Refugee caseworkers work long hours in Salt Lake City

by MICHAEL OLSON

Originally from Rwanda, Africa, Valentine Mukundente and her parents were relocated to Salt Lake City as refugees. Before they came to America, however, Mukundente and her family were sent to a refugee camp in Zambia where she spent her high school years. In Zambia, Mukundente worked as a translator for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees while her family waited to be relocated to America. She had learned French and Swahili as a child in Rwanda and English while in high school.

Mukundente is a resettlement caseworker at the International Rescue Committee in Salt Lake City. She has worked there for more than a year.

“I love working with refugees because I used to be one,” said Mukundente. Armed with experience as a refugee she is able to keep from getting burned out from the extreme demands on her time as a caseworker. Instead, she finds it easy to relate to the refugees she helps because she was a refugee herself.

Life as a refugee caseworker is not easy on family life. Mukundente recently married a man she knew from Rwanda. He came here as a refugee and now they have a 6-month-old baby boy.

“It’s difficult because we don’t have time to go home,” Mukundente said about their schedules. Sometimes they have to pick up a refugee family from the Salt Lake International Airport in the middle of the night.

Caseworkers take them to their new house and show them how to use the stove and other appliances. This is the first time most Africans and Burmese have seen a stove or a light switch, Mukundente said.

Sometimes refugees will visit the IRC’s downtown office on 400 South to ask questions or for help reading their mail, often just as Mukundente is on her way out the door to go home to her family. But she gladly stays late to help them. After all, she used to be a refugee herself.

Seven caseworkers are currently employed at the IRC. Mukundente is responsible for 30 cases, but some caseworkers handle as many as 70 cases at a time.

“That’s too much,” she said. If she were to focus on one of her 30 cases a day, it would take a month to get through them all.

A case may consist of a single refugee, or it could be an entire family, some with as many as 11 members.

Caseworkers at the Asian Association of Utah are just as busy. Lina Smith, the director of Utah Refugee Employment and the Community Center at the Asian Association, supervises six caseworkers, who handle between 50 and 70 cases each.

Smith has been with the Asian Association for eight years. Five of the six caseworkers she employs are currently or were at one time refugees.

“I find the refugees don’t get as burned out,” Smith said. “They have been through what the people in their cases are going through.” That motivates them to get the refugees through the difficult process of adjusting to life in Utah.

Of all the places for refugees to be resettled, Utah is one of the best locations in the nation, said Gerald Brown, director of the Refugee Services Office of the Utah Department of Workforce Services.

“People here tend to be willing to help,” Brown said. Some social workers have a tendency to become jaded, but that seems to happen less in Utah.

Brown said that the perfect workload would be 20 cases for every caseworker. Because of the shortage of caseworkers it is very important that they set boundaries to avoid getting burned out.

For example, caseworkers decide whether to give out their personal contact information.

“I have some caseworkers that give out their cell phone numbers and then they have to choose whether to answer it or not,” Smith said.

The IRC’s Mukundente usually chooses not to give out her cell phone number, but some refugees still find it out from friends who know their number.

When they call they usually just have a question that can be taken care of later. Mukundente asks the refugee if it can wait until during work hours when they can talk about it. If it is a genuine emergency, such as when a child falls and breaks his arm, Mukundente directs the family to call 911 or a person at the IRC who handles emergency situations and can translate for the refugees.

“We tell them when they first get here to call 911 in an emergency, but they forget,” Mukundente said. “The first person on their minds is their caseworker.”

Despite the stress and the long hours, Mukundente loves her job.

“People have something in their blood, something they like to do,” she said. “This is not a job you do for money. You do it because you love it.”