Refugee Services Office, Catholic Community Services support integration of refugees in Utah

Story and slideshow by BLAKE LANCASTER

When a refugee resettles in a new country, oftentimes they are in a new community with new rules, a new language and a new culture. How do they approach this challenging situation and become integrated members of American society? Organizations such as Utah’s Refugee Services Office can help with the transition.

Gerald Brown is currently an assistant director and state refugee coordinator at the Refugee Services Office, which is one of these organizations. The Refugee Services Office help refugees learn English, find and gain skills for employment and build connections with locals who can help show them the way things work in their new community.

Brown became interested in working with refugees during a year-long trip to Egypt with the YMCA where he experienced a culture with hardship unlike what we know in America. This sparked his passion for social justice. He went on the service trip expecting to help people, but when he finished he realized he learned the most.

Since his eye-opening service trip, Brown has worked in refugee agencies from Houston to New York to Cuba before becoming one of the godfathers of major Utah refugee programs.

For several years, Utah held monthly town hall meetings to discuss the state of refugee resettlement programs in Utah. In 2008, Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. approved the addition of refugee services and Brown was appointed to direct and lead the new program toward success.

Brown hasn’t stopped serving refugees since then and can be credited with the efficient success the Refugee Services Offices is able to accomplish when it comes to the integration process.

“If you can accomplish integration, then you have the strongest community possible,” Brown said.

From all of his experiences, one of the things Brown has learned that he stresses is understanding the important distinction between integration and assimilation.

Integration can be defined as incorporating individuals from different groups into a society as equals. Though similar, assimilation means to adopt the ways of the new culture and fully become part of it resulting in an immense loss of cultural identity.

Danielle Stamos, public relations and marketing director for Catholic Community Services, said it is important we make it acceptable and comfortable for refugees to continue their traditions and maintain their culture.

“Not only do they preserve their culture, but they also share their culture with the community in Utah,” Stamos said. “I love when we see refugee communities creating their own events taking some of their traditions from their own countries and implementing them here.”

Catholic Community Services is another organization with programs in place to help refugees integrate into Utah. Catholic Community Services provides case managers to refugees as they are resettled in Utah who help them get on their feet. They provide them with housing, teach them the way the American system works when it comes to everyday life, help them learn the language, find them jobs, and much more.

One way Stamos suggested the everyday community member could help with integration is approaching refugees and being welcoming and friendly. If, however, you’re really feeling ambitious and eager to get involved, finding an organization that helps refugees and interests you to volunteer with can be rewarding to all parties involved.

“Once you work one-on-one with a refugee you can see daily how easy it can be to help support them in their goals and support them in maintaining their culture,” Stamos said. “There will always be a lot of fear out there of change and things that are different, but if we instead embrace it we can see how much more strong and beautiful our community and relationships can be if we share and work together.”

Nirmala Kattel provides a unique understanding of assisting the integration process of refugees as she is a refugee herself as well as an employee at the Refugee Education and Training Center.

The Refugee Education and Training Center is located at the Meadowbrook campus of Salt Lake Community College where Kattel also attends as a student. Kattel said one of the center’s most popular services utilized by refugees is help with jobs similar to Catholic Community Services, but the Education and Training Center is there to help after refugees no longer have their initial case manager.

Another popular service at the center that Kattel has noticed are the English classes. Some refugees come with very limited knowledge of the English language, which is a key hurdle for refugees to clear as once they can surpass the language barrier, it makes the rest of the steps in the integration process a little easier.

Kattel came to Utah as a refugee from Nepal in 2009 and quickly learned that isolation is another of the bigger barriers refugees face upon arrival for her and other refugees alike. She had to wait six years before the rest of her family was able to resettle in America.

“Refugees who come alone feel isolated and depressed missing their families and their past lives, so involvement and engagement in outside activities can help them through these feelings,” Kattel said.

