Tribal tattoos are more than just a fad


Fred Frost, owner of Frost City Tattoo. Photo by Diego Romo

Story and photos by DIEGO ROMO

The first thing you notice when walking into Frost City Tattoo is an overwhelming sense of community and inclusiveness. It’s as if the shop were a working and living metaphor for the values that most, if not all, Pacific Islanders stand for: community and tradition.

A warm “hello” greets you as you push open the door, quickly followed by a “make yourself at home” and inviting conversation.

But as you walk around and begin to explore the shop, the work of the artists grabs your attention. The walls are filled with pictures of the beautiful motifs that have ornamented the bodies of generations and generations of Pacific Islanders, which entices your focus and sustains it. The tradition is deep and diverse. The art is unique and beautiful.

Anthropologists agree that the tradition of tattooing has existed in Pacific Islander society for over two millennia. Almost all of the island societies scattered across the Pacific have some form of tattoo culture that permeates their community and helps indicate their place in it.

Although experts disagree on the geographical origin of tattooing — there is evidence of tattoos on the preserved skin of Egyptian mummies and countless other ancient cultures — historians can agree that the linguistic history of the word derives from the Samoan word tatau, which means “to strike.”

Called “kakau” in Hawaiian culture and “moko,” the traditional name for the face tattoos of the Maori in New Zealand, the art has always played an integral role in Pacific Islander society.

“Tattooing is as fundamental to Pacific Islander culture as anything else,” said Fred Frost, owner of Frost City Tattoo, which is located at 7045 State St. in Midvale.

Frost, who has been tattooing for 20 years, never saw the craft as a potential career choice. He got into the art by giving tattoos to friends as party favors when he was a young man living in California.

By the time he was 16, Frost gained an apprenticeship with a shop in California and had begun to discover his passion, which in turn helped him to learn more about himself.

“I actually learned how to speak Samoan through tattooing,” Frost said.

Frost jumped into research and began practicing the ancient motifs that are prevalent in Pacific Island tattooing, becoming a master in the process.

The traditional style of tribal tattoo varies from island to island, but the most common themes seen in the tattoos are strength and the representation of the environment in which they lived.

Many agree that the repeated use of triangles, which are representative of shark teeth, generally symbolizes strength and protection. Another very common pattern seen is the spiral-esque design meant to represent waves.

Because the early societies of the Pacific Islands had no written language, they used tattoos as a means of communication between members of the society.

According to Kealalokahi Losch, an expert in Pacific Islander culture, agrees that tattoos were a way of preserving history and culture, as well as a means of broadcasting one’s individuality.

“For Polynesian people it’s kind of our identity. It’s our thing,” said Lala Ellsworth, a tattoo artist working at Frost City Tatau.


Lala Ellsworth, a tattoo artist at Frost City Tattoo. Photo by Diego Romo

Historically, tattoos contained symbolism that related to the matriarchal and patriarchal lines of the family. They displayed successful hunts and the spoils of war. They also denoted what standing in the society one had, be it king or warrior, and even the origins of their ancestor.

Frost credits these characteristics for his passion and interest in the style. He really liked the fact that he was “able to tell a story using our language.”

Tattoos also played a very personal role in the sense that they shared the story of the bearer to the world. But they were never about the individual, as is the case with most Pacific Islander culture and practices.

“There’s no individual. That doesn’t exist in our style,” Frost said. “You’re all about the family, the clan, and community in a way that makes you whole.”

Historians state that as European cultures began to make contact with the Pacific Island communities, the practices and techniques of Polynesian tattooing began to spread and influence styles all over the world.

“All islanders have always gifted tattoos to foreigners,” Frost added.

And despite many efforts by zealous religious missionaries to curb the practice, it’s still thriving two thousand years later

Frost said that there is a large and growing market of Pacific Islanders who wish to continue the tradition of receiving the tattoos as part of their cultural identity — those who truly understand the deep meaning of the symbolism and the history of the art.

But you do not have to be of Pacific Island descent to appreciate and understand their style of tattooing.

“There’s a lot of non-Polynesians getting Polynesian stuff,” Frost said.

He added that this is a factor in what’s keeping the art alive. The symbols and their meanings are universal. They tell the story of all humans, just through the lens of the Pacific Islander experience.

“The meaning behind it is relatable to anyone in the world,” Frost added. “It’s just done in our style.”

Zay Dela Pena, who has tattooed at Frost City Tatau for three years, was born in Hawaii and grew up in a very religious family. The traditional, Polynesian style tattoos that were inspired by his culture and his spirituality by interweaving symbolism and meaning between the two identities.


Zay Dela Pena tattooing a client at Frost City Tattoo. Photo by Diego Romo

“I had to figure out a way to connect the cultural symbols to spiritual symbols,” he said.

