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.

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.

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.”

SLC refugee agencies fight for time, money


The flight attendant lifts the microphone to his lips and smiles. He announces that in an effort to cut costs the scheduled pilot has been laid off. Fortunately, a good-intentioned passenger has skimmed a copy of the pilot’s handbook and is volunteering to fly the plane.

It is a metaphor used by Patrick Poulin, the resettlement director of Salt Lake City’s International Rescue Committee, to describe the nonprofit world’s forced dependence on non-professionals in its work.

“Who would stay on the plane?” Poulin asked. “But when it’s poor people we say, ‘Let’s have volunteers do it.'”

The IRC is one of two refugee resettlement agencies in Salt Lake County and works to facilitate the transition of refugees into a foreign society. Locating the right people and the money with which to pay them is a problem that agencies like Poulin’s confront regularly. But progress can sometimes come in small steps.

One step came in February 2008 when Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. ordered the creation of theRefugee Services Office within the Department of Workforce Services. He ordered the appropriation of $200,000 to assist refugee resettlement efforts. Organizations like the IRC tend to rely primarily on the federal government to support their operations. Huntsman’s executive order marked the first time that state money has gone specifically to the aid of local refugees.

The unprecedented allocation is significant but only in a symbolic way, said Gerald Brown, director of the Refugee Services Office. Brown said the $200,000 represents less than 10 percent of the funding his office receives from the federal government, but it’s a start.

“It shows that the state is willing to invest money,” he said, but “we need a lot more money.”

The Refugee Services Office acts as a coordinator among various agencies and organizations, like the IRC. The office is responsible for routing federal funds to the groups. It also pays the salaries of a handful of social workers at the IRC.

The federal government has agreements with the IRC and nine other national nonprofit organizations to resettle refugees across the country. When a refugee comes into the care of a resettlement agency, the agency receives $425 of direct assistance for that person. An additional $425 is also given to pay for things like office space, utility bills and caseworkers’ salaries, at the organization’s discretion. But, much of the administrative funds end up being used as direct assistance

“$425 doesn’t go very far,” Poulin said. “We face a choice between paying [refugees’] rent or paying staff.”

It’s a difficult choice, Poulin said. According to the IRC’s 2007 financial statement, 90 percent of the funds it received were used in program services — relief, resettlement and others. Seven percent of the funds were for administrative costs. No specific guidelines exist to mandate how the federal money is used, but the IRC provides cash assistance and purchases goods and services on the refugees’ behalf. It creates the dilemma of trying to help more people or giving overworked staff pay raises.

“The problem,” Poulin said, “is that we can’t close our doors and we don’t want to.”

When they arrive in Salt Lake City, refugees who are eligible can enroll in support programs like Medicaid or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, programs available to the general public. Those who do not qualify can receive cash and medical assistance from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for up to eight months. However, after the eight-month period is up, they may only receive benefits based on eligibility. That means they could receive nothing.

To complicate matters further, the IRC’s charter only allows enough funding for caseworkers to work with refugees for six months before responsibility for that person is shifted to secondary organization, according to Poulin. This, he said, is where many refugees fall through the cracks.

Keeping refugees out of the cracks, then, is a problem of time and money — six months to help people who come from a foreign country, who may speak little or no English and who often have no family ties on the continent, much less Salt Lake City, become self-reliant.

“It’s not even six months in reality,” Brown said, noting that caseworkers are often overwhelmed by the number of people with whom they work. The IRC resettled 546 refugees in Salt Lake City during the 2007 fiscal year with over one-third arriving in September alone.

“One of the founding principles of the refugee program is, early as possible, self-sufficiency,” Brown said. It is a good idea in theory but is not always the best for the refugee, he said.

“When people come in, there’s a lot of pressure to put them into any kind of job as fast as you can do it,” Brown said.

However, it is difficult to focus on helping people be successful in a job when they are still grappling with a completely foreign environment. Poulin described a group of Burmese who were afraid to leave their homes in Salt Lake City homes after spending years in refugee camps in Thailand, not allowed to wander more than a few hundred yards from their compound. Volunteers and caseworkers struggled to help people feel comfortable doing every day tasks like going to the grocery store, riding public transportation and finding their way to and from school.

