaged food at the market that they prepare at the Spice Kitchen Incubator’s facilities. The winter market is held every other Saturday at the Rio Grande Depot (300 S. 300 West) from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. It runs through April 2015.

During the summer farmers market, entrepreneurs rotate between packaged and prepared foods. Prepared foods are cooked on-site rather than at the Spice Kitchen Incubator facilities. Healey said the kitchen hopes to expand its services at this year’s summer market to include one booth dedicated solely to packaged foods and another just for prepared foods. This would give the entrepreneurs more exposure and increase their ability to build a client base. The summer market runs from June 13 to Oct. 24, 2015, and is held each week at Pioneer Park on 300 W. 400 South.

Healey said the farmers market demonstrated how beneficial the incubator’s programs can be for both the business owners as well as the community as a whole.

“The farmers market was a really awesome experience, especially the summer farmers market because it is where we can do prepared foods,” she said. “We’ve said that there is a need for this in the community but it was really cool to have that hands-on [experience], like ‘oh yeah, people really want this.’”

Community members can get involved with the incubator through several different ways. The Spice Kitchen Incubator is always looking for individuals to serve on focus group panels, which requires a commitment of a couple hours each session, as well as help with any other topics related to running a business. Donations can also be made on the incubator’s website.

Maria Gigourtaki, who works as the volunteer and communications coordinator for the kitchen, said volunteers can have some amazing experiences with the program. “[The entrepreneurs] are all so passionate,” she said. “I mean, food is something that gets people together and it’s awesome. You can get to see and meet people, new cultures, new flavors, history, languages, everything. It’s amazing!”

Finding the needle to success

Story and photos by EMILY RODRIGUEZ-VARGAS

A 3-year-old boy sits barefoot on the pavement at 2248 S. 440 East in South Salt Lake City, with a weary look on his face. Watching other children laugh and play at the Hser Ner Moo community center for refugees, he remains on the sidewalk alone.

Unfortunately, not all Asian individuals have been lucky enough to have had the kind of upbringing and opportunities to succeed. Some of them have never had the chance to learn and grow.

This necklace made out of coconut was brought over from Thailand.

More than 2,000 immigrants arrive in Salt Lake City each year, according to reports by the International Rescue Committee. The majority of these immigrants come from Burma and other Asian countries. Many of them were allowed asylum into the U.S. due to political persecution. Many children have never lived outside of refugee camps, or have been exposed to the freedoms they find in Utah.

Roger Tsai, an immigration attorney at Parsons, Behle & Latimer and former president of the Utah Asian Chamber of Commerce, said that although many refugees from Japan, Korea and China generally tend to have more education under their belt, many other people in Asian countries still struggle to access basic schooling.

In the Hser Ner Moo Community Center for refugees, students of all ages are learning English in school while acclimating to American culture. In the afterschool program, they come together to do homework, play games, and use the English vocabulary they picked up in school. With the help of volunteers, the center coordinates activities, outings and trainings for the children to enjoy.

Lewe La Sa shows off a traditional scarf.

Lewe La Sa, 17, who is Burmese, arrived in the U.S. only 18 months ago from a refugee camp in Thailand. She came to the center to get help with her homework, as she was trying to get through a full class load during her last year at Cottonwood High School. Sa showed motivation to learn for her classes and improve her English skills as she transitions from the life she knew growing up in the camp, where she was an excellent student. She speaks Karen, some Thai and now English. She said her mother never had the opportunity to go to school.

Sa dreams of attending the University of Utah and becoming a nurse. If that doesn’t work out, she said, she wants to be a social worker and help refugees from her country.

“Many people come here that speak Karen, but it’s very difficult for them to understand English at first,” she said. “I also want to be an interpreter, they really need one.”

Sa and her younger sister, Paw Ku Sher, currently teach a refresher course of Karen to refugee children between the ages of 4 and 14 every Saturday.

Special occasions in Burma require specific dresses.