Dela Pena, like many others, was able to see the universal qualities in the symbols and add his own experience and identity to the tattoo, deepening its meaning.

Although the art-form has remained highly unchanged over its two thousand year existence, artists are now beginning to blend styles and create pastiches that contain the influence of many different works and cultures.

“What’s happening now is you’re seeing an evolution,” Fred Frost said. “Because artists are becoming diverse.”

Younger artists like Jroo Winquist are influenced by the tattoos of their older relatives and peers, but are continuing the Pacific Islander tattooing legacy through exploring different and newer styles.

“I love the look of tribal,” Winquist said. “It’s aesthetically so pleasing.”

But Winquist stated his favorite style of tattoo to work on is contemporary, modern and even surrealistic. Still the art is influenced in some way by the traditional Pacific Islander style.

Fred Frost said the traditional style of Polynesian tattooing will not be going away any time soon.

“It has stood the test of time until now, so I’m sure it will last,” he said.

As the buzz of the tattoo guns begins to fade, the conversation builds at Frost City Tatau in Midvale. Those who have just finished receiving their new ink don’t just pay and leave — they stay and talk for a while. Because before anything else, community and family come first in the Pacific Islander tradition.


Filipinos confused about where they belong

Story and photo by MCKENZIE YCMAT

Logging into to view the results of a DNA test, Robert Ycmat wasn’t quite sure what he was going to discover. Once he got the results, they confused him even more.

“The results were interesting,” Ycmat said. “Everything seemed pretty standard, but what confused me the most was how they defined me as South Asian/Pacific Islander. I always just considered myself Asian!”


Robert Ycmat at home in his study.

This question is one that many have wondered themselves. Are Filipinos considered Pacific Islanders?

Even when searching for Filipino news on the Pacific Citizen website, hundreds of articles appear talking about politics, food and even Hollywood news in the Philippines.

Rumors have spread that the U.S Census Bureau has officially decided to classify Filipinos from Asian to Pacific Islanders, but according to the Census Bureau’s official website, “The Census Bureau has no current plans to classify Filipinos outside of the Asian race category.”

According to the Bureau, the Philippines are legally concerned to be a part of Asia. So doesn’t that answer the question?

The Philippines consists of 7,000 islands and it was Spain that officially tied them all together into one country in the 16th century. The islands start from the north, by Asia, and slowly slant downward toward the east, closer to the Pacific Islands.

Because of this odd gathering of the islands, many Filipinos from the north classify themselves as Asian, whereas those who live in the southeast islands will sometimes classify themselves as Pacific Islander.

“Although I always considered myself Asian,” Ycmat said, “Filipinos have created a culture that is much closer to the traditions of the Pacific Islanders than Asians.”

Susi Feltch-Malohifo’ou, the executive director of Pacific Island Knowledge 2 Action Resources, said, Pacific Islanders consist of Native Hawaiians, Samoans, Chamorros, Fijians, Marshallese and Tongans.

What really brings all these different nationalities together are the unique cultures of the Pacific Islanders.

“We believe in the tradition of family,” Feltch-Malohifo’ou said. “Sacrifice yourself for the good of the family.”

Ycmat agrees with the fact that family was always a staple in the Philippines growing up. It’s one of the main reasons that he decided to learn more about who he is through the services of

Although Ycmat only lived in the Philippines through his childhood, moving to the United States in his teen years, he remembers his mother holding onto family traditions throughout his life.

“She always put herself first for our family,” Ycmat said. “Our father was no longer involved with me and my siblings once we moved to America, so my mother put it on herself to keep us close and to keep the traditions alive.”

Just like with most cultures, Filipinos hold onto their traditions tightly. They can find ties in their traditions with Asian culture but also with the Pacific Islander culture as well.

Ycmat’s oldest daughter, Danielle Jansson, recently lived in a small city within the Philippines called Iloilo City for a religious mission.

Jansson discussed the importance of the Filipino culture through food, family and tradition. After some reflection, she finally came up with an answer regarding her thoughts on how Filipinos would identify themselves.

“Probably Asian,” Jansson said. “But, they don’t care and they don’t ask. They just know that they’re Filipino.”

Jansson said the Philippines have taken a lot from the Pacific Island culture like their belief of family and celebration of food. They’ve also taken values from Asians such as individuality and their sense of independence.

“They care about their family, but they also want to take care of themselves,” Jansson said. “They have a personal dream and they want to accomplish it on their own, not just for their family. They’re known for being hard workers and they have no shame. They’re just Filipino.”

Religion plays a big role in culture for both Filipinos and Pacific Islanders.

“Religion, especially the Mormon and Catholic church, teach values of pride and family,” Feltch-Malohifo’ou said. “We naturally gravitate towards these religions because of the teachings of love and community.”

