Volunteer programs aiding not only refugees, but volunteers as well

Story and slideshow by SCOTT FUNK

Do you know what a refugee is? Do members of society take the time to know who these people are, or do they simply walk past and question why they are here? What if you knew? What if you understood their story and why they are here? If you did, would it make a difference?

Gerald Brown, the Utah state refugee coordinator and assistant director of the Refugee Services Office, said in an interview that refugees “don’t have any American friends. Being nice to people is most important to them. Even just a smile at them. Many refugees have said that just a smile from the mainstream is meaningful.”

Why would a smile be so meaningful? To understand that, it’s important to understand what a refugee is. Brown said a refugee is someone who has been forced to flee their country because of persecution, war or violence. Persecution must come from one of five scenarios: race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership within a particular social group.

“Leaving their country is difficult and traumatic,” Brown said. “The resettlement process is just as difficult and often traumatic. They are so inspiring. You can’t believe what they’ve gone through, and what they’ve done.”

So why would a smile be so significant? Because of the trials refugees face to get here. A smile can signify happiness to them — something that some have been lacking for a long time.

There are many ways to share your happiness with refugees in Utah. One of these ways is by joining a volunteer program in Salt Lake City called Know Your Neighbor (KYN).

KYN is a volunteer program that offers over 20 different opportunities to volunteer with local refugees. Some of these opportunities include: helping a refugee prepare to take the citizenship test; helping refugees learn a new language; helping teach life skills such as sewing; becoming a tutor to help learn English, math or even to learn to drive; teaching technology skills such as typing or how to use programs; presenting and leading class on a topic of your choice; and becoming a family friend.

Rachel Appel, the program coordinator for KYN, said there are roughly 200 active volunteers helping over 350 refugees who have enlisted in KYN. The opportunity that has had the most success, and the one that Appel believes is the most beneficial, is the family friend.

A flyer provided by KYN describes a family friend as an individual, family, or small group, who will develop a friendship with a refugee family through weekly gatherings on their own schedule.

One volunteer who participates in this is Kim Watson.

Watson has a family of her own and is just as busy as everyone else, but one day she decided she wanted to volunteer. She has been involved with KYN for over a year, and she loves it. In an interview at an orientation, she described what it is like being a family friend.

Watson said there is no such thing as a typical visit, because each one is different. But what she has found to be the most beneficial to the individual whom she works with, is just being in their home to talk. Watson said that some days she’ll go over and ask what they want to do, and occasionally all they’ll say is just talk; talk about anything and everything in life. (Families can not be identified due to confidentiality guidelines.)

Sometimes, with the permission of the family, she’ll even bring her kids so that they can play with the kids of the refugee she is visiting. Watson made it clear that there is in no way any form of financial aid going on. She said that if she has some extra veggies from her garden she will take them, or if she is going to donate items to the Deseret Industries, she’ll take them to her refugee family first to see if they want them. Watson says her purpose of being there is to be a friend and to develop a relationship.

At the orientation, Watson shared that at her own home, her house is filled and yet she still thinks she needs things. One day, when she was visiting with her refugee friend, they were sitting and talking outside on a curb and her friend told Watson that she believed she had everything. Watson went on to explain that in her friend’s home, there was barely anything, especially compared to her own home. And yet, with barely anything, her friend said that she had everything.

“I could listen to NPR for 100 years and never have the same experience as I did than when I was with my friend on a curb,” Watson said. “I now have a sign in my home that says ‘I have too much here’ and it’s a constant reminder to me of what I have, and what others don’t have.”

Appel, the program coordinator for KYN, said making friends and developing relationships, like the one that Watson has made, is the goal.

“It’s bigger than just matching families together,” Appel said. “It’s for refugees to have the opportunity to participate in social activities. So they can have an American friend to break down barriers and to ultimately have a unified community in Salt Lake.”

To become a volunteer and a family friend, there is a process that one must go through. The first thing to do is get in contact via email with Rachel Appel (Rachel.Appel@slcgov.com). Second is filling out a volunteer application and attending one of the monthly orientation meetings — Appel will have that information —  held at the City and County Building in downtown Salt Lake City.

At these orientation meetings, potential volunteers will introduce themselves to each other and then they will receive a “Refugee 101” from Gerald Brown, the assistant director of the Refugee Services Office, where they will learn more of what a refugee is. They will then learn the volunteer opportunities, role-play volunteer situations and also have the opportunity to hear from a current volunteer and hear their story. At the end, there is an opportunity to ask any questions that may have not been answered.

Once they have completed the orientation, the next step is to schedule an interview with Brown. This interview also consists of a background check, and will help determine which opportunities are best for the volunteer as an individual and which refugee family they would pair with the best if they chose to be a family friend. Once that is completed, they may begin to volunteer based upon their availability.

“We want a good community,” said Brown at a November 2017 orientation. “We have to help refugees integrate. These people have gone through things I can’t imagine. They are so inspiring. And if we make them feel like they belong here, it will add value to them.”

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.