Working in such sensitive circumstances requires having people with the language capacity and professional training to do the job well, Poulin said. The IRC maintains a workforce of between 50 and 60 volunteers and a handful of paid employees, Poulin said. They cannot handle many more than this and still provide adequate support to the volunteers. What are needed, he said, are professionals.

“We’re trying to build our capacity to serve but we don’t want to just throw volunteers at refugees,” Poulin said.

The Refugee Services Office is working with resettlement organizations to build a trained volunteer network to assist in case management. It is working to secure additional funding for caseworkers’ salaries.  Both the IRC and the Refugee Services Office are working to extend the time they work with refugees from six months to 24 months, hopefully guiding more people to what Poulin calls the IRC’s ultimate goal: a person’s becoming a citizen of the United States.

“It’s going to be huge when we pull it off,” Brown said.

Salt Lake City IRC assists refugees


Refugee. According to the Immigration and Nationality act, a refugee is described as: “Any person who is outside any country of such person’s nationality or, in the case of a person having no nationality, is outside any country in which such person last habitually resided, and who is unable or unwilling to return to, and is unable or unwilling to avail himself or herself of the protection of, that country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.”

It is a term that is tossed around, but is seldom acknowledged by the majority of the population. As with all jobs that require a strong stomach, and an even stronger will, the people who work with refugees experience similar turmoil, similar angst. It takes a different kind of person to deal with the same issues as their clientele, and a still more unique person to be able to smile before, during, and after a hard days work. 

Cue Patrick Poulin.

It is Patrick Poulin’s job to make the difficult road that lies ahead for those refugees as seamless as possible. He is the resettlement director for the International Rescue Committee a private non-profit organization. As director he oversees about 400 to 500 placements a year. 

“We do a couple of things, first we try to get legal status, then we deal with the social and psychological issues,” Poulin explained, choosing his words carefully and thoughtfully. “We deal with a lot of people who have miserable existences, so we try and hook them into the resources available.”

There are plenty of resources available, such as help with bills, educational opportunities, and living situations, but the literature and general information about them does not always reach the necessary audience. Refugee Sean Keranovic of Prijedor, Bosnia, never met Poulin, but wishes he had. “My family and I didn’t have access to any of the things we needed,” he said. “Education, I missed nearly a year of school when I moved here, and only because we didn’t understand how to get me registered.”

To ensure something like this cannot happen under his watch, Poulin now has forged relationships with the right people, those with access to funding and information, to help his clients with the most amount of help possible. These resources, not only were not readily available to his clientele, but when he started, Poulin was not all that wired into the system himself.

He began his humanitarian tendencies by joining the Peace Corps, which sent him to Mali. After his experiences over there, he knew had a career in helping those people who could not always help themselves.

Following his Peace Corps stint, he never looked back. “I enjoy helping out supplanting the real support people need,” Poulin said, smiling. It is his caring nature that has driven him to keep with his career. 

That career has even brought him all the way overseas again, to places in Western Africa, where he is needed as much as he is stateside. “When I went over to the Ivory Coast and Liberia, I found that the refugees were very appreciative,” Poulin recalled. “There wasn’t enough, Liberia feels like they are the 51st state, and that we [the U.S.] would save them.” 

And while there might not be the sufficient funds overseas, Poulin has enough trouble accounting for the cost of programs stateside. With a group as small and isolated as refugees, not a lot of attention can be called to individuals. By working for an organization like the IRC, he has sacrificed material gain for moral gratification.

The IRC has now brought over 800 refugees successfully into Utah, and they all have to go through Poulin. And the goal for the organization is to successfully settle 12,000 refugees in the United States. 

Poulin understands that it is a lofty goal, especially when the word successful is  included in the goal. But he does have a plan for each of them, and cares for them individually, not as a lump sum.