According to the Harvard Divinity School Religious Literacy Project, “Catholicism has been the cornerstone of Filipino identity for millions in the Philippines. Catholicism rapidly spread during the early years of Spanish colonialism.”

After a bloody war called the Philippine–American War in the late 1800s, Americans migrated to the Philippines and even pushed their way through to the Pacific Islands. Because of this, the teachings of the Catholic Church became a common belief among these two countries.

“I kind of like that there’s no clear answer to this question (about identity),” Ycmat said. “It makes Filipinos even more unique than they already are. It almost describes Filipinos perfectly — we do what we want because we want to do it, not because we belong to either.”

Kirby Araullo, who is the program coordinator for the Asian American Studies undergraduate department at the University of Califonia Davis, discusses this question, “Are Filipinos Asians or Pacific Islanders.”

Originally raised in the Philippines, Araullo found that this question was only asked in America. He answers by saying, “It’s up to you. We the people have the power to define and redefine ourselves, as long as we respect each other. ”

LGBT Pacific Islanders in Utah face discrimination

Story and photos by SHAELYN BARBER

It takes a village to raise a child, but what happens if that child does not fit into male or female gender identities? In Pacific Islander culture, it is not an issue.

Across the Pacific Island cultures, these individuals are known by many different names. In Samoa, they are Fa’afafine. In Hawai’i, they are Māhū. In Tonga, they are Fakaleiti. These are the people who are not male or female, but somewhere in the middle: a third gender.

The third gender is an integral part of traditional Pacific Island culture, and individuals who fall into this spectrum are highly respected members of society. People who are part of the third gender category do not adhere strictly to stereotypical characteristics of male or female genders, and often display characteristics of both. The Pacific Island third gender category can include people who act or dress in a way that is not associated with the sex they were assigned at birth or people who are sexually attracted to someone of the same gender.

“It’s important to see the similarities between Māhū and transgender identities here in the U.S., but also it’s not just a direct translation,” says Maile Arvin, a native Hawaiian and assistant professor of gender studies and history at the University of Utah. “I think it’s just a little bit different than transgender in the sense that that was a defined role that was honored in Native Hawaiian society, that has its own history.”

Arvin says that traditional gender roles in Pacific Island societies are balanced and are not necessarily matriarchal or patriarchal communities. Within them, masculine and feminine roles are distinctive but receive equal amounts of respect. Men are typically the protectors, workers and financial supporters of their families. Women take on the role of caretakers of the family and the home. People who identify in one of these third-gender identities have a role within traditional Pacific Island societies as well: they are usually the leaders and teachers of spirituality and culture.

“Sometimes it’s hard for non-Hawaiian people to understand what Māhū means,” Arvin says. “So, in some contexts it might just be more convenient to identify as transgender instead of going into explanations about what Māhū is.”

People who identify as a third gender in Pacific Islander societies often find it difficult to explain the meaning to others who are not familiar with it. Despite parallels to LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) identities, the two are distinct. Someone can identify with both an LGBT identity and an identity in the third-gender spectrum.

“I’m not really picky but I know that I personally identify as feminine pronouns, but then when people see me they’re like, what the heck? I don’t get it,” says Leka Heimuli, who works as a secretary for the Office for Diversity and Multicultural Affairs at the Salt Lake Community College South City Campus. Heimuli is Fakaleiti, the Tongan term for the third gender, and describes herself as a gay man who prefers female pronouns and typically dresses in a masculine way.


Leka Heimuli, secretary for the Office for Diversity and Multicultural Affairs at the Salt Lake Community College South City Campus

Heimuli is a first-generation Polynesian Tongan American. Her mother and father both emigrated from Tonga searching for opportunities for work, education and a better life. They met in Utah, got married and had six children, a small family by Pacific Island standards, which Heimuli says typically have between 10 and 15 children.

“I feel like when colonialism came, you know, to our shores that’s when you kind of see that drift of, oh, that’s wrong. That’s bad,” Heimuli says. “I think now we kind of use those terms in a derogatory manner.”

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has raised controversy because of its doctrine concerning the LGBT community. According to church doctrine sexual and marital relationships should only be between one man and one woman, and sex or marriage between two people of the same sex is forbidden. According to the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies, the state of Utah has the highest percentage of constituents in the United States.

“We’re here, you know, like, you can’t control it,” Heimuli says. “There are members [of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints] I feel don’t come out because of like … that stigma that’s maybe placed on them from the church or maybe from the beliefs.”

Heimuli says that while the discrimination against LGBT and third-gender Pacific Islanders within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not extreme, these communities do face negative effects, comments and stigmatization from its members.

