Former Jazzman Thurl Bailey named ambassador to Utah refugee community

Published: Monday, May 20 2013 4:22 p.m. MDT

Former Utah Jazz star Thurl Bailey has been named by Gov. Gary Herbert to serve as his ambassador to the state’s refugee community.

State of Utah

SALT LAKE CITY — Former Utah Jazz player turned singer/songwriter, public speaker and TV basketball analyst Thurl Bailey has a new gig: ambassador.

In his latest role, Bailey will act as a liaison between the state's refugee community and the governor's office.

“Thurl has demonstrated exceptional character and passion, both on and off the court,” Gov. Gary Herbert said in announcing the appointment Monday. “His advocacy on behalf of Utah’s refugees will be extremely beneficial as we continue to help them integrate into our communities and enhance the fabric of our great state and unique quality of life.”

Bailey said it's an honor to be afforded what he called a unique opportunity.

"When you have the title of ambassador, that's a really broad title in every sense of the word as far as responsibility goes. I want to make sure I live up to it," he said.

About 50,000 refugees call Utah home, with the largest populations — about 5,000 each — coming from Bhutan, Burma, Iraq and Somalia. Many of them face employment, language and other challenges when they arrive.

Bailey, who first came to Utah in 1983, said he had know idea about the size of the state's refugee population until he was talking with a friend at the Utah Department of Workforce Services, which oversees state refugee services. That discussion set the governor's appointment in motion.

"The one thing I did tell the governor is I'm all in. I'm not just going to be a figurehead," he said.

Baily intends to actively involved in bringing awareness to the state's refugees and help them integrate and find jobs in the community.

And he figures his high profile in the state will serve to accomplish that.

"The platform I have is one that I want to use to educate people to bring visibility to things like this in our community. People have no idea their neighbor could be a refugee," he said.

Gerald Brown, state refugee services director, said nine out of 10 people probably can't define refugee. For refugees to be integrated into the community, he said, Utahns need to know who they are, why they're here and get to know them.

"I think that's the biggest way Mr. Bailey can help us. People listen to him," Brown said.

June is Utah Refugee Month, and the state is planning activities around World Refugee Day on June 22. Bailey sees it as an opportunity to introduce Utahns to their refugee neighbors.

"As I look at my life, I think maybe it was meant for me to able to do this. There are different facets of my life that I can share with people," he said. "I feel like not only do I have something to offer them, they have something to offer me."

Bailey said his success as the refugee ambassador won't come at one particular time, but will be measured by the progress the state makes in accepting refugees.

"I understand that starts with me, in a sense," he said. "I'm hoping we get to the point where every refugee feels like he or she is a part of the community and the diversity in Utah has gotten to the point where we're not stunned when we hear that number 50,000 (refugees)."

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