When asked about his goals for each refugee, he does not have lofty aspirations, and would rather see them succeed than anything else. “In two years, I want to get them out of poverty, that’s our goal,” Poulin said, stressing the time it would take. “The more independent they are, the more successful we are.”

“We’re not in it for the personal gain. We are a group of humanitarians,” Poulin said. “We’re just stretched thin, we probably have one-third of the programs and amenities we should. But either you burn out or you find yourself very dedicated.”

As with all public programs, funding is not only an issue, but also the prevailing one on Poulin’s mind right now. The IRC does include charity events in its calendar, such as the Chili Affair and the nationally held First Thanksgiving, to try to make the lives of the refugees and Poulin alike, easier. When Poulin has the funds to work with, he can provide not just emotional and psychological help to the refugees.

The jobs that require a little bit of emotional elasticity, possessing a good spirit always helps. Sometimes the work can get a little disheartening, but he always has a positive outlook on his line of work.

Even when it gets heavy, he understands the emotional and work related lines that can be crossed. “You have to be able to smile,” Poulin said.

Mormon church lends help to refugees


Every year people throughout the world come  to the United States for something better, whether it’s opportunity, a place to live or lifestyle. Some of these people are refugees who have fled from their native countries to seek better chances in their lives.

According to the United States Department of State a refugee is a person that may be fleeing from their country to get away from war or persecution on account of race, religion, or nationality.

A refugee must first go through the requirement process to get into the United States. The process is not a short task. It can take foreigners years to gain permission to get into the United States, said Patrick Poulin, resettlement director of the International Rescue Committee in Salt Lake City.

Typically, refugees making the jump to the United States ride a bumpy road to success.

Elissa McConkie, resettlement operations officer for IRC, said over a telephone conversation, they usually can’t speak English. They are typically poor and most likely have little working experience. 

Seventeen IRC locations stretch across the United States. The Utah location at 231 East and 400 S. receives major help from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which takes a heavy load off for the organization.

“There are several levels of support from the LDS church,” McConkie said. “If we didn’t have support from the LDS church our job would be much more difficult. It contributes so much.”

IRC takes in refugees and attempts to start the newcomers on the right foot throughout the first few months of their stay. The agency makes the arrangements allowing the refugees to obtain food, jobs and shelter. Staff members and volunteers contribute to the committee by helping make these necessary accommodations, and by personally working with the refugees.

Every year fluctuates on the amount of refugees from countries around the world coming into Utah. McConkie estimates there are approximately 900 that come to Utah a year. Out of those, 450 come through IRC. Catholic Community Services, a different agency located in Salt Lake City assisting refugees, receives the rest.

McConkie said the money from the government is not sufficient for what the refuges need. The federal government gives the IRC $425 for each refugee who comes in.

“That is not a lot of money,” McConkie said. “It [the church] helps us stay within our budget.”

The church grants vouchers to the refugees to Deseret Industries. The vouchers go directly to the newcomers so they can go shop themselves, McConkie said. Most of them are not used to Utah’s weather, thus, with these vouchers they can make sure they are seasonally prepared.           

“We would be purchasing these items if it wasn’t for the church,” McConkie said.

The government requires that refugees contain certain necessities in their homes, such as hygiene and basic foods. The church provides these products at cheaper costs through theWelfare Square mini store, which offers these certain goods at cheaper costs.

Most importantly, the LDS church offers jobs to the refugees through Deseret Industries stores, the LDS Humanitarian Center and the manufacturing center.

“They get a sense of work,” said Poulin, IRC’s resettlement director. “It’s a great opportunity.”

When the refugees begin work, they learn a trade they can take with them when they move on. The employment received for the refugees through the church is not permanent. It lasts only a few months. They are being trained.

Not only do they receive working experience, but are assigned a mentor that works with them. The mentor follows up with the individual once the training is over.

“Our goal is for everyone in our training to have a mentor,” said John Yancey, LDS Humanitarian Center assistant manager, during a telephone conversation. “That person is not only helping to look for jobs after training here, but housing and other things in life.”  

McConkie said the church hires people on a monthly basis, but it does depend on the time of year. She also said the training grounds for the refugees are very supportive environments.