Kattel said the elderly refugees can especially struggle with the isolation and loneliness. Since they don’t have a job or school to go to, it confines their reasons to leave their home. This seclusion can lead to difficulties with learning English and understanding the system of our community as a whole.

“The system is hard to understand at first. Refugees from almost everywhere come from somewhere with a totally different system in their countries or the refugee camps they waited in before coming here,” Kattel said.

Showing interest in refugees as a person and who they are culturally can help them with almost all of their integration barriers. Additionally, it can make them feel more comfortable in sharing their culture with their new community. Kattel said a friend with experience in the community always proves to be a valuable asset to refugees trying to make sense of their new home and sharing their cultural values.

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What happens to refugees who come to Utah?

Story and photo by BLAKE HANSEN

The trek out of danger is only the first step for refugees. Once they arrive in the U.S. it becomes difficult to navigate a new culture, utilize assets and stay afloat. Doctors and lawyers who were once able to comfortably use their education and expertise to take care of their families are left to work minimum wage and start completely over.


A Colombian refugee living in Salt Lake City.

According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), “The total number is slightly greater than 1.2 million which is above 2017 levels and reflects needs from 63 countries of asylum, from both protracted and more recent refugee situations.”

While some suffering and fear for life may stop upon arrival to the U.S., refugees are faced with a new and unique set of challenges. Some have come with families to provide for, some have come alone, but one thing is always common and it is that these refugees are in a unique, new place with a new set of survival tasks. No longer can they put together tin huts, wait for UN resources to keep them alive, and exist with so many other people in their same situation.

For many refugees who haven’t had much time with the language or culture, they can sometimes find it difficult to look for employment here. Their skills, degrees, and certificates, most of the time, are invalid in the U.S. as well. It is very possible for more refugees to make it here and to flourish but without local help from individual mentorship and entity funding, it is near very difficult.

Jadee Talbot, director of refugee programs at the Granite School District on the southwest end of Salt Lake City, said, “We have had a lot of success with different programs we run here for the refugee community.” The school district manages an app called “Serve Refugees”, which provides information for after-school programs as well as other programs around the community that help refugees integrate. The district has five main community centers, one at each school, and they offer different types of classes for kids, parents and refugees in general, teaching things like computer literacy and different ESL courses as well, all free of charge.

At the Refugee Services office in Salt Lake City, many refugees are receiving help finding housing, jobs and transportation. The department and other organizations like it are helping refugees to get help with some of the essential parts of living in the U.S. but there is still much more needed to help these people integrate fully into society.

Gerald Brown is the state refugee coordinator for the Refugee Services office and he says jobs are slowly getting easier to find. But this isn’t happening without a lot of hard work from programs like the one that Brown runs which help provide refugees with employment in hotels and restaurants doing things like cleaning.

Brown went on to explain that the work they do is meant to teach the refugees how to become self reliant. Refugees are usually supported for about six to eight months before they have to be cut off from funding and assume responsibility for themselves. This time is crucial for both program administrators like Brown and the refugees receiving support to learn and develop the skills needed to prosper in the U.S.

They start to learn English if they don’t already know it, they learn about how to transport themselves, where things are, how to shop, as well as what kinds of skills they have and where they can be utilized for employment locally.

“Programs like this don’t typically do enough for the refugees, simply because the resources can only go so far. At the end of the day, a doctor from Somalia cannot practice here in the U.S. Some refugees come from such starkly different backgrounds and cultures that they don’t know how to get anywhere once they leave their apartments other than by walking. They almost always cannot make enough money to support themselves, let alone families.” Brown said.

Community members also can help refugees integrate into the Salt Lake Valley by volunteering with organizations such as the Refugee Services office. They are always looking for volunteers as well as donations of different types. Many people who cannot volunteer due to varying circumstances, who would otherwise enjoy volunteering can always donate to any of the agencies in town who help refugees to settle in and get to living a normal life and those donations are always greatly appreciated.


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 ( 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.”

Refugee programs and Utah: How effective are federal grants?

