The Refugee Action Network in Provo is piloting a new way to serve refugees, and anyone in Utah can be a part of it.
RAN now provides a program called a Host Network, in which five volunteer host families in the same neighborhood focus on helping and providing for one refugee family.
“The genesis of this whole organization was realizing that there wasn’t really any kind of organization to help coordinate refugee-related efforts here in Utah Valley,” RAN founder John Purnell said.
As Purnell looked into what was already being done for refugees, he thought there could be a better way of continuing to embrace refugees in the community once they finish programs provided by resettlement agencies.
Purnell noted that RAN is not a resettlement agency. According to the United States Office of Refugee Resettlement, the State Department’s Bureau for Population, Refugees and Migration "coordinates admissions and allocations to specific cities and resettlement agencies, in conjunction with nine national voluntary agencies that oversee a network of some 250 affiliates in 49 states plus the District of Columbia through the Reception & Placement Program." These resettlement agencies meet refugees at the airport when they arrive at their destination and "help them with housing and access to other resources," according to the Office of Refugee Resettlement.
“(The refugees RAN seeks to help) are not refugees fresh off the plane," Purnell said, explaining that RAN is intended to act as a bridge. "We work with refugees that have completed their time with resettlement agencies and still have needs in terms of reaching a level of self-sufficiency."
According to refugeeactionnetwork.org, RAN’s goal is to facilitate that integration by helping "refugees in Utah Valley become successful, contributing and valued members of the community."
The system of pairing one refugee family with five volunteer host families provides the opportunity for the primary needs of the refugee families to be met, which according to RAN's website are friendship, English acquisition and employment.
“This gives great exposure — you’re actually placing them into neighborhoods," Purnell said. "For one refugee family, that one neighborhood can really pitch in to help, then that will make a huge difference for that family.”
According to Cassandra Eggertsen, RAN's executive director, the Host Network program is intended to support RAN's 15-month self-sufficiency program, which Purnell said is "designed around providing English-language training and job skills training and networking (to help) integrate and empower the refugees to gain access to opportunities in the local community.”
“These Host Networks offer these refugees a scholarship, in a sense, (by) offering them housing and food and clothing and taking care of their day-to-day needs, making sure those are met so they can concentrate on this intensive program,” Eggertsen said.
While RAN has been collaborating with other agencies, accepting donations and building awareness since April 2016, the Host Network program has been under development.
“We are just now starting to place our first refugees. We have about a half dozen neighborhoods that are lined up,” Purnell said. “ This is a nascent program and is under development. There is always a continuous process of improvement where we are working to match the host families to the refugees."
The first neighborhood to form a Host Network is in Orem. Fred Roberts heads the group, which has been planning and meeting for months in preparation to support a South Sudan refugee, James Ayuen, and his family.
Bart and Dana Wise, one of the pilot host families, got involved by accepting an invitation from Roberts to attend a general information meeting earlier last year.
“It’s just about giving the support," Dana Wise said. "Of course there’s physical means, but it’s helping them integrate and thrive.”
“If they come here and are surrounded by refugees, they can’t integrate," Bart Wise added. "Our host family’s goal is to provide a structure to eventually allow them to contribute back to society.”
Volunteers Brent and Janet Young brought their professional skills to serve in the pilot group. As a retired university professor, Janet Young says she has become the group’s historian and recorder.
“We’re the prototype, and I think it’s important to keep thorough paperwork,” she said. She has kept a detailed record of their meetings in hopes that future host families will have a structure to plan on.
Brent Young is an attorney and has aided the group by drafting legal documents detailing the duties and committment required to be a host family.
“Up to this point, it’s all been theory. Now it’s time to put it into practice,” Brent Young said. “We want to integrate the family in our community without compromising their cultural integrity.”
Brent Young also pointed out the unique situation Utah Valley is in to serve refugees, stating that a large portion of the people living there are already organized as members of wards or congregations of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and because many have served missions for the LDS Church throughout the world, there is “an abundance of language speakers.”
After the neighborhood meeting, the pilot group of host families headed down the street to help Ayuen move into his new apartment. With old and young working together, the group unpacked kitchenware, swept floors, set up a table and more as they got the apartment ready in anticipation of Ayuen’s wife, Priscilla, and 3-year-old son to arrive the next night.
While looking over the Ayuens' new home, Brent Young commented on how big of a difference it will be for the family to live there, when all they’ve had before were tents with dirt floors.
“It’s been comfortable right from the start,” said Russ Verhof, who, with his wife, Lori, housed James Ayuen until the apartment was ready.
“It’s been a delight,” said Lori Verhof. "He’s so fun and so pleasant. He’s a survivor, and he’s grateful for anything and everything he has.”
While Ayuen made his way to America years ago, his wife and son have been living in a refugee camp in South Sudan their whole lives. They just now have been granted the opportunity to come to the U.S., with help from RAN making it all possible.
“(RAN) will do everything to help Priscilla adjust to the American system," Ayuen said in an interview. "So I think this is the best. They’re real families that are going to help and look out and teach English. It’s really great.”
Ayuen also explained how with the help of RAN, he can continue his schooling. He currently attends courses at the BYU Salt Lake Center while also working in Salt Lake City.
“I am so grateful that they came to my life. I think it was just a miracle,” Ayuen said.
Purnell said many people in Utah Valley have a desire to serve refugees but have no idea on how to begin.
“(RAN) shows you how to execute," he said. "This is the instruction manual that shows you: ‘Go to work, here you go.’ You can provide a great value to a refugee family.”
Visit refugeeactionnetwork.org for additional information.
Note: This story was updated with additional information from John Purnell and Cassandra Eggertsen on Feb. 22, 2017.
McKenna Park is an aspiring journalist and a student at BYU studying Communications. Contact her at [email protected].