SALT LAKE CITY — It was the first outing to Utah's Hogle Zoo for a group of new refugee children from Africa, and Gabrielle Ernest was eager to witness their reaction.

The kids were excited as they stopped at the first exhibit, but they also seemed a bit confused. While everybody looked intently at the golden lion tamarin monkeys, one boy piped up: "Why are all the animals in cages? In my country, I could see stuff like this in my backyard."

Gabrielle, 19, laughs at the memory. "Sometimes, you forget just how different life was for these kids before they came to the United States," she says. "They've gone from living on a farm with no transportation to flying on a jet and riding in a car for the first time. It's pretty overwhelming."

Since age 11, when she first started helping Somalian refugees with her mother, Ronda Ernest, Gabrielle has admired the courage and perseverance of families who flee war and famine for a chance to start anew on the other side of the world.

"They've seen things we can't imagine," she says, "and yet, most of them remain positive and grateful. They didn't choose to be sent away — they were uprooted through no fault of their own. When you see that, how can you not want to get involved?"

To help young refugees and those who still live in underdeveloped countries like Kenya, Gabrielle and her mother recently started a non-profit group, Education for Generations, to support village schools in Africa and fund extracurricular activities for Utah's new immigrants.

On a recent hot and breezy summer afternoon, they joined me for a pizza picnic at Fairmont Park with four siblings from the conflicted country of Eritrea on Africa's Cape Horn. After losing their farm to a border war, the kids recently moved into an apartment on Salt Lake City's west side with their mother and three older brothers and sisters.

Before their trip to Utah, an Ethiopian refugee camp was home for eight years, then the family was sent to Texas. But when their father was killed in a car accident and their income went from meager to nothing, they moved to Salt Lake City to live with a cousin.

"They've had a hard life, so we want to do what we can to brighten things up," says Gabrielle. She and her mom recently took nine girls to the Princess Festival at Thanksgiving Point, where they dressed up in lacy costumes and posed for pictures in a pumpkin-shaped carriage. Other outings have included first-ever trips to the ballet, a bowling alley and a movie theater.

"Their lives are so different now, but they're doing remarkably well," says Ronda, 57, a pediatric nurse practitioner who felt obligated to help refugee families on her own time after seeing so many Somalian children in her clinic.

"There are over 50,000 refugees in Utah, and every one of them has a story of what they've lost and what they've left behind," she says. "These families are our neighbors, our classmates. Any person who takes the time will find that it's a gift to get to know them and help them adjust to their new lives."

Trips for ice cream, outings to the library and a lazy afternoon at the playground are as important as helping with job searches and transportation, says Gabrielle, who is now pursuing a college degree in international studies.

"Kids are kids no matter where they're from," she says, smiling as her new young friends chase each other around shady trees and swing from the monkey bars. "My goal is not only to help them get an education, but to help them have some fun. It's the same thing that everybody wants. A well-rounded life."

More information can be found at educationforgenerations.org.

Have a story? You do the talking, I'll buy the lunch. Email your name, phone number and what you'd like to talk about to [email protected]