LDS Humanitarian Center and Inner City Project helps refugees

Story by MICHAEL OLSON

 

  • See a slideshow about an English class provided by the LDS Humanitarian Center and hear from a service missionary (best viewed in full-screen mode)

Amy Wylie, 49, and her husband have been volunteering with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Inner City Project for nine years. They started volunteering with the project as service missionaries in a ward in Salt Lake; now they serve as assistant directors of refugee services for the project.

This is their church calling. They turned in their missionary application papers to serve a 30-month service mission, the longest term a service missionary can serve without resubmitting another application.

The LDS church has several programs designed to help refugees adjust to life in Utah. One of them, the Inner City Project, helps prevent people from getting lost in the transfer between agencies giving care to refugees.

For example, at the International Rescue Committee most refugees only have six months before their case is transferred to another agency. However, the Inner City missionaries are always available to help and give service.

“Service missionaries play a bigger role longer term,” Wylie said.

Service missionaries are not the same as the church’s full-time missionaries who spend every day proselytizing. These missionaries are there to help people in the area, whether they are members of the church or not.

About 500 service missionaries currently serve in Salt Lake City. They are not specifically assigned to work with refugees, but it is part of their overall assignment in the ward, or area in which they work.

“When you are assigned to a ward you become a part of that ward and you take what ever the bishop asks you to do,” Wylie said. When missionaries are assigned to work in an area with a large refugee population it is likely the bishop will send them to assist them.

“We serve as a resource to help train. If they have questions and don’t know where to go they will call us and we will help them figure out a plan of action,” Wylie said.

They also help refugee children enroll in school and make sure they are getting the attention in class they need.

“We met one of the lost boys of Sudan in our first mission assignment,” Wylie said. Wilson was 7 years old when he was separated from his family during an attack on his village. He ended up in a refugee camp and hasn’t seen or heard from his family since.

Wilson met the Wylie family during church. He would sit with the family every week because he felt comfortable with them.

One Sunday he handed Wylie a note.

“It said ‘Could I have a picture of your family to remember them by?’ and I realized that he had no picture of a family, he didn’t belong to a family,” Wylie said.

The Wylies went to Temple Square where they took a family picture with Wilson in front of the temple.

Now Wylie shares her copy of the picture with people every chance she gets. She feels that people think it takes too much effort to make a difference in people’s lives.

“Look how simple it was. He now calls me mum and my children his brother and sisters,” Wylie said.

The Inner City Project also plays a role in finding refugees jobs. Missionaries help them find work at the LDS Church Humanitarian Center and at the Deseret Industries.

“It is set up to train them and help them learn skills and move them out to the work force,” Wylie said.

The LDS church established the Humanitarian Center in 1991 in Salt Lake City. It is located on the corner of 1700 South and Bennett Road. According to its mission statement, the center’s mission is three fold: “To prepare emergency relief supplies for shipment worldwide, to train those desiring to develop employable skills and become self-reliant and to offer service opportunities.”

The Humanitarian Center provides various skill training for refugees. They learn computer skills, they attend job etiquette classes to learn appropriate behavior in the work place, and they learn English. A teacher from the Granite School District teaches ESL classes, said Bart Hill, the center’s development manager.

During 2006, 175 refugees were employed at the Humanitarian Center. They are involved in sorting and bailing clothing. Items are sent to areas around the world where they are distributed to the needy.

They also put together packages the Humanitarian Center distributes, including hygiene kits filled with combs and toothbrushes, newborn kits filled with diapers and bottles, and school kits filled with rulers and pencils.

To obtain a job at the center refugees only need an endorsement from the bishop of the area they live in, as well as documentation proving they can legally work in the United States.

They manage the language barrier with help from interpreters who work with local relocation agencies. Some refugees have even learned English well enough to translate for those who need it.

Refugees working for the Humanitarian Center earn wages ranging from $6.55 to $9 per hour. They can earn more in the clothing sorting and bailing departments if they prepare shipments quickly for transport.

A refugee’s job performance is evaluated on a quarterly basis to make sure their work skills are progressing. Once refugees have worked for a year at the Humanitarian Center they are better qualified to work other jobs, Hill said.

“The great thing here is assisting them as they move toward self-reliance,” Hill said.

Luna Sasa, 28, works as a sorter in the medical supplies department at the Humanitarian Center. She helps gets the emergency medical supplies ready to be shipped.

Sasa was born in Sudan. She fled eight years ago with her mother, sister and her then 3-year-old daughter because of war.

She kept getting laid off because she lacked certain skills other jobs required. She was looking for a job she could hold down. Then she heard about the skills training program at the Humanitarian Center from the bishop in her area.

“I went to the bishop and he gave me the paper, and I started working here,” Sasa said.

Since Sasa has started working at the Humanitarian Center she has learned how to use a computer, how to type and how to use programs like Excel and PowerPoint.

Eventually Sasa wants to study at LDS Business College to become a medical assistant.

“Refugees need a lot of friends,” Wylie said. “They need people that just welcome them and take them into their neighborhoods and communities and school systems.”

Wylie and her family invite these friends over to her house in Salt Lake to celebrate holidays together.

“They are still a big part of our family. One night we had about 11 languages in our home,” Wylie said.

Whenever she hears that one of the refugees she stays in touch with has had a child, Wylie rushes over in her van that she has filled with boxes of supplies she gives to refugees. She gives the new parents a box overflowing with baby clothes and blankets.

“They aren’t assignments to us,” said Wylie, “we consider them our brothers and sisters.”