Helping refugees in Salt Lake City

April 4, 2009 at 6:57 am (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , )


Think about this for a moment. Out of every 200 people living in Salt Lake City, at least one of them is a refugee who has fled their country due to danger or persecution.

There have recently been some very illuminating and perhaps shocking article written in the Salt Lake Tribune lately about the plight of refugees who arrive in the United States after fleeing conflict in their homelands.  These people come with the greatest of hopes of the American Dream but often end up abandoned by their advocates and hopelessly alienated.

I have had some opportunity to meet and work with some amazing people from Burundi, Burma, and Iraq lately whose past and current situations leave me heartbroken.  We’ll get to that a bit later, but let’s talk a bit about the current plight of refugees in the United States, and particularly Salt Lake City.

First, let’s give a bit of history on what kinds of financial difficulty these refugees deal with while also trying to deal with a completely different language and a culture which is very “Salt Lake”.

In an October 2008 article in the Salt Lake Tribune ( “Today’s refugees face harsher adjustment as program funding, flexibility lag” ), Lavinia Limon president of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants highlights how funding for refugees has been insufficient to truly succeed (or maybe survive?) here :

“We are simply not serving people the way we were,” Limon says. “Years ago, each refugee got $500 at the outset for rent, food, clothes and utilities, in addition to other noncash aid. Adjusted for inflation, the amount would be $3,500 today. Instead, each refugee today gets $425. “This is pathetic,” Limon says.

Often after a short period of being “resettled”, refugee families lose contact and support from the groups that brought them here.  Another October 2008 article from the Trib ( “After initial refugee assistance ends, Utah schools have to pick up the pieces” ) explains how after the initial support has drifted or been detached, the Utah school system is left to pick up the slack :

Many refugees find themselves lost after the six months of assistance they receive end. They often don’t know where to turn and must rely on a well-meaning but uncoordinated web of volunteers and organizations to help them survive. Schools, which are among the few constants in a refugee family’s life, pick up the pieces.
They look after students’ hygiene, make sure their families have enough
food and ensure they have socks and underwear.
“There’s no way schools could say, ‘Sorry, we can’t help you,’ ” said Alisa Amani, a refugee liaison for the Salt Lake City School District.
Julie Spencer, a Rose Park Elementary School teacher, sometimes takes her third-grade students to the bathroom because they had never had flushing toilets and are afraid of them. Rose Park Principal Rae Louie let a sixth-grader use a shower at the school last year so peers would stop making fun of her body odor. Granite refugee specialist Carrie Pender takes refugee families to the doctor, dentist and grocery store. She arranges immunizations and school registrations for children living at the South Parc Apartment Complex, which is near where she lives.
Her home no longer has a doorbell. It broke from so many refugee children pressing it.

Somali refugee Fatuma Aden, washes the face of her daughter, Nasteho Issak, 4, in the familys kitchen sink. The family says it has benefited from long-term case management through a program at the International Rescue Committee.

Somali refugee Fatuma Aden, washes the face of her daughter, Nasteho Issak, 4, in the family's kitchen sink. The family says it has benefited from long-term case management through a program at the International Rescue Committee.

Next, in an article from March 2009 ( “Federal funding boost will help Utah refugees” ), we get some better news for refugees  :

Thanks to federal dollars, Utah’s resettlement organizations were able to hire a large number of new staff, who will guide and supervise refugees during their first two years in America. The goal is to foster independence and ensure families aren’t overlooked.

“A big part of it is being able to develop a relationship with the family,” she said.

Starting March 1, IRC began to keep all its new cases for two years. CCS will continue to transfer its cases to the Asian Association after six months, but the additional staff will allow the association to give the new refugees increased attention during the following year and a half. The goal is for agencies’ caseload to drop to about 20 per case manager.

Before the move, stories abounded of refugees who hadn’t seen their caseworkers for a long time and didn’t know how to get help, explained Gerald Brown, the director of Utah’s new refugee services office. With long-term case management, that is expected to stop.

This is great news to give these refugee families more long term support.  Can you imagine being dropped into a foreign culture to adapt to a new language, a different culture and potentially a new set of foreign norms and technologies you are expected to know and be comfortable with like flushing toilets and electricity?

One of the next tools the refugees will need along with this longer term support is to gain skills in English.  This is not provided by the IRC and is usually provided be secondary organizations like the ESL Center in Salt Lake City.

I have been volunteering teaching English with the ESL Center for the past 6+ weeks and my experience has been unbelievably rewarding and exciting.  It is a real treat meeting each week with my students who are so eager (and hungry) to devour every bit of English I can teach to them.  It is definitely a challenge, but one I am personally gaining a lot from.  Each week I try to create more effective lesson plans and employ better learning techniques to help the smiling faces in my group.

Recently we have grown and have added 5 new women from Iraq and it has become difficult to maintain a productive class for all 11 people in the room.

Here comes the part where I tell you how you can get involved.  We are in serious need of more people to help teach English.  First thing most people ask me is “Don’t you have to speak their language?”.  You do not.  I speak not a word of Kirundi, Kareng or Arabic.  Immersion is the best way to teach a language.  In the beginning you need to know how to speak basically without introducing confusing vocabulary, but it’s so much fun.

If you would be interested, please contact the ESL Center.  They do great training and they will help you become a great teacher to help these people in serious need :

English Skills Learning Center
(801) 328-5608

Please give them a call and get involved.  If you have any comments or questions, please don’t hesitate to fire them my way.

I will definitely be sharing more of my experiences as we continue our lessons and I enjoy seeing and hearing my students progress.  I can’t tell you how excited they were last week as we did a hands on lesson about “give” and “take”.


Permalink 2 Comments