Utah top destination for refugees

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Refugee women study at the LDS Humanitarian Center in Salt Lake through a program that enables refugees to work for half the day and study English or job skills for the second half. (Troy Casper)

Rabia immigrated from Afghanistan with her young daughter and the hope of finding a better life with her husband in the United States. Family relationships did not turn out as she had planned, and she was not able to find her home for four years. She was referred to the LDS Humanitarian Center by a bishop and found help to start working, improve her English, obtain U.S. citizenship and find a house, according to the Deseret Industries website.

Refugees have flooded the news of late, but they have also flooded Utah due to an abundance of social services in the state that help them acclimate to American life.

“Salt Lake is unique because, compared to our population, we actually receive a lot of refugees, and that’s because we have a lot of wonderful social services,” said Danielle Stamos of Catholic Community Services.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the United States State Department coordinate where refugees can go, and Utah is considered one of the top five refugee destinations because the community here has chosen to help. For example, Utah is the number-one place for resettling “at-risk women,” which usually means single mothers with children or people with disabilities, Stamos said.

Catholic Community Services runs two programs that transition 1,200 refugees every year from the airport to a new apartment home and beyond. One program is called Refugee Foster Care, where 70 orphaned refugee children find new homes and education with Utah families until age 21. Stamos said they’re always looking for foster families.

“Every day in the news we’re hearing about new places (where people are fleeing as refugees),” Stamos said. “Next year we’re expecting kids from Syria.”

For adult refugees and families, Catholic Community Services provides case workers to help with the legal paperwork that helps them stay in the U.S. as refugees, education and job development.

In the area of job development, they find a partner in the welfare services of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“The LDS Church and the Catholic Church have this incredible partnership,” Stamos said. “It’s this really cool cycle they have.”

The LDS Humanitarian Center employs up to 100 people who work in the warehouse sorting clothes for the needy half the day and attend classes to improve their job prospects for the other half. They receive wages for the full day’s work.

A class on English and job skills in session at the LDS Humanitarian Center. The program enables refugees to work for half the day and study English or job skills for the second half. (Troy Casper)

“There’s no program like ours anywhere in the country,” said Troy Casper, of the LDS Humanitarian Center. “Clearly we’re kind of the ideal program that as refugees become aware of it they want to jump on board, so at times there’s waiting lists.”

Half the slots are filled by referrals from LDS bishops. The Church pays wages to those it refers as they work in the Humanitarian Center for half the day and attend English classes for the other half. The other 50 are referrals from the Department of Workforce Services, which pays the wages for refugees’ English classes only, Casper said. This second half of the program came five years ago, when the Department of Workforce Services asked the Humanitarian Center for help employing the refugees.

Deseret Industries is another employment destination for immigrants with and without formal refugee status. At both the DI and the Humanitarian Center, physical work in the warehouse or store is only part of the program. All associates meet with a vocational counselor from day one to make a plan for future employment in the mainstream economy, and paid training — both in-house and in the community — is available to start the process. Most people remain with the employment programs for less than a year before they move into the workforce.

Troy Davis is a counselor with LDS Developmental Counseling Services and has helped immigrants and refugees adapt to the culture and workplace in Utah. He has counseled many people from Eastern Europe, especially Armenia and Georgia, Somalia and Iran.

He said he and the other counselors find it incredible that many people leave Eastern Europe — where they have high levels of education and standards of living — for a worse socioeconomic status here, where they have to navigate a new culture and a workplace where their language and job skills don’t translate. Davis mentioned one man he had helped — the man had been a Russian tank commander and colonel for 30 years, but in Utah he could not find work as a custodian.

“How many tank commanders do you see around here?” Davis pointed out.

Davis said he finds it incredible that many immigrants he meets give up a higher social status and wealth in countries such as Armenia or Iran because they believe the promise of freedom in America is worth the cost.

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