SALT LAKE CITY — It wasn't that long ago that Nyandeng Aleu was literally fighting to survive.
A refugee of the civil war in Sudan, Aleu survived the worst conditions imaginable.
"I survived shootings, bombings, starvation, tortures, living among wild animals and without shelter. I lost hope of being able to survive," she said in her personal account that was read to lawmakers Wednesday by Jon Pierpont, executive director of the Utah Department of Workforce Services.
Aleu and her family lived in a refugee camp in Kenya for 10 years before she, five children and a nephew were resettled in Utah in 2004.
A year after resettling, Aleu earned her high school diploma while working as a cashier. "This was very difficult as a single mother of six. I was exhausted but persevered to be an example to my children," she wrote.
She now works as a family liaison for the Granite School District, where she assists students by interpreting, helping with transportation and sharing her expertise with others.
Aleu is one of some 50,000 refugees who have been resettled in Utah since the end of the Vietnam War, Pierpont told members of the Utah Legislature's Economic Development and Workforce Services Committee.
"They come basically with the clothes on their back and maybe a couple of bags," he said.
The federal government permits about 70,000 refugees to enter the United States each year. Among them, 1,100 to 1,200 are resettled in Utah. They can become legal residents after one year and may apply for citizenship after five years. All refugees are legally permitted to work as soon as they arrive, Pierpont said.
But many refugees have limited English proficiency; have intense medical, dental or mental health needs; or lack job skills, he said.
DWS provides or contracts for an array of services to assist with resettlement such as English instruction, temporary cash and medical assistance, job training and placement, as well as English language instruction.
While refugee assistance is intended to be short-term, ending after about eight months, case management services are provided for up to 24 months. DWS contracts with the Asian Association, Catholic Community Services and International Rescue Committee for these services, Pierpont said.
Successful integration is critical, said Sen. Stuart Reid, R-Ogden, who is heading a state-level initiative to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty and welfare dependency.
About 80 percent of the refugees resettled in Utah are single mothers with children such as Aleu.
"In bringing these folks in the country, we don't want to allow them to be involved in intergenerational poverty and welfare dependency," Reid said, urging Pierpont and the Refugee Services Office to make a special effort to ensure children integrate successfully.
"I know I'm beginning to sound like a one-note senator. Yes, help the adults but really focus on the children," he said.
Rep. Ronda Menlove, R-Garland, asked Pierpont whether the eight-month limit on cash and medical assistance could be extended or if the state could otherwise help.
Pierpont said the limits are set by the federal government with the goal of encouraging refugees to be self-supporting as soon as possible. When that is not possible, refugees can qualify for other forms of assistance such as cash assistance up to 36 months.
Menlove said she plans to introduce legislation that would act as a bridge until state and private efforts to open a community center in Salt Lake County that would be one-stop shopping for resettlement and integration services come to fruition.
Many refugees, Pierpont noted, work hard to assimilate and become U.S. citizens once they qualify to apply. Aleu, for instance, became a naturalized citizen in 2009 and has earned an associate degree from Salt Lake Community College, which she wants to put to work helping refugees.Comment on this story
Even as a refugee living in a camp in Kenya, Aleu was giving back by training women to set up small businesses and working as an interpreter for the Lost Boys of Sudan.
"My hopes for the future include being a part of stopping the genocide movement, obtaining peace among all nations at war and continuing to help refugees survive," she wrote.
Sen. Pat Jones, D-Holladay, complimented Aleu for her courage and success since arriving in Utah a decade ago.
"Your story is so compelling. You're tough. Thank you for sharing your story," Jones said.
Refugees by the numbers
50,000 have been resettled in Utah since the end of the Vietnam War
1,100 to 1,200 refugees are resettled in Utah each year
53 languages represented
20 countries represented
99 percent live in Salt Lake County
Source: Utah Department of Workforce Services, Refugee Services Office