Utah now houses 45,000 refugees

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Refugee March (AP Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert)
A woman holds a placard as she walks in a solidarity march for refugees on September 27, 2015 (Associated Press)

About 45,000 refugees or people who have applied for a protected status from outside the U.S. now live in Utah and at least 220 separate organizations offer 388 programs to help them, according to a new study by Utah Nonprofits Association.

Utah is in the top 20 percent of states who accept refugees, according to the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement. Utah has become the home for about 60,000 refugees over the decades and about 45,000 of them stayed in Utah during that time, according to the study. Utah currently receives about 1,100 more each year.

In Utah, the majority of refugees come from the Middle East and African countries. In 2014, Utah took in 290 refugees from Iraq, 279 from Somalia, 126 from Burma, 108 from the Congo, 93 from Bhutan and 58 from Sudan, plus smaller groups from 18 other countries. Most are concentrated in Salt Lake County.

“The refugees are separated from home and personal history; the refugees often possess little more than their names,” said Paige Sparks, said in KUED’s “Finding Home: Utah’s Refugee Story.” She was the producer of the documentary film.

“They step onto an airplane and step off in a foreign world,” Sparks said in the film. “A world comparatively rich with opportunity, wealth and stability. Immediately, a new chapter of survival begins.”

Utah offers 388 programs to help the diverse refugees, but with so many programs, coordination becomes a problem.

“You want them to work together to know where they are providing services to spread resources rather than have competition among all these organizations to provide the same service too much in one place or too little in another,” Gavin Clark, project executive for Emperitas, said in an email.

The Utah Nonprofits Association points out that no central database exists for available services or exactly which refugees are being helped and by whom.

“Once they actually arrive in Utah, they are immediately started into the ‘system,'” Sparks said in an email. “Our system, which is full of paperwork, legalities, bureaucratic jargon, etc. which indeed is essential to get them started on food stamps, medical programs, and enrolled into schools; however, it is very difficult for many people to understand. I hardly understand most of it, so I can’t imaging what a refugee must think during their first 48 hours in the States.”

The Utah Nonprofits Association’s study is calling for a database and more cooperation between refugee organizations to better service refugees. Sparks agrees but believes the best way to accommodate new refugees is by “being their friends.”

“Our refugee agencies can only do so much, it’s really up to the residents in our state to help these refugees reach their full potential,” Sparks said in an email. “Friendship can break the barrier between a successful refugee experience and a severely unsuccessful experience, all you have to do is have an open mind. Once you do get to know a refugee you will be shocked as to how much you have in common with them.”

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