“If they have lived here for a long time, they don’t remember their family’s native language very well,” she said. Her next step toward achieving her academic goals is succeeding at the upcoming college entrance exams.

Kaity Dixon, an IRC volunteer coordinator, said in an orientation to volunteers in Salt Lake City that it’s a true struggle to learn to read and write in a foreign language when you haven’t learned to do so in your own native tongue.

“In an instant, reading directions and completing necessary paperwork for daily life becomes a barrier to progress in a new country,” she said.

Without organizations like the IRC and other offices, as well as on-site tutoring for refugee children and services for whole families, personal, financial or educational achievements for these individuals might be too far out of reach.

A Japanese saying captured this complex situation of giving direction right at its point: “When one has no needle, thread is of little use.” The programs offered now could expand or improve in the near future by greater participation and community involvement for maintaining these vital services.

Maybe there is hope for the young boy on the sidewalk after all.

Refugees celebrate First Thanksgiving in America


  • Virtually attend the First Thanksgiving celebration.

Each of us probably has many unique memories of Thanksgiving, but they probably all centered on turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, pumpkin pie and family. We remember the pilgrims who broke bread with their native hosts in this new land. And eventually we go around the table and take turns naming things for which we are grateful. Family, friends, freedom, the list goes on, and these are just the Fs.

But who remembers their first Thanksgiving? All the memories seem to blend together over the years, the result of too much stuffing and tryptophan-induced comas. Most of us likely can’t recall the first time we tasted cranberry sauce, or watched with trepidation as dad carved the bird; cautiously keeping his fingers clear of the blade.

For the thousands of refugees who come to this country every year, these experiences are as foreign to them as their many languages and traditions are to us.

That’s why this year the International Rescue Committee and American Express decided to hold a First Thanksgiving celebration for new refugees.

The First Thanksgiving is a new national celebration organized by the IRC’s corporate headquarters in New York. Salt Lake was one of three cities to host a dinner, along with Boston and Phoenix. American Express offered to house the Salt Lake event Thursday, Nov. 18, at its Taylorsville office.

Smiling volunteers and employees from the IRC greeted refugees arriving at their first Thanksgiving dinner. Once checked in they were ushered through the spacious lobby of American Express’ office past an 8-foot-tall Statue of Liberty. Just beyond the statue lay a long red carpet rolled out for the guests of honor.

Servers greeted guests along the red carpet and offered them drinks and appetizers as the refugee families meandered closer to the office lunchroom that had been transformed into a banquet hall for the evening.

All the while the journey down the hallway was accompanied by a Middle Eastern melody. At the end of the carpet, two men, Iraqi refugees, sang while one of them kept time on a small, Yamaha keyboard. An older Iraqi woman stopped to listen and sing along to the music as everyone else arriving followed suit.

The long hallway continued to fill with people as those arriving paused to admire the black and white photographs propped on easels along the carpet. Pictures of women and children, mothers and their newborn babies, stood single file on either side of the red carpet like members of a reception line.

This exhibit of photos was the premier of The Newest Americans series by Salt Lake-based photographer Stanna Frampton.

Frampton is a longtime friend of Patrick Poulin, the IRC’s Salt Lake resettlement director. For years she had asked Poulin if there was some way she could help him in his work. They came up with the idea of photographing the newest Americans, children born to refugee mothers. She began taking the photographs a year ago. Frampton said it was difficult at first because many of the mothers didn’t fully understand why someone wanted to take their picture.

Frampton recalls a Somali woman in particular who was so nervous to be in the studio it was all the photographer could do to get her to smile. Every time the woman would begin to laugh she would cover her face. Yet the resulting photograph is one of the most memorable of the series. The slender young woman in a long dark gown shields her smiling face from the camera as her young child lies lazily against her shoulder.

Every photograph has an interesting story, Frampton said. She asked each of the mothers a series of questions about their new life in America during the shoot. When she asked them how they felt knowing their babies were born American citizens they were unanimously overjoyed.

