SALT LAKE CITY — In a small, dingy apartment in the south end of the city, George Ngunza is perched at the edge of a faded yellow couch.
A refugee from the Congo, Ngunza is just 34 years old. But the deep creases in his forehead and around his eyes project the image of a much older man, hollowed out by the harsh trials of his life.
The frayed jeans and faded T-shirt he picked up at Deseret Industries hang loosely off his lanky form.
Ngunza taps his feet and wrings his hands, his body vibrating with nervous energy. His eyes dart toward the door every few minutes as if he fears the stale, sour air of the apartment will suffocate him.
On the bare coffee table in front of him, there are just two things: a can of cockroach spray and a well-worn Book of Mormon, written in Swahili.
When stress threatens to overwhelm him, he thumbs through its tattered pages until he finds his favorite verse, repeating it over and over again until he feels a sense of calm.
During his 19 years in a refugee camp in Tanzania, he often did the same thing with the Bible.
When he felt hopeless, the Bible’s words lifted him up and renewed his faith that God had a plan for him. He prayed that the Lord would deliver his family to America.
If he ever made it there, he imagined, he would have a home of his own with a large backyard, where he could tend a garden and watch his children play.
Instead, this is Ngunza’s reality: He lives in a tiny, roach-infested apartment with his wife and 11 children. His job slicing meat at a local deli pays just above minimum wage, which barely covers his monthly rent, and leaves him precious little to feed and clothe his family.
Instead of dreams, these days Ngunza only has fears – that he won’t be able to provide for his family’s basic needs and still keep a roof over their head.
“Just like in the camp,” he says, “I feel trapped all over again.”
A new game of survival
Ngunza is one of 65,000 refugees in Utah — a population big enough to fill LaVell Edwards Stadium to the brim — and yet they often live in the shadows.
They are part of a policy that has existed since 1980, officially called the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program, which has brought 3 million refugees to the U.S. over the past three decades. It's a program the Trump administration views with skepticism and is hoping to slash the number of refugees in half this year to 45,000, the lowest in more than a decade.
On its face, the resettlement program is a feel-good story, a symbol of America's commitment as a global citizen, and for refugees, the epitome of the American Dream.
The State of Utah in particular has been praised as a model for refugee resettlement, says Patrick Poulin, executive director of the International Rescue Committee of Utah.
Utah is the only state that allocates funding for resettlement agencies – the International Rescue Committee and Catholic Community Services – to offer case management services for a full two-year period. During this time, they provide refugees with job training, housing placement and English language lessons, and more, all with the goal of helping refugees reach self-sufficiency as quickly as possible.
Nevertheless, despite the best of intentions, the Deseret News has found that many refugees are living well below the poverty line. Some are facing eviction. Others have become homeless.
In part, that’s because it is very difficult for arriving refugees to find jobs that pay a living wage and housing they can afford.
“We knew when they arrived that many of these refugees would struggle to make a livable wage because of language barriers, disability and trauma,” says Jessica Darrow, a refugee studies lecturer at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration. “Combined with a lack of affordable housing, the situation is like a spider’s web, entangling refugees in the cycle of poverty.”
Beyond anecdotal evidence, there's no way to determine whether the problem is worsening. In most cases, the resettlement agencies only have the resources to track wage and housing data for the six months following a refugee’s arrival in the United States.
Thus, Aiden Batar, director of Migration and Refugee Services at Catholic Community Services, says he does not know how many refugees in Utah are homeless or living in poverty. Neither does Poulin with the International Rescue Committee.
What is known is that other parts of the Utah feel-good story — a surging economy and a thriving tech sector — are having an unintended consequence on the poor, and that is a lack of affordable housing, which disproportionately affects the refugee population. This is a trend that has accelerated over the past five years, and it shows few signs of abating.
