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Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Saran Nahas wipes her eyes as she and Amy Wylie talk Monday, May 13, 2013 at Saran's Day Care center in South Salt Lake City. Saran and Amy are recent graduates from the University of Utah. The two became strong friends years ago when Amy was serving as a service missionary.
I thought I didn't have the time or there wasn't the money. All of those excuses didn't hold up, and then I was embarrassed. —Amy Wylie

SOUTH SALT LAKE — Saran Nahas, a refugee from Sierra Leone, had recently resettled in Utah when she met Amy Wylie in the fall of 2004.

Wylie, then a service missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, didn't have much experience with refugees. Seemingly overnight, the South Salt Lake neighborhood to which she and her husband had been assigned was brimming with refugee families.

"Within a few days, there were 20 refugees, then another 20 refugee, then another," she said. "My husband and I would go from apartment to apartment" at South Park Apartments, offering to help any way they could.

Their efforts to help were often limited by language barriers. But Nahas spoke English, which allowed the women work through Nahas' day-to-day needs as well, let alone government paperwork to enroll children in school, obtain state identification or fill out questionnaires at the doctor's office.

Both women were mothers, which also helped them relate to one another on other levels. Nahas and her husband, Joseph, had been separated by civil war. When she and their children were granted asylum, they moved to the United States without him. He later was brought to the United States with the help of volunteer donors.

Even though Nahas considered America "the land of milk and honey," adjusting to life in Utah was overwhelming.

"(It was) culture shock," she said. "I used to cry every day until I met Amy. When I met Amy, she gave me my hope back."

When Nahas, who had emigrated with her five children, was facing a deadline that required her get a job, she told Wylie she could not leave her children in day care.

But Nahas, who had worked as an accountant in Sierra Leone, had a plan. She would open an in-home child care business so she could care for her own children. It would also help her children meet new friends.

Wylie helped Nahas apply for licenses and to prepare for inspections.

"She would bring me carpet to make my place cleaner so I could get a license," Nahas said.

The modest in-home child care center eventually turned into a larger enterprise for Nahas. She now operates a child care center in South Salt Lake. Her clients are all children of other refugees.

Nahas, who was the head of household to 10 people when she resettled in Utah, decided to go back to college. As she discussed her plans with Wylie, she learned that Wylie had not completed her bachelor's degree.

"I was shocked. I thought everyone in America had a degree," Nahas said.

Wylie started college 30 years ago, but she "got sidetracked" raising a family.

"I thought I didn't have the time or there wasn't the money. All of those excuses didn't hold up, and then I was embarrassed," she said.

Both women enrolled in Salt Lake Community College to start.

"I would take two classes, and she would take five," Wylie said.

Wylie was also working in the state's new Refugee Services Office, where she now oversees resources and volunteers.

Wylie had some college credits to start, but it took her six years to complete her degree attending school part time.

Recently, she and Nahas graduated from the University of Utah. Wylie earned a degree in sociology, while Nahas received a degree in accounting.

Over the years, the two women have become more like family than friends. Nahas named her youngest child, Amy.

"Now I have baby Amy. We don't want to lose that in the family," Nahas said.

"It is the greatest of honors," Wylie said.

Recently, the two women celebrated their graduations together. Wylie tried her hand at a Sierra Leone dish, peanut butter chicken, which wasn't quite spicy enough for the Nahases, but they seasoned it with hot sauce.

The occasion, Nahas said, "was happy."

"We made it. And we made it together," Wylie said.

Both have benefited from their friendship. Wylie was there for Nahas when she needed help navigating her new life. Nahas opened Wylie's eyes to the prospect of completing her college degree.

"This is woman of the year," Wylie said of Nahas.

"No, you are, Amy," Nahas said.

"No, you are," Wylie replied.

Nahas has seven children, five sons and two daughters. Her eldest son is in the U.S. Air Force.

Nahas admits she had her doubts about coming to Utah. She knew a little about the United States, but she had hoped that she would be resettled in New York or Maryland because knew people who had settled there.

"I prayed to my God about it: Choose for me a place where my family will be safe and our lives will be better," she said.

The International Rescue Committee brought them to Utah. Her children are thriving, she said. Nine years after coming to Utah from a country frequently described as one of the most dangerous countries in the world, she is a proud graduate of the state's flagship institution. Her next plan? Graduate school.

"I'm not," going to graduate school, Wylie said. "Your inspiration is ending right now," she joked.

"America is the land of opportunity," Nahas insisted. "You're never too old to go to school."

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Opportunities to volunteer

For more information about opportunities to volunteer with refugees, contact Amy Wylie at the state Refugee Services Offices within the Department of Workforce Services, awylie@utah.gov or (801) 651-9025.

Email: marjorie@deseretnews.com