Mormon leaders inspire BYU students, Utahns to serve refugees

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Editor’s note: this story pairs with “Connecting Utahns with refugees

Early members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were no strangers to persecution. They experienced situations that would qualify many of them for refugee status today.

Church members were often driven out of their homes in the 1830s and 40s. One such incident occurred when they were driven out of Missouri during the winter of 1838 and 1839 and were taken in by residents of Quincy, Illinois, before ultimately settling in Nauvoo, Illinois.

Top LDS Church leaders have recently communicated concern about the refugee crisis, encouraging members to assist in any way they can.

An April 2015 letter from the First Presidency expressed concern and compassion for refugees.

In April 2016, General Relief Society President Linda K. Burton gave a talk in the General Women’s Session of the LDS General Conference titled “I Was a Stranger.” Sister Burton’s talk helped roll out an initiative urging church members to help refugees in their local communities.

During that same April 2016 General Conference, Elder Patrick Kearon of the Seventy gave a talk, “Refuge from the Storm,” which also included a message urging people to help those who may be considered refugees.

The increased emphasis on service and refugees has moved several individuals to take action.

Recent BYU graduate Candice LeSueur worked with refugees while serving an LDS mission in Salt Lake City. She worked among Burmese refugees and enjoyed her time serving them.

LeSueur attended BYU after her mission, where she worked with Y-Serve, BYU’s student service organization. She said she wanted to work with refugees again and noticed several people came into the office asking if there were any refugee programs they could get involved with.

Photo courtesy of Y-Serve Refugee.
Y-Serve Refugee holds a service project at BYU. (Y-Serve Refugee)

Y-Serve’s refugee program had been disbanded because of the lack of refugees in Utah County. After the April 2016 General Conference, LeSueur felt like something needed to be done.

“If the general authorities of the church are asking us to serve refugees and we’re a church-supported school, I felt like we needed to obey and do something about it,” LeSueur said.

LeSueur learned about a new organization opening in Provo: the Refugee Action Network of Utah Valley. With more local organizations being established to help refugees, it provided more resources for Y-Serve to use in sustaining a refugee program of their own. LeSueur pitched to have a refugee program reinstated under Y-Serve. The proposal was approved and students were given a campus connection to serve refugees. The program meets weekly to provide service to refugees — from making hats, to Skyping refugees, to teaching English.

Salt Lake County resident Sheila Ostler and her family started working with refugees before the LDS Church leaders began emphasizing it. In 2008, the Granite School District moved 380 refugee students to Cottonwood High School in Salt Lake City, where Ostler’s children attended school.

Ostler’s son saw a need to help make the refugee students feel included, so he started a club during lunch where students could interact with the refugee students. Through interactions with the refugees, Sheila Ostler saw a need for specific transportation arrangements so refugee students could attend after-school activities and school dances. Ostler took a proposal to the school board for a special bus that would meet those needs and the proposal was approved.

The school also opened a food pantry that wasn’t just for refugees, but also other families in need. It provided both food and school supplies to help meet their needs.

“The thing that is so cool and that I love about it is that we were doing it long before it was cool to serve refugees,” Ostler said. “Education is far greater than just the classroom. And I’ve seen the best come out of my children through service.”

Ostler and her family were able to interact and help local refugees. Unfortunately, some Mormons in Utah are hesitant about helping people from a religious background that appears radically different from their own.

Cassie Hard, who’s befriended some Iraqi refugee families in Salt Lake City, said she often gets pushback from those she knows because of her work with her Muslim friends.

“Even last week I had at least five people tell me I should be focused on my family and my calling, and that’s where a woman’s focus should be and that’s it,” Hard said.

Some people have told Hard the message the church put out about refugees was just a public relations thing to them, so they feel they don’t have to act on it.

“I think it’s unacceptable for people living in Utah (to act) like this.” Hard said. “The church’s stance has given me the courage to just do it (serve and work with refugees). And be loud about it and defend myself about it.”

Chiara Aliberti, a current BYU student from Italy, had the opportunity to work with refugees in Italy over the summer. Aliberti is currently the executive director over the Y-Serve refugee progam. She said she doesn’t feel that Utahns are particularly less aware of the refugee conflict than people in Europe.

“At BYU there are a lot of religious people that are prone to service. So, I actually found more compassion for refugees in Utah than in Europe,” Aliberti said.

Her advice for others is to develop more compassion and kindness.

“Only then will we be truly able to feel more deeply the stories of the refugees,” Aliberti said.

Over the summer, Aliberti visited Auschwitz with her family where she talked with a guard about why people didn’t do anything about the camps.

“We all know about refugees,” Aliberti said. “Most people are bystanders, not killers…but they’re not doing anything.”

Ways to get involved in Utah*

I Was a Stanger – An Effort to Help Refugees

HELP International

Catholic Community Services of Utah

International Rescue Committee

Refugee Action Network of Utah Valley

Rebuild for Peace

Refugee| Y-Serve

*This is not an extensive list of Utah organizations that work with refugees. These specific organizations were referenced in the two articles about refugees.

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