Salt Lake Community College welcomes refugees with open arms, minds

by REED NELSON

The South City campus of Salt Lake Community College (SLCC) is teeming with students, some ambitious, some reluctantly present, some looking to further their education, some looking to quiet nagging parents. Then there are those who come from far away, one group to whom this confusion seems mundane. With all the diverse qualities that envelope the students at SLCC, there is one group that shares a mutual bond far deeper than the institution could provide on its own. They are the refugee population.

The refugees are not all from the same place, the same region even, but they do share the same difficult past that brought them to Salt Lake. Now that they are here, however, their opportunities will not be hindered.

One of the main reasons refugees have found so much success in Salt Lake City is because of the opportunity to receive encouragement and development at SLCC. The school has made a point of welcoming the students with open arms, even with the language barrier.

“We have only had a little trouble incorporating the refugee students into a normal student life,” said Cindy Clark, an early-enrollment advisor who is also in charge of the Sudanese Student Association at SLCC. “But that is made easier by the wearing down of the language barrier. That is why our ESL [English as a Second Language] Program is so essential.”

Clark said English is one of the biggest issues that an incoming refugee student will face at school. Other issues usually are individualized. This could mean culture shock for one student or finances for another. This is why she has to remain close with the students.

“A lot of these kids are used to never having anywhere to turn, never having someone to ask how to handle a tough situation,” Clark said. “My job with them is to make sure that they don’t slip off the grid due to simple neglect. I never want to lose one that could have been avoided.”

SLCC has even included space on its application to denote refugee status, which might include long-standing documented refugees to people who have lived here for 24 months or less. This can allow someone like Clark to identify who requires more attention in the beginning.

Refugees come from an extremely adverse political, religious, environmental, or social situation. This makes it very difficult from the outset to proceed with what is considered a traditional Western education.

A war-torn state can produce an exponential amount of refugees, depending on the group being persecuted. When these refugees are exiled, it is a long road before they are granted the chance to start over.

This process can often take years to sort out, depending on the gravity of the situation, and can frequently lead to disheartening times.

“I was only 5 years old when we were told to leave our home,” said George Artsistas, a student at the University of Utah. Artsistas was born to Greek parents in Croatia in 1989, two years before the war broke out. By 1994, his parents were being forced out of the country and were made to stay in camps. Because of some work by his father, George ended up in Marin County, Calif., in 1996.

“I was introduced to a life in which formal schooling was nonexistent,” Artsistas said. “It was the polar opposite to what I had been told, and I lost a few key years in my schooling. When we came in, I had to play catch up, but thanks to my parents, that wasn’t too difficult.”

Now these students are in an environment that is conducive to learning and interacting, rather than destructive. Artsistas is working to become a film major at the University of Utah after a brief stint at SLCC.

“I have the opportunity that I would have never been afforded, and my parents are beyond excited,” Artsistas said. “They never thought in a million years that they would see their son go to college.”

The genuine thirst for an education is not uncommon among refugee students, and it is this attribute that could serve them well, especially now that they are making life decisions.

“I was told everything that I was allowed to do my whole life,” said Sean Keranovic of Prijedor, Bosnia. “When I went, it was the first time that I was told that I could do something that I wanted to do.”

Keranovic is about to graduate and has found work through connections he made while at SLCC. He met a speaker in a business class, and through frequent contact eventually landed a job with POWDR Corp., a holding company, based in Park City, that operates eight winter resorts.

“Sean has showed a phenomenal work ethic, a yes-man through and through, you can tell this job means a lot to him,” said Rick DesVaux, the former CFO of POWDR, and the man who hired Keranovic. “We have him in a type of quasi-internship, one that allows him the flexibility to continue school, if he chooses to, but also become competent in the work place. He has really shown that he cares not only about his job, but his future as well.”

Keranovic is only putting together presentations, in which he often will construct the display pieces, but he enjoys the responsibility. “I didn’t learn that I could go to college until I heard about Salt Lake Community College’s refugee program,” Keranovic said. “I mean I come from Bosnia, Clinton’s only political blemish,” he said, laughing.

Keranovic is one of a handful of SLCC graduates who have found work in the corporate world.

Another successful graduate is Simon Kuay, 33, a Sudanese “Lost Boy” who owns K&K African Market. The store doubles as a hangout for other Sudanese refugees. He has managed to fuse old and new traditions.

“This started as a business for me,” Kuay said. “Who would have thought it would become some sort of center for us.”

And while K&K might be one social and cultural center for the Sudanese, the, like other refugees, are happy to settle on SLCC as a rallying point.

“That is what we try to do here,” Clark said. “We embrace them with open arms. They receive no special academic treatment while they are here, mind you, but as far as everything else goes, we are here for them 100 percent. They are always worth it.”

So the bustle around the SLCC campus continues, stretching all across the valley, from campus to campus, classroom to classroom. Now, however, that bustle includes those who feel fortunate to have access to education.

“Granted I was very young, but my family came over here under refugee circumstances, which immediately put us at a disadvantage,” Keranovic said. “But now, I go to school and have a job where I have to wear a tie. That is a pretty cool change.”