Former refugee Leonard Bagalwa shares story of life-changing move to Utah

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Kaleena McKelll
Former refugee Leonard Bagalwa addresses the ongoing need for volunteers and a welcoming community for refugees in Utah County (Kaleena McKell)

Former refugee Leonard Bagalwa escaped the captivity of Congolese rebels in the late 1990s and resettled in Utah in the early 2000s. He invited students to further Utah County’s support of refugees in his Kennedy Center lecture on Nov. 2.

Bagalwa serves as executive director of the Utah Community and Refugee Partnership Center, a center he created with the mission to “motivate, empower, enlighten and transform refugees’ lives through education”. The center has assisted almost one hundred refugees since 2016.

“Most refugees need financial assistance, yes, but they need more personal services,” Bagalwa said. “After they receive all (government) assistance, they still don’t have professional background.”

Over 60,000 refugees live in Utah. About 1,100 refugees resettle in the state each year, and the majority end up living in Salt Lake City. Bagalwa’s focus with the Utah Community and Refugee Partnership Center is to bring refugees to Utah County and provide them with educational experience.  

Living in Utah County allows for refugees to acclimate to American life outside of the city environment. It also brings volunteer opportunities to those in the area, rather than requiring volunteers to travel to Salt Lake City.

Bagalwa shared his own story of resettlement as a refugee throughout the lecture. He lived in Salt Lake City for six months prior to moving to Provo. He worked a midnight shift at a cemetery for some time before quitting, and eventually became homeless due to a lack of funds.

With nowhere to go, Bagalwa went to BYU’s campus in search of help and spoke to the first person he saw. A man named Douglas Day offered his help. Bagalwa eventually moved in with Day’s family.

Bagalwa then joined the LDS Church and began taking courses at Utah Valley University. He graduated in 2011. His education from UVU gave him the experience to professionally help refugees in Salt Lake City with their medical needs over the last five years. Now he also serves as the executive director of the Utah Community and Refugee Partnership Center.

Kaleena McKell
Students and faculty attentively listen to Leonard Bagalwa’s personal story of resettlement in America. (Kaleena McKell)

BYU international relations major Alex Cutshaw attended the lecture. He served his mission in Wisconsin and was specifically called to teach refugees there.

“I just have a huge love of refugees and I want to learn more about them,” Cutshaw said.

Cutshaw is grateful BYU facilitates opportunities to hear from people with experience pertinent to his education. He believes the more students understand issues beyond the BYU community, the more prepared they will be for the future.

“We don’t live in a bubble,” Cutshaw said. “We’re not isolated to the United States. Everything that we can do and become is focused on interacting with people in other places in the world. To do that successfully, we have to be aware of the issues and what’s actually going on.”

Bagalwa suggested that students can assist refugees in many ways, even if it’s just befriending them. Being displaced can be a traumatic event and creating genuine relationships with locals can be comforting.

“Refugees are not alien,” Bagalwa said. “Refugees are human like you. Refugees are people who have no choice than just leaving their country.”

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