At the Road Home shelter, the Deseret News met a Congolese refugee family of 11 evicted from their apartment three months ago who have been unable to find another place to live. At an apartment complex in South Salt Lake, a single mother named Feliz, also from the Congo, has been unemployed for two months after losing her job as a maid at a downtown hotel, and she has struggled to find other work.
"Life got harder for me when I came to America," says Feliz. "I constantly worry that I will be evicted and my family will end up on the street. Most of the time, I wish I could go back to the refugee camp in Africa."
Jim McConkie, a lawyer with the Utah Refugee Justice League, and Suzanne Stott, a member of the Relief Society presidency for the Salt Lake City Swahili Branch of the LDS Church, say they see stories like these every day. Stott, who has been volunteering with refugees in Utah since 1984, says she has noticed a dramatic increase in the number of refugees struggling to make rent, relying on public assistance or becoming homeless in recent years.
Based on their income, many newly arriving refugees qualify for Section 8 subsidized housing. But in 2014, the waitlist got so long that the Salt Lake County Housing Authority shut down the website and refused to accept applications “until further notice.” The current wait list? Seven years.
And that means refugees like Ngunza would need to earn around $17 an hour to afford a modest two-bedroom apartment along the Wasatch Front. The average hourly rate for newly arriving refugees is $10 an hour, says Batar, which is roughly what Ngunza makes. Batar says most new refugees in Utah spend about 80 percent of their income on rent and utilities.
Most months Ngunza has about $100 left over for other expenses – such as beans and rice to feed his family, a bus pass to get to his job at the deli or the boots and jackets his kids will need for winter.
‘They left me for dead’
On a rainy Sunday in November, the Ngunza family – George, Amisa and their 11 children – is cooped up inside their cramped apartment in South Salt Lake.
While Amisa Ngunza comforts her colicky baby, two of her older boys fight over a toy. One starts to cry, setting off the other children until the small living room is bursting with a cacophony of wailing.
George Ngunza shakes his head.
“There isn’t enough room for all 13 of us here to live here,” he sighs. “But we can’t afford anything bigger.”
When his children finally quiet down, he settles onto his tattered couch. A thick pile of bills is stacked on his coffee table.
Flies buzz around the room. One lands on his nose, and he swats it away as he begins to talk about growing up in the Congo.
“I cannot remember a time when there was no war,” he says. “My earliest memories are of the fighting that ravaged my village.”
He lifts his sleeve and points to a series of scars – jagged and thick, covering almost his entire left shoulder.
When he was 14 years old, militiamen wielding machetes attacked Ngunza’s family in the middle of the night. In front of his eyes, they butchered his father, mother and two brothers. Then they came for him.
When the machete’s blade sank deep into his flesh, Ngunza passed out from the shock. Believing they had killed him, the men fled, leaving him alone to bleed out on the floor.
“They left me for dead,” he remembers. “But by a miracle, aid workers found me and took me to the hospital.”
They told him that if he returned home, he would face certain death, and they helped him flee to the Nyarugusu Refugee Camp in Tanzania.
He remained there for 19 years, where he met his wife and started a family. In 2016, the United Nations Refugee Office approved his application for resettlement in the United States.
When he arrived in Utah, a resettlement agency placed his family in their apartment in South Salt Lake and helped him find a job.
Though his family qualifies for Section 8 housing, he won’t be able to apply until the waitlist opens up again.
“I lived in a tent in the camp, but at least I knew that no one could evict my family because I couldn’t pay my rent and utilities,” Ngunza says. “I know that God brought me to Utah for a reason, but sometimes I just wish I could go back to Africa.”
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints helps fill in some of the gaps. It wasn’t long after Ngunza arrived in Utah that Relief Society volunteers visited him, offering him extra clothes and food. He soon began attending church and decided to have his whole family baptized.
He is grateful for the church’s help, but he still struggles with rent payments and with housing conditions as well. Ngunza’s family constantly battles pest infestations — cockroaches, bed bugs, rats and mice — as well as broken appliances, plumbing failures and collapsing ceilings.
