They are perhaps the most vulnerable individuals among us. They have been subject to war, arrest, detention, violence and physical displacement. Relocated to a new home, they are surrounded by an unfamiliar language and culture. They can be desperately lonely. They are refugees, and Utahns should never forget their humanitarian obligations to them.
The struggles they experience are observed each year on World Refugee Day, which will be observed throughout the month of June in Utah. As we noted on this occasion three years ago, “Refugees are an inevitable part of war. Yet the costs associated with caring for them are too seldom factored into war's calculus, especially once refugees are safely outside the theater of war.”
Far more encouraging are the positive efforts being made to integrate refugees more deeply into the fabric of society. Here in Salt Lake City, the Utah Refugee Center will participate in an annual World Refugee Day celebration that includes includes Larry Bartlett, the State Department’s director of refugee admissions, and the official naturalization ceremony of 15 individuals.
Refugees are “often people who have never even flushed a toilet before,” said a spokesman for Bartlett. Speaking of Utah, he said, “You have a huge network of non-governmental, state and local entities that nurture and assist refugees in their transition into American community.”
At a festival Saturday at Liberty Park, refugees from more than 25 countries were expected to participate in a day-long program designed to bring the refugee community together with others in Utah — and to enlist the sort of voluntarism for which the state is well-known. This would better aid their plight in Salt Lake.
“Utah has done a great job of being able to accept the refugees into this state,” said former Utah Jazz player Thurl Bailey, speaking on Fox13 about service as ambassador to the state’s refugee community. Gov. Gary Herbert appointed Bailey to the volunteer post last year.
Still, most refugees go through quite an ordeal. They leave their native lands, frequently going to a neighboring country until being resettled in a third and often final nation.
Every year, the United States admits about 70,000 refugees, a number set by statute. Of that number, about 1,200 settle in Utah. Immediately upon their arrival in the country, they become legal residents. For those relocated to Utah, the leading countries of origin are Somalia, Myanmar, Bhutan, Iraq, the former Yugoslav Republics and Sudan, respectively. All told, more than 50,000 refugees live in the Salt Lake Valley.
The Utah event was spurred several years ago by the Utah Department of Workforce Services, in collaboration with the Utah Refugee Center. From its original goal of bringing awareness to the heritage and plight of the refugee, it now has become a gathering place for recruiting volunteers. “We very quickly realized that for this integration process to become swifter and more efficient, we needed a welcoming community,” said Deb Coffey, executive director of the center. “Refugees need a member of the public to provide a friend and a mentor to look to.”
Last year the event was moved to Liberty Park, attracting more than 4,000 attendees. And now the Utah Refugee Center is seeking to build a physical venue that will facilitate basic English language training and onsite job classes.
Refugees have different needs from immigrants, who voluntarily choose to come to America. They can be particularly vulnerable to homesickness.
The United States has come a long way in its treatment of refugees. Just over 75 years ago, on June 4, 1939, the St. Louis, a ship carrying a cargo of 907 Jewish refugees, was denied permission to land in Florida after already having been turned away from Cuba. Forced to return to Europe, many of its passengers later died in Nazi death camps during the Holocaust.
Both as a nation and as a community, we should do more to ensure that those who are most vulnerable are not turned away, but welcomed and granted that promise of freedom and liberty that has long been America’s message to the rest of the world.