Story and photos by ALAYNIA WINTER

What is the largest problem refugee organizations face?

Short Answer: It’s funding.

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) is a federally funded and state administered financial assistance program for low-income families with dependent children and pregnant women during their last three months of pregnancy. TANF provides short term financial assistance and aids recipients in finding jobs that will allow them to support themselves.

In 1996, TANF replaced older welfare programs. Today, TANF provides annual grants to all U.S. states. The funds are used to pay for benefits and services distributed by the states.

According to The Department of Workforce Services 2016 report, the majority of refugee services are federally funded through the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) and the TANF program (with the exception of $200,000 provided by the State of Utah).


The Refugee Education and Training Center for the Refugee Services Office is located at 250 W. 3900 South in Salt Lake City.

Currently, Utah’s Refugee Services Office administers approximately $4.3 million from TANF and $8.9 million from ORR for refugee services in Utah. Health services receives over $3 million and case management is allocated over $2 million. Skills and employment training and youth services respectively receive approximately $3 million.

Many critics of welfare programs speculate there are better ways to spend and distribute the federal assistance money.

The 1996 welfare reform act, known as the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, completely changed the concept of welfare. States have control over how and where TANF money is spent.

According to The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CPBB), this money has not been used well. A 2015 fiscal study on TANF funds reported “34% of funds were going to causes not related to family and youth assistance.” The 34% of funding was labeled “other programs.”

In some instances, TANF money can go to a free and public workshop on improving marriages, or a health profession education grant for low-income students at a public high school. One doesn’t necessarily have to be financially “needy” to participate in public welfare programs such as these. The long-term societal benefits and changes can be difficult to measure; however, the money does seem to be going toward refugee programming and public programming in the “other programs” category.


An “I Am A Refugee” banner in front of the Refugee Services Office building.

Regarding how refugee TANF money is spent, “The caseload has grown. So, the bigger the load, the more time you spend putting out fires,” said Gerald Brown, Utah state refugee coordinator and assistant director for the Refugee Services Office.

The current administration’s decision to cut funding and the looming uncertainty of the future for many refugee organizations in a time with a historically high number of refugees spurs much debate.

According to the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, the U.S. government plans to cap the number of refugees from around the world at 45,000 in FY 2018. That is the lowest level since 1980.

Refugee resettlement organizations in the U.S. are worried about this drastic reduction. This news brings an inevitable slash in budget as well. Refugee organizations had been pushing the Trump administration to set next year’s refugee cap to at least 75,000, and said this diminution would force many to close their doors or lose valuable programs.

As Utah philanthropist Pamela J. Atkinson, of the Pamela J. Atkinson Foundation said, “Refugees are people who, rather than give up or give in, have chosen to take the higher and harder road and are grateful for the generosity of strangers who reached out with a willing and helping hand.”

anne b designs creates employment for Utah refugees and immigrants

Story and movie by MEGAN DOLLE

See the behind-the-scenes action in anne b design’s shop.

Maroufa Fnu sits at a sewing machine in an old pickle factory, stitching together leather and cotton fabric to create a variety of colorful designer bags.

Clutches, handbags, pouches and keepalls are only a few of the creations Fnu, 29, has in her repertoire. She had her own dressmaking business in Afghanistan before immigrating to the U.S. in 2012 to join her husband. She was familiar with sewing machines and retained some transferable skills, but admits that making bags is different than dresses.

Fnu appreciates the job and the ability to earn — and keep — her own money, something that wasn’t a possibility in Afghanistan due to cultural restrictions and norms affecting women. “I’m happier here,” she says about moving to the U.S.

Fnu works for Sarah Burroughs, owner of anne b designs, located in Salt Lake’s Granary Row. Fnu says she’s thrilled to be working for Burroughs, who designs and creates handbags that are sold online and at boutiques across the country, including Utah’s own Unhinged.