Frampton has found her own joy in getting to know these new mothers. “I have learned so much,” she said. “I’m still learning.”

Joy spilled over from the refugees, government officials, and refugee service providers as they all continued to spill into the banquet hall. More than 20 finely dressed tables filled the large room that usually accommodated American Expresses employees on their breaks.

The music died down as the nearly 200 guests began taking their seats.

George Biddle, executive vice-president of the IRC, emceed the evening. Biddle took a moment to thank all the participants and especially those who helped plan the event. He then introduced Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon and former Salt Lake City Mayor Palmer DePaulis. DePaulis, who was recently appointed director of community and culture by Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., appeared behalf of the governor who was celebrating his wedding anniversary.

Corroon and DePaulis presented proclamations, one from the county and one from the state, declaring Nov. 14, through Nov. 20, Refugee Appreciation and Celebration Week.

Next, Janet Harris, vice president of development for the IRC, addressed the crowd. Harris related a story about taking a taxi from the airport to her hotel in Salt Lake. Her cab driver happened to be a Somali refugee who was resettled by the IRC a few years ago.

She asked the driver how he liked his new life here. He told her he was happy because he has three things here he did not have at home: freedom, opportunity and safety.

Harris revealed why the IRC decided to hold it’s largest event in conjunction with Thanksgiving. “All cultures have some form of harvest holiday,” she said. “So there is common ground there.”

She then reminded everyone about the pilgrim’s very first Thanksgiving; a dinner held by a group of people who had been forced to leave their homes in search of freedom, opportunity and safety.

With the speeches done it was time for the entertainment.

A group of women and young girls from Burundi and Rwanda performed rollicking native dances in traditional costumes.

They were followed by a quartet of young Burundian men in green and white robes, each with a tall drum. The men set up their instruments on stage and began a 20-minute marathon of intense drumming and call-and-response shouts. By the time they were done they were drenched with sweat and the audience was as excited from their robust meal and lively entertainment.

As the evening wound down the attendees discussed their new memories. Their reveries were filled with hope of future events and newborn traditions. This Thanksgiving dinner was a bit different from the traditional memories of the holiday so many have, but the new memories it provided for it’s guests, both the refugee families and the others there, will surely be no less poignant and no less meaningful.

The smiling faces leaving the American Express building that evening may have seemed foreign and each was unquestionably different, but as Patrick Poulin pointed out earlier that evening, whether you say markozy, banyaba, or ji shu tin baday, it still just means thanks.

Iraqi refugees in SLC find differences and similarities


  • View a slideshow of the families and the Humanitarian Center (best viewed in full-screen mode)

In the spring of 2003, the U.S. government sent in troops to invade Iraq because it was believed the country held weapons of mass destruction. The invasion also aimed to put an end to Suddam Hussein’s support for terrorism and to free the Iraqi people.

Since then, the United States is still there fighting for the freedom of the Iraqi people. However, U.S. troops have been able to capture Iraq’s leader and also see him executed.

Many Iraqi people have fled from their country to avoid persecution, discrimination and even death. Some of the Iraqis who have fled their native country have come to Utah.

Mazen Hamoudi, 32, an Iraqi native, is a doctor in Salt Lake City. Hamoudi said when American troops first arrived in Iraq there were differing feelings toward the soldiers.

“When the American soldiers came during the first few months, most not all, most of the Iraqi people say hello,” Hamoudi said. “But, after three months people started to hate the American soldiers. Americans angered Iraqis because of their behavior.”

Hamoudi did not flee his country as a refugee; he came by choice. He can speak fluent English, which he was taught beginning in the fifth grade. Hamoudi received his medical degree from Baghdad University and decided to come to the United States to avoid the dangers of living in Iraq and also to seek more money.

In late December 2006 Hussein was hung at Camp Justice, an Iraqi army base in a neighborhood of Baghdad. And again, mixed emotions existed among the Iraqi people, Hamoudi said.

“It is difficult to express my emotion,” he said. “He killed people, so he had to be killed, but not by this behavior. I was not happy at the time.”