Juanita Huertero, a landlord of a Salt Lake apartment complex that houses over 300 refugees, says she can identify with the struggles refugees face. While other complexes have raised rents significantly, she has kept her rates nearly $200 cheaper, she said. The market rate for a 3-bedroom apartment in Salt Lake City is just under $1300, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. She rents them for about $1100.
“I was homeless myself, so I know what it feels like when you can’t pay your rent,” she says. “I’m doing everything I can to keep rents low out of the goodness of my heart. But it’s still not enough – many of my refugee tenants are barely making it.”
Hope for the future
In the past two years, Utah policymakers have taken an aggressive approach to addressing the state’s affordable housing crisis, which would also help the refugee population.
“A lack of affordable housing hurts not just refugees and low-income people, but the economy of Utah as a whole,” Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox told the Deseret News. “In order for our economy to continue to flourish, we have to have places for people of all stripes to live.”
The affordable housing shortage was put in stark terms in October when Freddie Mac reported that homes available to very low-income Americans dropped by more than 60 percent in just six years, between 2010 and 2016.
In Utah, 21 percent of renters – around 1 in 5 – are considered extremely low-income, according to the state’s first Affordable Housing Assessment and Plan released in 2016.
But Utah is short 47,180 units for these low-income renters, a group which includes many of the state’s refugees.
“Refugees have endured war, persecution and violence,” says Cherie Mockli, a therapist who works with refugees. “But once a refugee is resettled in the United States, a new game of survival begins.”
In 2016, Cox convened a task force to look at why the state has a gap in affordable housing for low-income residents.
One result of that effort was a law, passed in the 2017 general session, that created a $2 million account specifically focused on creating units for extremely low-income populations.
"Producing new units at lower income levels is a good way to target the housing needs of special populations like refugees and the homeless," says Jonathan Hardy, housing director at the Utah Department of Workforce Services.
Earlier this year, Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski rolled out her five-year plan to tackle the lack of affordable housing within the city limits.
The plan will work to set aside more affordable housing units in new developments and identify new funding sources for subsidized housing.
Biskupski says that the solution to the affordable housing crisis requires making better policy and breaking down stereotypes about refugees and the poor.
She says it’s easy to find volunteers willing to help at homeless shelters or to run clothing and food drives for refugees. But when she asks those same people to open their neighborhoods to low-income housing developments, she receives a much different response – resistance and fear.
“As a gay woman, I know what it’s like to be in a group that is feared and oppressed and seen in a light that is not positive,” Biskupski told the Deseret News. “Helping people embrace one another and get past their stereotypes is hard work, but it has to be done.”
To specifically advocate for refugee housing issues, the state has long relied on the Governor’s Refugee Services Board of Advisors, a diverse group of 18 local stakeholders who counsel the governor.
The board’s housing subcommittee, chaired by Salt Lake County Housing Authority Executive Director Janice Kimball, is currently focusing on a new project to educate policymakers, landlords and nonprofits about the importance of subsidized housing for refugees.
“We will do whatever necessary to make sure that none of our refugees lose their housing,” says Batar with Catholic Community Services.
Batar says private donations and community support will become even more vital in the next year. The Trump administration’s decision to cut the number of refugees admitted to the United States will also significantly reduce the funding resettlement agencies receive from the federal government.
“We are happy with the progress we have made in the state so far, but we still have a long way to go,” says Cox. “It’s going to take a lot of time to work together to find creative solutions to this complex problem.”
But being told to wait is a bitter pill for refugees like Ngunza, who has spent most of his life waiting in a refugee camp, sustained only by the dream of a better life in the United States.
When his wallet is empty and his bills are piled high, he cracks open his scriptures and relies on his faith to give him strength.
“Even though my life here isn’t easy, I thank God for bringing me to America,” he says. “I have not lost hope that if I work hard, I can make my dreams of a happy life in this country come true.”