Burroughs initially decided she wanted to employ refugees and new immigrants after participating in a humanitarian trip with HELP International in summer 2013. She went to a village in Uganda and taught sewing techniques to the community.

“I came back, and I really liked teaching. I really liked how hard-working international makers were and that they were really skilled,” Burroughs says.

A friend of hers had worked with refugees in a similar industry. Burroughs reached out to her and soon got in contact with local refugee agencies like Catholic Community Services of Utah, Asian Association of Utah and International Rescue Committee in Salt Lake City.

Erica Wood, program specialist at the Department of Workforce Services within the Refugee Services Office, played an instrumental role in helping Burroughs find potential employees.

Wood and representatives from other refugee agencies held initial meetings with Burroughs to ensure she understood refugee culture. They also reassured her that an entire community of organizations was there to support her and her future employees.

Additional services provided by Wood and her team included screening and assessing applicants prior to interviewing, identifying reliable workers, providing job readiness orientation and employment counseling.

“It’s services that we would provide to any employer as long as they seek us out,” Wood says.

Impressed by her organization and passion, Wood was excited to work with Burroughs and help connect her business to the community.

More professional partnerships with refugees

Interestingly, Wood says she has noticed an increasing number of employers in Utah who want to hire refugees. And, she says placement numbers have risen over the past couple of years.

Why the growing interest in this part of Salt Lake City’s population?

It may be due to educational efforts. Wood works alongside refugee agencies in Salt Lake City to inform the community about refugee culture. Wood says she believes her refugee customers are hardworking, loyal and simply looking for an opportunity to be engaged in their new community and to support their families. She hopes to help the community understand that refugees are a great population to work with.

Wood also says it might be due to the labor market.

“Employers are looking to expand their pool of candidates. DWS, as a whole, is dedicated to helping employers increase their workforce while assisting people from all walks of life as they enter or reenter the job market,” Wood says in an email interview.

Utah is also unique in its ability to provide two years of case management. In nearly every other state, this service is only provided to refugees for six to eight months.

Refugees who are resettled in Utah receive support for their family and children in health, employment, success in school and overall cohesion with their community. This extra help can make refugees even more attractive for prospective employers.

“With every refugee who is recently resettled, there’s really a team of people that’s working together to support that refugee individual and the family and their employment search and just them in their communities as well,” Wood says.

Bridging the cross-cultural gap

This team of individuals may be necessary when employees and employers are working to bridge cross-cultural differences.

Since July 2014, Burroughs has trained and hired two other employees in addition to Fnu. Her first employee, a seamster from Afghanistan, simply didn’t come into the shop one day.

Left with impending Christmas orders, Burroughs quickly trained and employed a seamstress from Uganda. But, after months of back-and-forth miscommunication and unrealized expectations, Burroughs once again began searching for a new employee.

“There’s really unfortunate situations where it’s not a good fit, where I learned a lot as a business owner that I need to set these expectations. And so I have,” Burroughs says.

Burroughs has continually changed the way she assesses and evaluates her employees. She realized the need for clear training and employment expectations for all future employees, regardless of their culture. But she has also encountered some complex situations. For example, one employee, perhaps used to bartering in her culture, wanted to haggle over her pay. Another expected Burroughs to deliver supplies to her.

Despite the learning curve, Burroughs is determined to continue employing international seamstresses. “Because they’re great workers,” she says.

Bethany Hyatt, public information officer with the Department of Workforce Services, wants to reassure potential employers that there are individuals ready and willing to help in circumstances like those Burroughs experienced.

“The program is set so that there’s an open dialogue, so that if there’s ever a question an employer has about an employee and expectations … Erica and her team can help answer those questions as specific circumstances change over time,” Hyatt says.

Meeting Maroufa

In July 2014, around the same time Burroughs launched a crowdfunding campaign, she began the process of searching for employees to help fulfill incoming orders.

She heard about a couple of sisters from Afghanistan who resettled in Utah. Burroughs began training the women shortly thereafter, but it ended up being too difficult for her to work with them due to their full schedules.

