Salt Lake City IRC assists refugees

by REED NELSON

Refugee. According to the Immigration and Nationality act, a refugee is described as: “Any person who is outside any country of such person’s nationality or, in the case of a person having no nationality, is outside any country in which such person last habitually resided, and who is unable or unwilling to return to, and is unable or unwilling to avail himself or herself of the protection of, that country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.”

It is a term that is tossed around, but is seldom acknowledged by the majority of the population. As with all jobs that require a strong stomach, and an even stronger will, the people who work with refugees experience similar turmoil, similar angst. It takes a different kind of person to deal with the same issues as their clientele, and a still more unique person to be able to smile before, during, and after a hard days work. 

Cue Patrick Poulin.

It is Patrick Poulin’s job to make the difficult road that lies ahead for those refugees as seamless as possible. He is the resettlement director for the International Rescue Committee a private non-profit organization. As director he oversees about 400 to 500 placements a year. 

“We do a couple of things, first we try to get legal status, then we deal with the social and psychological issues,” Poulin explained, choosing his words carefully and thoughtfully. “We deal with a lot of people who have miserable existences, so we try and hook them into the resources available.”

There are plenty of resources available, such as help with bills, educational opportunities, and living situations, but the literature and general information about them does not always reach the necessary audience. Refugee Sean Keranovic of Prijedor, Bosnia, never met Poulin, but wishes he had. “My family and I didn’t have access to any of the things we needed,” he said. “Education, I missed nearly a year of school when I moved here, and only because we didn’t understand how to get me registered.”

To ensure something like this cannot happen under his watch, Poulin now has forged relationships with the right people, those with access to funding and information, to help his clients with the most amount of help possible. These resources, not only were not readily available to his clientele, but when he started, Poulin was not all that wired into the system himself.

He began his humanitarian tendencies by joining the Peace Corps, which sent him to Mali. After his experiences over there, he knew had a career in helping those people who could not always help themselves.

Following his Peace Corps stint, he never looked back. “I enjoy helping out supplanting the real support people need,” Poulin said, smiling. It is his caring nature that has driven him to keep with his career. 

That career has even brought him all the way overseas again, to places in Western Africa, where he is needed as much as he is stateside. “When I went over to the Ivory Coast and Liberia, I found that the refugees were very appreciative,” Poulin recalled. “There wasn’t enough, Liberia feels like they are the 51st state, and that we [the U.S.] would save them.” 

And while there might not be the sufficient funds overseas, Poulin has enough trouble accounting for the cost of programs stateside. With a group as small and isolated as refugees, not a lot of attention can be called to individuals. By working for an organization like the IRC, he has sacrificed material gain for moral gratification.

The IRC has now brought over 800 refugees successfully into Utah, and they all have to go through Poulin. And the goal for the organization is to successfully settle 12,000 refugees in the United States. 

Poulin understands that it is a lofty goal, especially when the word successful is  included in the goal. But he does have a plan for each of them, and cares for them individually, not as a lump sum.

When asked about his goals for each refugee, he does not have lofty aspirations, and would rather see them succeed than anything else. “In two years, I want to get them out of poverty, that’s our goal,” Poulin said, stressing the time it would take. “The more independent they are, the more successful we are.”

“We’re not in it for the personal gain. We are a group of humanitarians,” Poulin said. “We’re just stretched thin, we probably have one-third of the programs and amenities we should. But either you burn out or you find yourself very dedicated.”

As with all public programs, funding is not only an issue, but also the prevailing one on Poulin’s mind right now. The IRC does include charity events in its calendar, such as the Chili Affair and the nationally held First Thanksgiving, to try to make the lives of the refugees and Poulin alike, easier. When Poulin has the funds to work with, he can provide not just emotional and psychological help to the refugees.

The jobs that require a little bit of emotional elasticity, possessing a good spirit always helps. Sometimes the work can get a little disheartening, but he always has a positive outlook on his line of work.

Even when it gets heavy, he understands the emotional and work related lines that can be crossed. “You have to be able to smile,” Poulin said.