SALT LAKE CITY — Utahns are already responding to an invitation from the LDS Church to participate in a new effort by women members of the church to help refugees.
The church on Monday launched a new website, iwasastranger.lds.org, to give Mormon women resources and ideas in meeting the needs of refugees in their own communities. The launch followed the official announcement of the effort during Saturday's General Women's Session of the 185th Annual General Conference.
Since the announcement, Utah Refugee Center executive director Deb Coffey's phone has been ringing off the hook.
"I've got people all over the state doing service projects," Coffey said. "My phone is blowing up; my email is blowing up. It is unbelievable what's already happening."
The Utah Refugee Center works in partnership with other community organizations to connect refugees with integration helps, distribute donated items and other volunteer services.
In light of the church's announcement, the center is also launching a new website, serverefugees.org, and a mobile app called Serve Refugees to give Utahns even more ways to support the effort. Volunteers can use the app to earn points for the time they spend serving refugees and be entered to win prizes.
Both the website and the app will become publicly accessible this weekend.
Coffey said several donations have come in since the church's announcement on Saturday, and members are also asking for other ways to help.
"One of the reasons that I believe the LDS Church is so amazing is that they have the ability to do really big-scale things," Coffey said, noting that volunteers make up a large difference that can't be filled by a limited staff. "That is how we have seen the members of the church step up in very big ways."
Donations often include clothing, nonperishable foods, items that aren't covered by food stamps, such as clothing and hygiene products, house repairs, and homemade blankets, Coffey said. Utah businesses also host corporate events to provide resources for refugees that use the center.
All contributions are welcome, Coffey said. Donations can be brought to the Utah Refugee Center's office, 2500 S. State Street, in Salt Lake City.
"Every single thing counts, whether it's a small act of service or something that's on a bigger scale," she said. "I think it's the intentions of folks that really drive good things, and we want everyone in the community to feel like they can contribute in whatever way they see fit."
The church's website was launched the same day that 150 immigrants from 51 countries took an oath of U.S. citizenship during a naturalization ceremony on Utah's Capitol Hill.
Provo Republican Rep. Norm Thurston, who officiated at the ceremony, said he was encouraged by the announcement from the LDS church and hopes it will ultimately help immigrants in Utah cope with the challenges of living in a new country.
He said he also hopes it will lead to better outcomes for refugees worldwide since the initiative is intended to involve all women members of the church.
"I think it will help to spread (help for refugees) so that it's not all concentrated on pressure points, which will make it better," Thurston said. "You'd rather have that burden spread across a larger area so they're not all in one place."
Most of the participants in the naturalization ceremony are not refugees, but the path to integration, residency and citizenship is still challenging for most immigrants.
For Emmanuel Isiko, who was among the group, the pressure has come from providing financial support to his family that still lives in Uganda. Isiko has lived in Utah for 2½ years and in the U.S. for 18½ years, but he still pays for food, school fees and other bills for his family, which includes his mother, many of her nine children and her grandchildren.
It's assistance that Isiko gladly provides. But many immigrants and refugees don't immediately have the benefit of employment, and help from other community members is essential, he said.
"I didn't come here as a refugee, but I know the struggles that they go through," Isiko said. "I feel like refugees who come here could benefit from a little help because you're not doing it just for them; you're doing it for entire generations. You can change the direction of generations of a family."
Yana Stankova, who also took the oath of citizenship Monday, said the hardest part about starting a new life in the U.S. with her husband and daughter after leaving Bulgaria hasn't been finding a meal, landing a job or supporting other family members.
"This is my main struggle as a new mom right now: I want my baby to be accepted here; I want her to have friends," Stankova said. "It's hard when you speak and you have that accent, and sometimes you feel like you're judged a little bit. So it is very important to give you that boost and a little bit more confidence."
Becoming a U.S. citizen helps, but having welcoming and supportive neighbors is something every new resident needs, independent of citizenship, she said.
"There is a point at the beginning where you feel kind of like an outsider and a little different from other people," she said. "With this, I feel a little more certain and a little bit more part of this country. I'm a full American."
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