Months later, after training and hiring two other employees, Burroughs started to realize the disconnect between her and her Ugandan seamstress. One of the sisters from Afghanistan messaged Burroughs on Facebook around this same time. She said her friend, Maroufa Fnu, was interested in a job. She asked for Burroughs’s phone number to give to Fnu.

Instead of waiting for Burroughs to reach out to her, Fnu called her right after receiving the contact information.

“She did a lot of being proactive,” Burroughs says.

Armed with her new skills and expectations, Burroughs was confident this professional relationship would be successful.

After training for three weeks under Burroughs’s direction, Fnu was promoted to a part-time seamstress position with anne b designs. She helps Burroughs fill online and boutique orders by working 20 hours a week.

Fnu is Burroughs’s only paid employee at the moment. She has so far shown herself to be a dedicated and hard worker.

Burroughs hopes to employ more refugees as she expands. She has been grateful for the assistance from Erica Wood and her team at the Department of Workforce Services within the Refugee Services Office. They both continue to be confident about the future of anne b designs and its partnership with local refugees.

“It’s been a success story for each individual, for personal mile markers, some big successes, some small successes,” Wood says. “And Sarah has been a big part of that.”


Editor’s Note: Since this story was published, anne b designs relocated to 17 E. 400 South and Maroufa Fnu moved to Denver, Colorado for family reasons.

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.

Diversity is complicated for refugees in Utah


In a state that is 93 percent white, Gerald Brown represents diversity.

Brown is white. He wears bow ties and peers through round-rimmed glasses. When asked if he speaks foreign languages, he says, “Only Southern.” When asked what his epitaph might read, he says, “A Holy Man.” And when asked if refugee caseworkers are tough, he says without hesitation, “Shit.”

Brown, 57, is the director of the Refugee Services Office in the Utah Department of Workforce Services. He works as a sort of traffic cop at the intersection of politics and nonprofit groups, coordinating efforts to help refugees integrate into Utah’s communities and culture.

Brown became director of the Refugee Services Office in February 2008 after Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. ordered its creation. Huntsman and the state legislature appropriated $200,000 to fund the office, the first time state money has been provided specifically for refugees. The sum is small, Brown said, less than 10 percent of the money he receives from the federal government. However, it as a sign that the state is willing to invest in refugees, he said.

“I need Huntsman for another term,” Brown said, referring to the upcoming elections. “He gets it.”

A self-described “lefty activist type,” Brown wants democratic Sen. Barack Obama to be elected president in November. He figures that with a Democratic president, Republican Gov. Huntsman will be re-elected in Utah and not called to a cabinet position in Washington.

Before Gov. Huntsman’s executive order, the Refugee Services Office consisted of “one guy and a cubicle,” Brown said. Now the office has six employees and one volunteer coordinator.

While he enjoys working in Utah, Brown’s fondness for the state and its governor only goes so far. He expressed frustration with the organizational difficulties of his job. One of his office’s goals is to build a network of trained volunteers to assist caseworkers. But, he said, the bureaucracy is slowing it down.

“Do we have trained volunteers on the ground yet? Nope. Because we’re still meeting,” Brown said.

Brown began his work in the field of refugee services assisting Cambodians at a YMCA in Houston in 1981. It was his first-hand experience that inspired him to be an advocate and an activist. The most effective activists, he said, are those who have had similar exposure to diverse populations.

Brown both praises and criticizes Utah in this respect. He accuses many Utahns as being insular and in many cases ignorant when compared with other groups of people he has worked with.

Peter Robson works as an interpreter for refugees at the Asian Association of Utah. He said that he included his work experience at a refugee resettlement agency on his resume. As he interviewed for jobs this past summer, many employers would ask him about it.

“These were well-informed people, but they were surprised that there were real refugees in Salt Lake,” Robson said.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Utah’s population in 2006 was identified as 93.5 percent white and only 5.1 percent black, Asian, Native American or Pacific Islander.

