SALT LAKE CITY — As an increasing number of refugees and immigrants come to Utah, a new collaborative research initiative at the University of Utah will look for the best ways to help them succeed in their new home.
The Center for Research on Migration and Refugee Integration celebrated its official launch Wednesday, making it the first institution of its kind west of the Mississippi. Caren Frost, the center's director, said that considering the welcoming climate Utah offers refugees and migrants, there is ample opportunity to research best integration practices and community needs here.
At a kickoff event at the U. on Wednesday, Fatima Dirie, a refugee from Somalia who now works as the refugee community liaison in the Salt Lake City Mayor's Office, said she wishes the university would have had the same kind of program when she was a student.
But looking at the center's goals and the community support it has garnered, she agreed, "I believe this is the right time."
Dirie came to Salt Lake City when she was 9 years old, going on to graduate from West High School and Salt Lake Community College before eventually receiving a master's degree in social work from the U. She hopes careful study by the center and its partners will show what will help more refugee children become active in the community and successful in education.
"It's going to, in some ways, provide the education to the (public) about welcoming refugees as well as provide opportunities where (refugees) can go out of their way and do things they never thought were possible," Dirie said.
Frost praised the work of the two refugee resettlement agencies in the state — the International Rescue Committee and Catholic Community Services — as something that should be showcased and emulated in other states.
"It seemed to us that we should have a center that is working with everybody who is dealing with refugee resettlement on how to make this much more welcoming, and how do we develop indicators or guidelines of best practices around resettlement, because we're doing it well," Frost said.
She also complimented the recent push by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' "I Was a Stranger" campaign for making the state a welcoming place for refugees. The initiative encourages church members and others to serve refugees in their communities.
"I think that really highlights the fact that, here in this state, we want to welcome people who are not from the same background we are," Frost said. "Having been basically a pioneer-settled state, this is important to us, it's a value that we have."
Gerald Brown, assistant director in the Department of Workforce Services' refugee services office, also applauded the community and faith organizations that have long served refugees in the state.
Though with all the good being done in the community for refugees, Brown still sees entrenched economic and social problems that "keep me up at night." He hopes the center's research will show how to begin breaking through longstanding barriers.
"We need some smart people to tell us how to do things better," Brown said. "We cannot claim to be good at what we do unless we begin to tackle some of these things."
When Frost first started looking at the issue, Utah resettled about 800 refugees annually. In recent years the state has been resettling 1,200 refugees per year, and with three months still left in 2016, the International Rescue Committee and Catholic Community Services have already surpassed that amount, Frost said.
"We're seeing a significant increase," Frost said.
Some 60,000 refugees have been resettled in Utah since the end of the Vietnam War. The Salt Lake metro has the ninth largest population of Somali refugees and the 10th largest population of Bosnian refugees, according to a report released earlier this year by Fiscal Policy Institute and the Center for American Progress.
In addition to research by U. faculty members across a number of different disciplines, another focus at the center will be networking and outreach to help refugee youth excel in school.
A symposium planned for the spring will prepare refugee or immigrant high school and community college students to apply at any of the state's four-year universities, visit a college campus, learn about financial aid and connect with counselors, teachers and other students with similar backgrounds.
The center doesn't have a physical location — technically it is housed in Frost's office — but is focused instead on interdisciplinary research, networking and outreach, Frost said. When space is needed for a meeting or event, it can be found at the U. or with other community partners.
While much refugee resettlement happens in the western United States, all the academic centers focused on refugee and migrant integration are located back East, Frost said.
"It seemed like that was a big lack, a gap, in how we were thinking about research and integrating efforts," Frost said.
Ultimately, Frost hopes the center will grow outside the West to become a reputed expert for the nation.
"The long-term goal is for people to see us as a national center that can answer questions, provide information, help people set up their research projects and show them models about 'here's how we work with students,'" Frost said.
The research center will be funded for three years by the U.'s College of Social Work and Division of Family and Preventative Medicine while Frost and others apply for research grants and look for other donor support.