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

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

"To be welcomed and know someone values you and wants you to be with them, that's everything," he said.

Brown said the refugee office pairs volunteers with refugee families to help guide them in their new lives. Resettlement services offered through Catholic Community Services and the Salt Lake office of International Rescue Committee, as well as the Asian Association of Utah, help make the transition to life in America more productive.

Brown says he believes mainstream Americans need to reach out to refugees. In Utah, they number some 50,000, according to a recent analysis of public assistance data conducted by the Department of Workforce Services.

“If you’re a Burundi lady that’s never studied in her own language and you don’t know how to turn on the lights, it’s kind of hard to expect that lady with little kids to come out and say to me, ‘Could you be my friend?’ I would want to go to her. I think it’s more of a mainstream responsibility,” he said.

Vladimir Martirosov, refugee resettlement case manager coordinator for Catholic Community Services, himself a refugee from Russia, said an immigrant’s ability to assimilate depends much on their attitudes when they arrive.

Most refugees adjust well, which Brown attributes to their remarkable resilience.

There are 17 million refugees worldwide, and less than 1 percent are resettled in the United States.

“You don’t make that journey without having a lot going for you and being very resilient,” he said.

But some people, particularly people who are well-educated and had careers in their home countries, are frustrated when their credentials aren’t recognized in the United States and they have to start over in low-wage, low-skill jobs.

Martirosov, for instance, held a high-ranking job in the Russian government in business development.

He eventually landed a job teaching mathematics at Salt Lake Community College.

“I was realizing my potential by 15 percent,” he said.

Martirosov now takes a different view of his life, he said. He enjoys helping refugees in his position with Catholic Community Services, and he takes particular pride in the accomplishments of his family.

“My family, my grandkids are doing well. That’s what makes me happy," Martirosov said.

Another challenge in families is that children tend to learn English more readily than their parents, which can upset the power structure in a family, he said.

“What respect will children have of such a parent?” Martirosov said.

Goldberg said many refugees come from countries that have corrupt governments and there are few personal liberties such as free speech.

“If we can develop trust with families and with kids, this can be a safe place,” she said of the Sunnyvale Neighborhood Center, which is located in Taylorsville. “If they’re struggling with something, instead of holding it inside and then lashing out, we can talk about it.”

The accused Boston Marathon bombers, immigrants of Chechen heritage, are “outliers” in terms of their conduct and the elder brother’s experiences with Americans, she said.

The elder brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, died following a shootout with Boston police early Friday morning. Some media reports say his brother, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, struck him with a car while he was fleeing police.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, apprehended after a daylong manhunt Friday, could face the death penalty if convicted of using a weapon of mass destruction.

Many refugees encounter challenges in coping with a new culture and language, but most adjust well, Goldberg said.

“Most people do it beautifully. They’re very resilient,” she said.

Email: marjorie@deseretnews.com

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