Robson, 23, is a native Utahn. Growing up in his east Salt Lake City neighborhood he was separated, and not just from the refugee community, he said.

“It’s easy to insulate yourself and separate yourself from anyone who is less-privileged,” Robson said.

Robson said his experiences working with the refugee community have changed his underlying career goals – salary and other considerations are no longer as important as the satisfaction that comes from helping people.

Robson is similar to many people that Brown knows in Utah. Brown said he is baffled by how simultaneously sheltered and eager the volunteers he finds here are.

“Utah County is the volunteer capital of the U.S.,” Brown said, “It’s like the perfect job.”

Brown said that diversity is edifying and that people need to begin to realize that the world is getting smaller and people are more reliant upon each other than ever.

While Brown may feel that Utah is not a hub of diversity, he maintains that Utah is the “Wild West for resettlement work,” meaning that he feels so much is possible because people and organizations are so willing to help. And despite his criticism insularity, Brown said that one of the reasons it is so easy to work with people in Utah is that they are conservative and relatively nondiverse. ”

They have no complicated experiences,” he said, “and people seem generally nice.” Brown epitomizes in many ways the unique and unlikely diversity of Utah.

Diversity, Brown said, is a two-way street – a street on which he directs the traffic.

And doing so, Brown said, “I have had the privilege to get to know the world.”

Salt Lake City is fighting human trafficking


Human trafficking usually starts with despair and a desire for something better and often ends in tragedy. Human trafficking is the act of illegally transporting victims for slavery from one country to another. It has become increasingly common around the world.

Human trafficking is a multi-billion-dollar industry that relies on hopelessness and unawareness as a means of luring individuals and families to be tricked and sold into slavery. Deborah Bulkeley, a reporter with the Deseret News who has written several articles on human trafficking in Utah, said the majority of victims are women who are usually forced into prostitution.

“These women work just as any other prostitute would but do not receive any compensation for what they do, but rather get abused and suffer for their work,” Bulkeley said.

It is estimated that more than 12 million people are victims of human trafficking; 80 percent are female and 50 percent are under the age of 18, according to the End Human Trafficking Web site. Between 600,000 and 800,000 victims are trafficked across international borders every year and the numbers continue to increase.

Utah’s legislature is now stepping up to the challenge of combating human trafficking locally as well as nationally.

In 2006, The U.S. Department of Justice announced that Salt Lake City would receive $450,000 in grants to supplement a new human trafficking task force. The main priority is the proper training of law enforcement.

“One of the big needs is training of basically everyone from law enforcement to first responders to anyone who could be in a position to identify a case of human trafficking,” said Melodie Rydalch, public information officer for the Utah office of the U.S. Attorney. “We are convinced there are cases out there. We just need to look closer and ask more questions.”

Efforts to identify and prosecute human traffickers are being stepped up. The 79 national convictions involving human trafficking in fiscal year 2006 were more than double the convictions the previous year. Utah had two of those convictions.

With the success comes the knowledge that more needs to be done.

A few different organizations focus on the victims of human trafficking. The International Rescue Committee, headquartered in New York City, has a refugee resettlement office in Salt Lake City

Victims of human trafficking usually arrive at the IRC after they have been found, rescued and stabalized. “Most of our work is to stabilize the refugee until the persecution has stopped and then get them resettled into the country,” said Patrick Poulin, resettlement director for the IRC in Salt Lake.

“It’s important to establish protocols for helping victims once they’re rescued,” Rydalch said.

A second organization is the Utah Health and Human Rights Project. The agency “promotes the health, dignity, and self-sufficiency of refugees, asylees, and immigrants who have endured severe human rights abuses, including torture, war-related trauma, and human trafficking,” according to the UHHP Web site.

Catholic Community Services of Utah is another support group for refugees. CCS “provides comprehensive resettlement services to refugees from various regions of the world,” according to its Web site.