“Our belief and our history before Christianity came is that we have three genders. So, that’s a norm,” says Susi Feltch-Malohifo’ou, the executive director of Pacific Island Knowledge 2 Action Resources (PIK2AR). “For some reason this plane ride, this 10-hour plane ride to America, changed that.”


Susi Feltch-Malohifo’ou, the executive director of Pacific Island Knowledge 2 Action Resources

“Food is love” at the Pacific Seas Restaurant and Market in Salt Lake City

Story and photos by SHEHERAZADA HAMEED


The entrance of the Pacific Seas Restaurant and Market, facing Redwood Road.

According to, living on the island of Tonga doesn’t mean all the food comes from the sea. The traditional cuisine of the beautiful tropical island consists of two main categories — “food from the sea” and “food from the land.”

The Pacific Seas Restaurant and Market makes it possible to experience Tongan flavors here in Utah. The restaurant is located at 1151 S Redwood Road in Glendale, a neighborhood not far from downtown Salt Lake City.

Family owned and operated for more than 28 years, the restaurant is a popular location for Tongans and other Polynesians to dine. The atmosphere is casual and friendly and pays a large tribute to Tongan athletes. Framed photos of football and rugby players line the walls of the dining room.

The aromas of cooking meat and chicken curry awaken a hunger in the shoppers who come to the market to purchase items such as canned coconut cream, long rice, mackerel fish and corned beef. People often complete their shopping and stay for a meal or a take out.

The kitchen and the counter are run by the family members and overseen by David Lavulo. He is recognizable from the framed newspaper articles that hang on the wall. In one of the articles, David and Leti Lavulo are pictured wearing Mormon missionary badges. In another picture, Lavulo is next to Kalani Sitake, the head coach of Brigham Young University’s football team.

Lavulo left Tonga in 1968 to study in Fiji. A year later he moved to the United States and settled in San Francisco, where he married his wife Leti Lavulo. After five years, they moved to Utah. He said they moved to Salt Lake City because they liked the slower paced lifestyle.

After working in construction and other jobs, he decided it was time to start his own business as a way to serve the local Pacific Islander community.

Lavulo said the restaurant serves almost the same food as in the American cuisine, especially the types of meats. Pork chops, sausage, lamb ribs, chicken curry, fried fish and raw fish are among the menu items. The one thing that distinguishes them is the use of different vegetables.


Lavulo’s open kitchen at the restaurant.

The favorable climate, soil, rainfall and sunshine contributes to the growth of many fruits and vegetables, typical for the Pacific Islands, according to 

Taro is a vegetable that grows under the ground. While it is growing, the leaves can be cut and used as greens. Lavulo said they are used instead of spinach.

Another typical root vegetable for the Pacific Islanders is the sweet potato, also called kumara. There are 77 different varieties. “I think you have seen some of those sweet potatoes … not the very soft ones, not the orange ones, but we have kind of white and almost green,” he said.

Another significant item on the menu is the green banana. “It is the remedy to the people in the Pacific that have diabetes,” he said.


David Lavulo shows the green bananas out of his refrigerated walk-in storage.

The animal protein on the menu comes from the variety of fish, chicken, lamb, pork and beef. Although these are relatively lean options, Lavulo reduces calories by healthy cooking. He wraps meats in taro leaves, adds coconut milk and seasoning, then steams the dish. “It is really tasty,” he said.

The signature dish, which is Lavulo’s favorite, is the Rainbow Sushi. It is similar to the Japanese sushi and is prepared with tuna, mahi-mahi, snapper, mixed with coconut milk, tomatoes, onions and cucumber. “All the Polynesian likes to eat fish,” he said, smiling. He opened the walk-in refrigerator and showed boxes of fish from Taiwan.

Lavulo said they cook everything from scratch daily. He took a visitor on a tour of his kitchen. Everything from the ceiling to the floor is spotless. Containers are labeled and vegetables are fresh. He imports his produce (taro, green bananas and yams) from Costa Rica.

“The flavors of the yams from there are different,” he said. He buys his lamb from New Zealand. “We don’t eat the lamb over here, it is not tasty. We also import the taro leaves from Hawaii,” Lavulo added.

To the right of the open kitchen are chafing dishes with steaming side options of taro, yams, yuca and green bananas. The Pacific Seas Restaurant and Market kitchen staff are dedicated to serving fresh meals. The restaurant is open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., but at 5 p.m. they stop cooking. “We don’t want the leftovers,” Lavulo said.

Unique beverage options are available. Otai is a beverage made of mango, coconut and sugar; it is a traditional drink made fresh daily at the restaurant.

Lavulo recently visited Tonga and said he was amazed by how much the island has been developed since the last time he was there, 11 years ago. When he first left his homeland, there were still houses made of coconut fronds and today there are modern multistory buildings. ”The [Mormon] