Connecting Utahns with refugees

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Editor’s note: this story pairs with “Mormon leaders inspire BYU students, Utahns to serve refugees” 

Sajjad made a living by selling kabobs on the streets of Iraq. He often helped the U.S. military identify extremists and other people of interest. Because of this, Sajjad and his family were forced from their home when the Iraqi militia discovered what he was doing.

Shortly after the birth of his first child, Sajjad was recognized and shot at by those who had discovered he was helping the U.S. military. The situation became more dire and American troops said they could resettle Sajjad and his family in the U.S., so Sajjad’s family began the long process to seek refuge. But Sajjad’s wife became pregnant with their second child, and the military wouldn’t let them travel.

After the birth of their second child and while waiting to be relocated in America, Sajjad’s wife became pregnant again and was denied relocation again. Sajjad and his family were running out of places to stay, so Sajjad’s wife tried to abort her baby in desperation and without success. She ended up in the U.S. hospital on a military base. The military realized how extreme Sajjad’s situation was and finally sent his family to the U.S., where they were relocated to Utah.

Cassie Hard, a Utah County resident who relayed Sajjad’s story, befriended Sajjad and his family after responding to a Facebook page request to help Sajjad’s brother. When Hard met Sajjad’s wife, Nada, she felt an immediate connection.

“We were so much alike,” Hard said. “When I was a young mom and you came into my house I would have had General Conference playing, and she had the Qur’an playing. I would have been so glad to have someone in my house as she was glad to have someone.”

The Situation Abroad

Over 65 million people worldwide are forcibly displaced, according to the U.N. Refugee Agency’s 2016 Global Trends report; 22.5 million of those people meet the criteria of a refugee and 189,300 end up resettled in asylum countries.

The majority of refugees do not end up coming to the U.S. In fact, many refugees are not eager to do so, according to HELP International Executive Director Suzanne Whitehead.

“Nobody I talk to wants to come to America,” Whitehead said.

Whitehead said this is because many refugees perceive Americans as having an aversion to Muslims. Because many refugees come from primarily Muslim countries, they would rather go to a country more accepting of Muslims.

Whitehead spent the better part of 2017 working with a HELP International crisis team in Lesbos, Greece. Lesbos is an island located roughly 4 miles off the shore of Turkey, which hosts the largest refugee population in the world, according to UNHCR’s report.

For those fleeing their homes in the Middle East and Africa, Turkey is relatively easy to get to. Turkey also has the most direct access to the western world, especially through Greece, so it’s an area of interest for the EU. The refugee camps on Lesbos, Greece, play an important role for refugees seeking asylum in Europe.

Suzanne Whitehead
The life jacket graveyard on Lesbos, Greece. (Suzanne Whitehead)

Anywhere from 100 to 300 people arrive in Lesbos illegally each day. Refugees flee to Turkey, where they contact smugglers who overcrowd them on small, insufficient boats and send them across the channel to Lesbos.

The EU made a deal with Turkey in March 2016 to help stem the flow of refugees coming to Europe. The deal provides significant financial support to Turkey if the country helps vet the flow of refugees. Without the deal in place, upwards of 3,000 people could travel to Lesbos each day. Whitehead said about 200,000 refugees in Turkey are waiting to cross over to Lesbos. If 3,000 refugees arrived every day, the vetting system in Greece would be shattered, according to Whitehead.

Whitehead worked in the Moria camp, one of the two refugee camps on Lesbos. The Lesbos camps primarily vet new arrivals to see if they eventually qualify for asylum, which means relocation to a different refugee camp in mainland Greece. The first vetting step is to determine whether the person truly meets the criteria of a refugee. If people are migrating because of economic reasons, but could safely return home, they are sent back. Reaching asylum is an extensive process that can take over a year to complete.

Zachary Nutall
HELP International volunteer with refugee child. (Zachary Nuttall)

Helping Refugees Locally

The situation in Turkey and Greece is representative of a small portion of the refugee crisis. On a local level, refugees still face problems, even after being resettled. Few refugees have been relocated in Utah compared to global numbers, but they are still present in Utah communities.

Some Utah residents struggle to provide the support refugees need to make a life in a new country.

“There seems to be a disconnect in what refugees really need and what we’re giving,” Hard said. “They all just need a friend, and that’s probably it — a friend who understands the system (culture) and can help them. The other refugees I’ve seen and (visited) in their homes, it isn’t different.”

Refugee numbers in countries of asylum and numbers of refugees coming from source countries. (Rebecca Sumsion)

Christopher Udall, CEO and founder of Rebuild for Peace, works with refugees in Jordan. Rebuild for Peace focuses on teaching refugees skills so they can become economically independent. Udall said refugees’ biggest needs are building family relations, self-identity and family identity.

“We need to help people help themselves, instead of helping people and feeling good about yourself,” Udall said.

Sometimes incorrect perceptions about refugees cause problems for them after they move to a new location. These assumptions prevent people from reaching out and getting to know the refugees personally.

“People I know are good at helping from a distance,” Hard said. “Very few seem to want to meet them, I think because of the cultural difference.”

Hard said there’s a lot of fear associated with Islam.

“I’ve had people not talk to me because I have Muslim friends,” Hard said. “They have this strong voice in their head that says, ‘Danger. Evil. They’re going to kill us. How dare they come to our country,’” Hard said.

Whitehead said she can understand the reservations because she’s from “right wing Montana.” But whenever she hears others speaking ill of refugees, she always asks whether they know someone who’s a refugee. The answer is usually no.

“I never met any refugees who made me nervous,” Whitehead said. “Every single person I met was kind and hospitable and offered me tea and would have probably given me anything I asked for. Arabs (have) the most hospitable, kind culture I have ever worked in.”

About 1,000 refugees have moved to Utah every year since 1998. In Utah’s population of about 3 million, it can seem like refugees are hard to find. Whitehead suggests people who don’t know refugees at least get informed about the refugee crisis.

Because not everyone go can go overseas and witness the conflict for themselves, Whitehead recommends using social media to follow overseas grassroots organizations that work directly with refugees. She recommends searching for non-profits, volunteers, journalists and popular refugee hashtags.

“The more people know about this, the better for everyone,” Whitehead said. “I didn’t know much until I flew there and figured it out.

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