All agencies need volunteers and donations. IRC Salt Lake City, for example, is seeking warm winter clothing, comforters, gift cards to local grocery stores and other items. The office also holds orientation sessions for individuals interested in volunteering.

 “Money is a powerful tool,” Poulin said. “With money we can actually support these victims and give them food and shelter.”

Refugee caseworkers work long hours in Salt Lake City


Originally from Rwanda, Africa, Valentine Mukundente and her parents were relocated to Salt Lake City as refugees. Before they came to America, however, Mukundente and her family were sent to a refugee camp in Zambia where she spent her high school years. In Zambia, Mukundente worked as a translator for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees while her family waited to be relocated to America. She had learned French and Swahili as a child in Rwanda and English while in high school.

Mukundente is a resettlement caseworker at the International Rescue Committee in Salt Lake City. She has worked there for more than a year.

“I love working with refugees because I used to be one,” said Mukundente. Armed with experience as a refugee she is able to keep from getting burned out from the extreme demands on her time as a caseworker. Instead, she finds it easy to relate to the refugees she helps because she was a refugee herself.

Life as a refugee caseworker is not easy on family life. Mukundente recently married a man she knew from Rwanda. He came here as a refugee and now they have a 6-month-old baby boy.

“It’s difficult because we don’t have time to go home,” Mukundente said about their schedules. Sometimes they have to pick up a refugee family from the Salt Lake International Airport in the middle of the night.

Caseworkers take them to their new house and show them how to use the stove and other appliances. This is the first time most Africans and Burmese have seen a stove or a light switch, Mukundente said.

Sometimes refugees will visit the IRC’s downtown office on 400 South to ask questions or for help reading their mail, often just as Mukundente is on her way out the door to go home to her family. But she gladly stays late to help them. After all, she used to be a refugee herself.

Seven caseworkers are currently employed at the IRC. Mukundente is responsible for 30 cases, but some caseworkers handle as many as 70 cases at a time.

“That’s too much,” she said. If she were to focus on one of her 30 cases a day, it would take a month to get through them all.

A case may consist of a single refugee, or it could be an entire family, some with as many as 11 members.

Caseworkers at the Asian Association of Utah are just as busy. Lina Smith, the director of Utah Refugee Employment and the Community Center at the Asian Association, supervises six caseworkers, who handle between 50 and 70 cases each.

Smith has been with the Asian Association for eight years. Five of the six caseworkers she employs are currently or were at one time refugees.

“I find the refugees don’t get as burned out,” Smith said. “They have been through what the people in their cases are going through.” That motivates them to get the refugees through the difficult process of adjusting to life in Utah.

Of all the places for refugees to be resettled, Utah is one of the best locations in the nation, said Gerald Brown, director of the Refugee Services Office of the Utah Department of Workforce Services.

“People here tend to be willing to help,” Brown said. Some social workers have a tendency to become jaded, but that seems to happen less in Utah.

Brown said that the perfect workload would be 20 cases for every caseworker. Because of the shortage of caseworkers it is very important that they set boundaries to avoid getting burned out.

For example, caseworkers decide whether to give out their personal contact information.

“I have some caseworkers that give out their cell phone numbers and then they have to choose whether to answer it or not,” Smith said.

The IRC’s Mukundente usually chooses not to give out her cell phone number, but some refugees still find it out from friends who know their number.

When they call they usually just have a question that can be taken care of later. Mukundente asks the refugee if it can wait until during work hours when they can talk about it. If it is a genuine emergency, such as when a child falls and breaks his arm, Mukundente directs the family to call 911 or a person at the IRC who handles emergency situations and can translate for the refugees.

“We tell them when they first get here to call 911 in an emergency, but they forget,” Mukundente said. “The first person on their minds is their caseworker.”

Despite the stress and the long hours, Mukundente loves her job.

“People have something in their blood, something they like to do,” she said. “This is not a job you do for money. You do it because you love it.”

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.

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