SALT LAKE CITY — When Fira Litman and Efim Beilin fled from persecution in Belarus in 1994, they had nothing.
They settled in Utah and received immediate financial and emotional help from Jewish Family Services.
Decades later, those at the agency feel an obligation to help them — and others who came from the former Soviet Union around the same time — to "age in place," or stay in their home as they age, according to Ellen Silver, Jewish Family Services executive director. It is often particularly important for these refugees — many of whom were persecuted before coming to the United States — to retain their autonomy.
"Aside from the fact that there's generally no one who speaks their native tongue or understands their culture, it's a very traumatic setting to be told when you're going to eat and sleep and shower," Silver said.
Theirs is one of many stories of refugees in Utah who have been assisted by religious organizations in the state that offer counseling, food, English classes and many other services. The state's Department of Workforce Services coordinates assistance for most refugees who come to Utah. Its refugee resettlement program works with several agencies to best meet each refugee family's needs.
The local organizations affiliated with religious groups help with the understanding that those being served may never enter a chapel, synagogue, temple or other house of worship.
"I can tell you generally that religions, both here and in the U.S., have (played) a tremendous role and have traditionally" in resettling refugees since the nationwide resettlement program began in the mid-1970s, said Gerald Brown, Utah Department of Workforce Services state refugee coordinator.
An immigrant service coordinator with Jewish Family Services arranges for Russian-speaking cooks to make meals for Litman, 90, and Beilin, 91, whose only son died. She helps them with logistics such as setting up doctors appointments and takes Litman, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, to a senior center a few times a week. Years ago, their son struggled with alcoholism. Jewish Family Services gave him the help he needed to overcome his addiction.
The couple felt a need to give back to others out of gratitude for the services they've been given over the years. Beilin and Litman both sang in a community choir, providing music for Holocaust commemorations and other events. They also served as foster grandparents through the Salt Lake County parks and recreation program. Litman hummed as the immigrant service coordinator explained that she learned American lullabies for the children she helped.
"It was the joy of their life," said Marina Varshavsky, Jewish Family Services immigrant service coordinator.
Refugees receive the service with no expectation of their conversion to a particular faith. Jewish Family Services is not connected with a synagogue, and relief agencies such as Catholic Community Services and LDS Welfare and Humanitarian Services have a strict policy to not proselytize to refugees while they are still vulnerable after relocation.
"We connect people with their religion of choosing," said Adan Batar, director of the refugee resettlement and immigration program at Catholic Community Services.
Batar escaped Somalia in 1992 and after spending two years in a refugee camp, came to the United States. He already knew English before he arrived and his background as a lawyer has allowed him to work as an immigration attorney. He is trying to help other refugees find similar success.
"We need to provide them with what they need so that they don't fail," he said.
On average, 70,000 refugees come to the United States per year, according to Brown. Of these, Utah hosts about 1,100 per year. Their needs range from learning English and navigating public transportation to obtaining education, therapy services, housing, beds, bedding and clothing.
Of the two nonprofit organizations in the state that provide refugee resettlement, one of them — Catholic Community Services — has a religious affiliation. Refugees come to the state through this agency, the International Rescue Committee of Utah or from another state in the U.S.
For the first two to three months, these two agencies rally volunteers to help a family secure housing and food, learn English food and gain skills for employment. After this, other agencies step in to help provide long-term assistance.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints supports resettlement agencies like Catholic Community Services, the Asian Association and the International Rescue Committee with material, monetary and volunteer donations.
"The focus of Church Welfare Services is to serve the poor, develop self-reliance and provide opportunities for service. Refugees and immigrants who are struggling to find their way can be assured that the LDS Church is striving to meet their needs through direct service and by collaborating with trusted community partners," said Rick Foster, manager of humanitarian services in North America for the LDS Church.
Among other services it provides, the Welfare Department of the LDS Church offers beds and bedding for new arrivals, as well as vouchers to Deseret Industries so they can buy items like appliances, clothes and utensils.
For the past four years, the LDS Church and the Department of Workforce Services have worked in tandem to allow 100 refugees per year to participate in a dual employment and language-learning program, where they work for four hours and learn the language for another four. Those who leave the program have a 70 percent success rate with gaining full-time employment to entry-level jobs, according to Brown.
"The would not be able to get (these jobs) without English," he said.
Jose Bonilla faced this challenge when he came alone to the United States as a refugee from El Salvador in 1980. He said he knew how to name colors in English, but not much else.
He learned how to work hard while growing up on a farm, but struggled with the language barrier once he arrived in the U.S. and was often treated poorly by others because he did not speak English. Unaware of refugee resettlement services, he estimates that it took him about seven years to learn English on his own.
Now as associate director at Lutheran Social Services, he helps others refine their English and develop the skills they will need to get jobs and assimilate.
Lutheran Social Services connects refugees with programs at Westminster College and Salt Lake Community College. They believe education is the "primary path" to gainful employment, which will lead individuals to more independent lives, according to Leslie Whited, CEO of Lutheran Social Services of Utah.
The agency has individuals from eight religious groups on site daily, working together to create an "intentionally peaceful" environment for those who may have escaped religious conflict in their countries.
"That's one of the miracles of our place," she said.
The Refugee and Immigrant Center at the Asian Association of Utah tries to help according to the hierarchy of needs, taking care of housing, food and immediate needs before looking at what will help make the refugees' lives more meaningful.
Jewish Family Services is among the religious organizations in Utah that help refugees with short- and long-term needs after their relocation. Similar to other organizations in the area, it offers counseling, food, English language classes and emergency funds to people in need, regardless of religion or refugee status.
These agencies all rely on community volunteers who can do anything from helping children with school work to teaching a family how to live in an apartment and cook food.
"They're very eager to learn. They just need somebody to teach them," Batar said.
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