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Laura Seitz, Deseret News
Dona and Samira Ibrahim, sisters who currently attend the University of Utah, attend the 4th annual One Refugee Conference at O.C. Tanner in Salt Lake City on Friday, Aug. 18, 2017.

SALT LAKE CITY — When Arob Mandang-Belabek started his freshman year at the University of Utah, he felt very alone. It was difficult to study economics, he said, while living in Utah as a refugee from South Sudan.

"I was paying for school by myself, I was working. So it was very hard to focus on school," he said.

But things changed after he learned about the Refugee Education Initiative, a Salt Lake nonprofit dedicated to helping refugees graduate from universities.

"It’s made me feel like I was part of a group. I wasn’t isolated," Mandang-Belabek said. "I wouldn’t be this far in my career as a college student. They made it easy for me to focus on what’s more important."

For the past four years, the Refugee Education Initiative has helped hundreds of young adult refugees earn college degrees. Now the organization is taking its efforts a step farther, teaming up with the global employee rewards company O.C. Tanner to start another initiative to support refugees.

Called One Refugee, the program will help former refugee students transition from earning a college education to finding career employment. The program was announced at an all-day student conference on Friday.

"There are a lot of services for refugees who come into our community in Salt Lake City," said O.C. Tanner CEO Dave Petersen. "Many of them are focused on helping people get resettled and to find employment. But not many are focused like this, in helping that next generation prepare through education for a career."

One Refugee leaders spoke to nearly 200 refugee students at the all-day conference.

"The end of goal is not your job, although that is an important step," executive director Raymon Burton told students. "The end goal of this is prosperity."

Selma Mlikota, a former refugee and O.C. Tanner employee, was appointed as the manager for One Refugee. Her role includes matching refugee students with a network of Utah companies willing to hire and train them.

"The students were getting educated and they were graduating with some really impressive degrees and a great GPA and doing wonderful, but then they’re finding themselves either underemployed or unemployed," she said. "We decided that it's time for us to help our program graduates find careers with good organizations that will allow them to prosper like refugees have prospered here at O.C. Tanner."

There are nearly 60,000 refugees living in Utah, according to 2015 data from the nonprofit Utah Refugee Service.

Sara Farah, a refugee from Somalia, has studied psychology and biology at the University of Utah for the past four years.

"To go to school for these many years and not to have a career, to not to have a job afterward is a nightmare that is in the back of my mind," she said. "The fact that they’re helping us from the other end is weight taken off of our shoulders."

Farah said the Refugee Education Initiative helps her attend school part time and still provide for her three elementary-age children. She said she eventually wants to continue and earn a graduate degree.

"This relieves a lot of tension, we can focus on the actual journey," she said. "It’s because of this program that I’m able to finish."