Hamoudi said he now finds it was the right thing to do, but will always feel that Hussein contributed many positives to his native country.

“I consider him the perpetrator of the Iraqi people,” he said.

Omar Shakir, 40, a patient of Hamoudi’s, feels the same about Hussein, but still is mourning over his execution. Shakir cried after the execution of the Iraqi leader.

Speaking in Arabic, Shakir said he was still very sad.

“Omar thinks as leader and Arabic leader,” said Hamoudi, who translated the conversation.

Before Hussein’s execution U.S. soldiers marched into Firdos Square in Baghdad and pulled down a tall concrete statue of the Iraqi.

This was also a devastating moment, Shakir said.

“From his [Shakir’s] perspective the falling down of the statue all of Iraq was falling down,” Hamoudi said. “I was happy because I did not see the falling of the country. When he fell down I considered Saddam falling down.”

Shakir said he feels the invasion of Iraq by the United States was not a smart move. But, now he fears if U.S. soldiers pull out, there will be a civil war. Shakir feels this would only create larger problems for his country.

Unlike Hamoudi, Shakir was forced from Iraq. He literally was chased out of his country with bullets being fired at him because of his religious beliefs.

Shakir has lived in Utah for four months. He has only recently begun earning a salary for income at the Deseret Industries through the LDS church.

Shakir said language is the biggest barrier for employment at this point. He finds life in the United States frustrating because in his country he was considered a rich man, and in Utah he is not. Shakir was a businessman in Iraq where he owned his own supermarket.

When Shakir arrived from Jordan he was able to bring his wife, Huda Shakir, 33, their son and daughter and his brother, Mahmoud, 32. They are all living in a Salt Lake City apartment on 309 E.  4500 South in the Cottonwood Creek Apartment Community.

Faris Ali, 45, is also a refugee from Iraq who has lived in Utah for four weeks. He lives in the east side of Salt Lake City in an apartment.

Ali has taken a different path to the United States than Shakir. He also holds dissimilar beliefs about Iraq, however, he does find some things in common.

Ali sided with the United States during the 2003 invasion, which is why he left Iraq to come to Utah.

“I was the first Iraqi to go for the United States when America raised for our help,” Ali said in a telephone interview. “I made a pledge to help this country through the good times and the bad times.”

In contrast to Shakir, Ali was not saddened by Hussein’s execution.

“I felt great on that day,” Ali said. “He killed lots of people. He was dangerous to all of the war. He was the biggest terrorist in the war.”

Like Hamoudi, Ali attended Baghdad University. He received a degree in mechanical engineering. He is seeking a job here that will allow him to use his skills. One problem he faces in finding a job with those skills is no social security in the United States.

Right now he is working temporarily as an interpreter at the International Rescue Committee in downtown Salt Lake City. The IRC is an organization helping refugees find housing, employment and medical care.

Ali never plans on returning to Iraq, He considers Utah his home now, he said.

“I forget about my birth country. This is my new one,” Ali said. “I don’t miss anything about my country.”

However, he is still waiting for the arrival of his family within the next year or two.

Shakir and Ali agree that people are very kind and nice in Utah. Neither one said they feel discriminated against because of where they come from.

“They are so friendly, so nice,” Ali said. “Everyone says hi. They are not like this in the Mideast.”

Shakir said in Arabic that the people are very understanding to his origin. One of his initial thoughts entering the United States was Americans would see his culture and religion from the wrong perspective, however, this was not the case.

Still, Shakir hopes to be able to return to Iraq one day.

“He considers his home and country everything,” Hamoudi said.

However, Shakir said there is a lot that needs to be changed before he can go back. If the security changed in Iraq he would go home tomorrow, but he can’t. He would be killed.

With the war still ongoing and Iraqis as well as Americans being killed every day both Shakir and Ali feel blessed to be where they are today. They have families, are able to practice their cultures and are doing everything they can to succeed in a new place.

