SALT LAKE CITY — Said Issa spent much of his childhood in refugee camps.
After his family fled civil war in Burundi, they stayed in a refugee camp in Ethiopia for seven years, he said.
It was "a hard life" for him, his siblings and parents, Issa explained.
"The most hard part was especially the food. So most the kids are hungry, there's no foods … over there, you're lucky if you can eat today. But you don't think about what's tomorrow," he told the Deseret News.
Issa's family was eventually accepted for resettlement in Salt Lake City when he was 16 years old. Now a U.S. citizen and attending college, he said he believes the best thing people can do to help refugees is to get to know those in their community.
"Interact with the refugees. They're very wonderful people, if you get to learn from them what they have been through," Issa, 22, said.
Salt Lake residents were able to do just that Thursday evening during a "Forced to Flee" event hosted by Catholic Community Services of Utah at Gallivan Plaza. The first event of its kind held by the group offered people a glimpse into what life looks like for refugees.
People worked their way through several white tents set up on mostly dead grass. The tents had life-size photos inside to show the way large families are often crammed, shoulder to shoulder, in tight living quarters.
Eating utensils were scattered on dirt floors and a lantern hung in each tent. As groups of people rotated through the makeshift living quarters, volunteers — some of them former refugees — explained different aspects of refugees' lives.
In one tent, volunteers discussed education in refugee camps, which they say is affected by issues including overflowing classes, gender inequality and lack of supplies and teachers.
According to Hannah Momoh, from Sierra Leone, "In my fourth grade class, we had 99 kids for one teacher. So it was hard to get that one-on-one experience," she said.
They also didn't have any books.
"Learning how to read is the teacher writing on the board and then pointing to the words. And if you have a small piece of paper or a pencil that actually works, you could write down things and then go home and try to study," Momoh said.
Those living in refugee camps also often face a shortage of basic necessities and health care, troubles caused by weather and climate, and dirty conditions, among many other hardships discussed by volunteers.
Issa said his family's home in the refugee camp, built out of mud and stones, burned down twice.
Prominent Utah philanthropist Pamela Atkinson, who spoke briefly before the event, said hearing of the trials of refugees "really does choke me up."
"This is so moving, in each of these tents, such a story about the people and how they're living in refugee camps, and how they're surviving. And yet, in the United States, the numbers are going down. We've always been such a welcoming country," she said.
In 2016, nearly 84,000 immigrated to the U.S.
This year, the Trump administration ordered no more than 45,000 refugees be let in. And in 2019, the cap will be lowered further to 30,000 refugees.
According to Aden Batar, immigration and resettlement director for Catholic Community Services who was once a refugee himself, more than 22 million people are currently in refugee camps.
Most of those camps are in third-world countries, he said.
While the number of refugees allowed into the U.S. has decreased the past two years, Batar said, he hopes President Donald Trump will allow "more refugees to come to our country."
"We have so many people who have a big heart who want to help refugees," Batar said.
Issa said when he came to Utah, the most difficult part was catching up to other kids in school.
"One day, I was pretending for a teacher like I knew how to read English, even though I didn't know. And then I just go stand up there and just look at a book. That's when the teacher noticed" that he was from a different background, he said.Comment on this story
But he completed packets helping him catch up on credits and was able to graduate. Now, he is studying social work.
"So I had to focus because I knew what America is like, a dream, and I wanted my family to be proud of me. But getting that chance to come to the United States, I had to make sure I used that chance. Because not everyone gets this chance … not everyone gets the chance to come here and get the education they wanted," Issa said.
"This is American dream … living the freedom," he said.