“They can learn what’s expected of them,” McConkie said. “They are so excited to be working.”

A certain goal the IRC wants to achieve is not to see refugees return once they have gone through the program.

“When a refugee gets a job we don’t hear from them as much because they don’t need us as much,” McConkie said.  

And for the refugee’s sake this can happen more often than not due to the support from the LDS church.

IRC Salt Lake City extends its care


It all started with an idea, Albert Einstein’s idea.

As a German refugee, Einstein came to America to escape the tyrant Adolf Hitler. Einstein used his influence and money to help others escape from Germany.

Thanks to Einstein an American branch of an already existing European relief agency was founded in 1933. This branch later grew to become the International Rescue Committee.

The IRC is a nonprofit organization that helps refugees around the world rebuild their lives. Their local offices are located in downtown Salt Lake City, with other offices spread across the U.S. from New York to Los Angeles.

Refugees are people who had to flee their homelands because their lives were in danger. They cannot return to their homes so they need new ones, and that is where the IRC comes in.

“The U.S. is by far the largest humanitarian provider,” said Patrick Poulin, resettlement director for the IRC. “In Salt Lake City we receive between four and five hundred refugees a year.”

This year, its 75th anniversary, the Salt Lake IRC is increasing its ability to help with the beginning of the extended case management program. This will lengthen the time IRC has to help refugees from six months to 24 months.

The program is starting small out of necessity, according to Stacey Shaw, the caseworker who was hired at the beginning of 2008 to develop the new extended program. Of the seven caseworkers employed at the IRC, Shaw is the only one currently handling cases in the new program.

Eventually the IRC would like to give extended care to all of the refugee families it helps, but without state funding it will not happen.

“It is a matter for the state, if they decide to do it or not,” Shaw said.

Right now the 26 cases Shaw handles are the only ones in the 24-month program due to lack of funding. In fact, the only reason the program exists at all is because of a private grant made to the IRC.

It takes five years before refugees can become U.S. citizens. Before this year the IRC could only help them during the first six months, just enough time to get families on their feet by setting them up in a place to live, and providing them with the funding to feed and clothe themselves.

Currently the IRC’s new program can only accommodate the families that will benefit most from the extended care. These families are usually chosen because of mental or physical health issues.

Casemanagers pick refugee families up from the airport, help sign the lease on their home and help find them jobs. They also provide refugees with transportation to and from doctor’s appointments for health checks.

Many of these refugees have a difficult time understanding and speaking English. One of the IRC’s roles is to provide caseworkers and volunteers to help them break through the language barrier.

“Some people need a ton more dental or doctor appointments,” Shaw said. “We are here as a safety net to make sure they don’t fall through the cracks.”

The IRC also helps refugees get health insurance and register their children in school. It also teaches them skills some people take for granted, such as using public transportation, budgeting their income and sorting important mail.

Sometimes refugees will get confused by a piece of mail, Shaw said. It could be anything from an important bank statement to a doctor’s bill.

“We can do these little kinds of prevention before it becomes something big,” Shaw said.

Usually after six months the IRC hands off care of refugee families to the Asian Association of Utah where they continue to receive assistance.

“It is not necessarily a seamless switch,” said Poulin of the IRC. What happens when it comes time to renew the lease, or if a refugee loses a job and needs help to find a new one?

The Asian Association, like the IRC, is a nonprofit organization and helps refugees in any way it can. However, switching agencies during the refugee’s adjustment period can be difficult because they have to get used to a new agency.

“Six months is not enough time to become self-sufficient,” said Gayane Manukyan, a volunteer coordinator for the Asian Association. Refugees tend to get lost when switching caseworkers and agencies. “If you stay with the same family from the first day it is easier.”

The ultimate goal of the IRC is to empower refugees to support themselves. Shaw and the extended case program are a means to reaching that goal.

“Since we’ve been working with the families, we feel we have a unique opportunity to continue helping,” she said.

By taking care of little problems refugees have now, their transition into life in America will be made easier, Shaw said. “Having a contact like me can prevent a crisis from happening.”

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