Salt Lake County faces refugee-housing crisis


At the end of 2007, Salt Lake County Community Resources and Development commissioned a report on the housing situation for refugees within the county. The report, published in December 2007 by Wikstrom Economic and Planning Consultants Inc., revealed a dire situation.

According to the report, Salt Lake is what is known as a “highly-impacted community.” When compared to other counties of relatively similar size, Salt Lake has resettled a disproportionately large share of refugees.

The report gives a number of reasons for this discrepancy. Refugees tend to be very successful here due to Salt Lake’s constantly expanding job market. Simply put, more jobs means the county needs more people to fill them.

Perhaps the main reason is the family-friendly atmosphere of the city. Many refugees who come to the U.S. have large families, of which Salt Lake is traditionally more accepting. Almost one-fourth of the families resettled in Salt Lake in 2007 had 5 or more people in them; with some having as many as 11.

Resettling large families in Salt Lake also leads to large numbers of secondary resettlements. This is when a person, or group of people, decides to relocate to a city to be closer to family after having already been resettled in another part of the country.

But with a steadily growing job market and a near-constant stream of new residents the vacancy rates in apartments in Salt Lake is low. And when vacancy rates are low, rent tends to go up. This is especially true of larger units that are needed to house the larger families being drawn here.

According to the Wikstrom report, an annual income of more than $24,000 per year is required to afford an average priced, one-bedroom apartment in Salt Lake. The average refugee works a minimum wage job and earns about half that amount. This means multiple earners are needed in the home just to afford the cheapest possible option.

Adaptation to apartment life is another housing problem facing refugees. Many who come to the U.S. are coming from refugee camps in Africa or Asia, and often have never lived anywhere else. These camps are not always equipped with the modern conveniences of a Salt Lake apartment.

“Sometimes you have to teach people how to use a light switch,” said Patrick Poulin, resettlement director for the International Rescue Committee in Salt Lake. He and his caseworkers assist refugees assimilating to their new surroundings.

“Imagine having to teach someone that, then have to teach them about a lease, or paying utilities,” he said.

This concern resonates with other refugee care organizations. At a recent refugee service provider network meeting, held by the Utah Department of Workforce Services, housing problems ranging from cooking in apartments with open flames to a bedbug infestation were discussed.

Situations like these make landlords wary of allowing other refugees to rent their units in the future.

Fortunately, local government has not turned a blind eye to the situation. Early in 2008, the Department of Workforce Services opened the Refugee Services Office. It was created with the intent of coordinating the many agencies and nonprofit organizations that work to help refugees in and around Salt Lake.

Gerald Brown, the director of the Refugee Services Office, feels the number of refugees coming to Salt Lake is not going to slow down any time soon. “People will not stop coming here as long as they can get here what they can’t get there,” Brown said.

Salt Lake City has also begun to explore other solutions for the housing crisis. In January 2008, just after the Wikstrom report was released, the Community Resources and Development division of the Utah Department of Human Services assembled a committee to find a solution. The committee, comprised of refugee service caregivers and local business owners, came up with an idea to build temporary housing specifically designed for recently resettled refugees.

The facility, which is being referred to as “welcome housing,” would not only be a place for refugees to live for the first year or two in America, but would also provide onsite casework assistance with a goal of eventual acculturation. This staff would include people to help teach refugees the basics of apartment living in a safe atmosphere where they can develop these skills before having to find permanent housing on their own.

The projected 50-unit project is still far from fruition, said Dan Lofgren, president and CEO of Cowboy Partners, a real estate development and property management company based in Holladay. Lofgren is also a member of the state housing committee.

Until somebody steps up with funding for the project, he said it would never be anything more than an idea. But even money won’t permanently fix the problem.

“There aren’t resources available to build our way out of this,” he said.

The Wikstrom report came to a similar conclusion. According to the report, there needs to be better training to teach refugees good renter practices. Availability of housing is not a panacea for the rest of a refugee’s life as a U.S. resident.

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