Laura Seitz, Deseret Morning News
Ma Ra Yan, left, No Zi Ma, Naw Naw Htoe and Myint Oo learn how to speak English by reciting useful words such as ice cream, cake, pie and cookies during a class in Salt Lake City on Thursday.

A comprehensive plan that includes a new Office of Refugee Services to pool resources for and oversee assistance of Utah's 20,000 refugees was announced Thursday by Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.

The political will shown to officially state that Utah is going to bridge ongoing gaps in refugee services has been remarkable, Huntsman said. "Now it's up to us, the whole community and the Legislature to find the financial wherewithal to match it."

Just how much money it will take for Utah to become more home than temporary refuge to those who have fled devastating conditions or dangerous social strife in their home countries is yet to be determined.

Legislators on hand at the Capitol for the announcement wouldn't make any estimates. They believe, however, that fellow lawmakers likely support the idea of a central coordinating and accountability office, which would reside either within the state Department of Workforce Services or the Department of Community and Culture.

Whatever the appropriation amount, closing the gaps that have been impeding the successful transition of refugees to their new home state will require both public and private agencies to chip in, the lawmakers said.

Palmer DePaulis, executive director of the state Department of Community and Culture, along with Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon and the Refugee Working Group, have spent the past year studying ways to best meet the needs of the refugee community.

In addition to the new state office, they recommended that agencies be required to review how well they're doing in providing services to refugees. A letter will be sent to all state divisions to review possible gaps in services they provide to refugees and to determine if any funds can be reallocated.

A Refugee Services Funding Task Force made up of corporate, foundation and government leaders also is being empaneled to help generate funding.

All existing state, county and private service providers will be asked to make a "good faith effort" to hold themselves accountable for the successful delivery of services to refugees throughout the state, DePaulis said.

Each government entity dealing with refugees will be asked to report back to the new state office the steps they intend to take to fill in or reduce the gaps cited by the working group.

Advocates on hand Thursday said resettlement can be anything but settling for refugees, who find themselves suddenly destitute and alone, unable to speak English or negotiate what can be daunting tasks in a new culture and place — from finding housing to getting to the grocery store.

If any state can understand what it is to be uprooted because of religion or politics, Utah should be it, said Rep. Steve Mascaro, R-West Jordan, citing his own family's journey from southern Italy three generations ago.

"Refugees these days, who are here by circumstance and not by choice, get lumped in with illegal immigrant issues," he said. "But I have to say when I look at my own family history, that no matter the reason someone comes here, if we could get beyond this caustic 'send 'em back' attitude that so many people have, we would see these folks for the true asset to our communities that they are."

About 16,000 of Utah's refugees have arrived through the official channels of the U.S. State Department and the Immigration and Naturalization Service. The rest are a combination of refugees who initially were settled in other states but have arrived in Utah looking for better jobs and lives.

Advocates said the transition is complicated many times over because most refugees have been living in camps, fleeing civil wars or social policies of a genocidal dictator. It's as if they've stepped through a time warp from the difficult conditions of their usually non-industrialized home countries to the challenges of a digital age.

"They face a lot of barriers to successful integration," said Adan Batar, director of immigration and refugee resettlement for Catholic Community Services. "They need basic skills that we take for granted."

Many refugees don't speak English or even read or write in their own language, she and other advocates said. Education is important, and many are succeeding by anyone's standard. Dozens of refugees from the genocide in Darfur and camps in Kenya are enrolled in and are graduating from area colleges and universities.

Rep. David Litvak, D-Salt Lake, whose central Salt Lake district is the newly adopted home of hundreds of refugees, said that solving problems they face will take more than a new state office and a higher community profile.

As important as pooling the resources and accountability in one place is, Litvak said, "true assimilation will take intensive, communitywide support and probably at least a generation."

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