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'Welcoming community,' acts of kindness help refugees adjust to life in Utah

Published: Wednesday, April 24 2013 6:15 a.m. MDT

Wisam Khudhair poses for a portrait at Catholic Community Services in Salt Lake City on Monday, April 22, 2013.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — A week after the bombing at the Boston Marathon, more people are coming forward with information about the Russian immigrant brothers accused of the attack that killed three people and injured 170 others.

But Tamerlan Tsarnaev's own words reveal a disconnect with the United States.

“I don’t have a single American friend. I don’t understand them," he said in an interview prior to taking part in a Golden Gloves competition in Salt Lake City in 2009.

Tsarnaev and his family immigrated to the United States a decade ago.

Wisam Khudhair, an Iraqi refugee who resettled in Utah in 2010, says his experiences with Americans have been profoundly different.

People he has met working in Utah and Colorado have been genuinely interested in his background, he said. In many cases, that curiosity has evolved into friendships.

In the Middle East, most people’s perceptions of the United States and Americans are shaped by television news reports and, in recent years, interactions with service members “whose job is to fight,” government representatives and executives,” Khudhair said.

“When I came here, I saw something completely different. Americans are very nice. They are friendly. They like to help people,” he said.

That was important to Khudhair, who has had to start over in his career. Prior to coming to the United States, he had worked with American businesses until it became too risky for him to do so.

After resettling in Utah, he worked a number of low-wage jobs such as housekeeping, waiting tables, busing tables and parking cars in Utah and Colorado.

Monday was Khudhair's first day in his new position as a job developer for Catholic Community Services of Utah.

“I’m proud of myself because I start from the bottom and now I have something as good as before,” he said.

While his background is in accounting, Khudhair said he cannot afford to return to college. His new job not only marks a return to a white-collar position, but it enables him to help fellow other refugees.

“That’s what I learned from American people. They taught me to help people. That’s what I like about what I do,” he said.

Ellie Goldberg, executive director of Sunnyvale Neighborhood Center, which serves refugee children and their families, said one’s ease in assimilating into life in America hinges on many factors.

“It depends on their background, their level of education, their level of familiarity with the Western world, the Western culture. It helps if they’re familiar with the financial system, the language, different things like that,” she said.

Gerald Brown, executive director of the state Office of Refugee Services, says an important tool a refugee needs to integrate in the United States is learning English.

More important, however, is developing friendships with Americans.

“I do believe making friends with refugees is the best thing you do for them. My whole office, the Department of Workforce Services, knows this to be true. Everything we do is meant to bring the welcoming community together with these survivors,” Brown said.

On June 22, World Refugee Day festivities will be held at Liberty Park, with the hope of exposing a larger audience to the estimated 50,000 refugees who live in Utah, most of them in Salt Lake County.

Once people hear their stories, they become strong advocates and want to reach out, Brown said.

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