Utah refugees need volunteers to gain better ground

Utah refugees need volunteers to gain better groundAccording to estimates, roughly one percent of the refugees in the entire world are taken out of camps and brought to America by the U.S. Government. It sounds like a small number. But here in Utah alone there are 25,000 refugees. 25,000 people who have fled natural disaster, civil war and genocide for the Land of Opportunity, to get a fresh start for themselves and their children. However, according to Missy Larsen, co-founder of the Utah Refugee Coalition, many times the dream of a better life in America is diluted, deferred or downright crushed. “The Government is pulling these refugees out of the camps and bringing them here, but the vision of America, of the American Dream, becomes false because they can’t sustain a life here.” Many would argue that being brought to America is infinitely better than living in an unhygienic refugee camp. Others would respond that it’s simply exchanging one problem with another. For starters, refugees are expected to pay back travel expenses from their camps or homelands to the United States. For a family of four, that is thousands of dollars of debt. Upon arrival, each refugee is allotted about 800 dollars to get settled. However, half of this money will go to various agencies for administrative costs. Although these agencies will aid them immensely, that leaves each refugee with about 425 dollars to cover food, rent, clothing, furniture and other essentials. Many times, this money is all gone within their first 30 days in the country. Add the fact that many refugees, even educated ones with a commanding grasp of English, find trouble in securing even the most menial of jobs. Fast-track federal employment agencies typically require people enrolled in their services to take the first job that comes their way. For many refugees this has meant minimum-wage stints as dishwashers or manual laborers. Even those jobs, however, are becoming scarce. “With the state of the economy, English-speaking American citizens are getting top priority when it comes to job placement. Unfortunately, this means that refugees are being moved to the back of the line,” Larsen said. “Even refugees who are more educated, from Bosnia and Iraq, are having trouble. Think, then, of tribal Africans.” Larsen cites a Somali-Bantu family with seven children. In their homeland, the Somali-Bantu are considered  rural slaves, and subsequently have few educational opportunities afforded them. They speak a pictorial language known as Mai-Mai. Beyond the difficulties of learning a language, to have to switch from an unwritten language to American English, for many refugees, is tantamount to impossible. In the case of this family, a girl of 11 years speaks the best English. This means that business with landlords, schools and government services must be conducted through a translator that is barely starting junior high. “Without language skills and culture training,” Larsen says, “the transition to American life is impossible.” “Impossible” means families in Utah dancing on the poverty line. It means more people living on the streets. For the Utah Gang Task Force, it means growing danger. Because of the hindered economic start that many refugee families face, they are forced to settle in low-income housing areas. Low-income housing areas means poorer schools, with overcrowded classrooms, overworked teachers and a dearth of resources. This lack of education means that the risk of a refugee youth turning to gang violence is incredibly high. So much so that the Utah Gang Task Force has warned authorities of an impending, unprecedented increase in gang violence. Again, Larsen sees better education for refugees as the answer. “We cannot simply throw them food and clothing and expect them to thrive. Those things merely sustain life. We need to teach these people to thrive, not just sustain. It’s not easy. It will probably take a couple of generations before we get there. We need better school systems, more language training.” For Larsen, the hope lies in the community itself – volunteers working alongside government organizations and private foundations to help better acclimate refugees to American life. She even offered training sessions at UVU, in hopes of helping students get started in organizing efforts to aid these individuals. “I’ve seen a lot of miracles,” she says. “I’ve seen how love much these people, particularly the kids, receive from above – call it God, or whatever. There are positive things happening.” She cites the The American Preparatory Academy in West Valley, where immigrants, refugees and American-born students mingle peacefully, in “a culture of inclusiveness”. She praises Gerald Brown, the new head of the Utah Refugee Services Offices, who is committed to gaining more caseworkers for refugees and better transitioning programs. “We could always use more volunteers,” she says. “There are good things happening. Still, we could be doing a lot better, a lot more.”

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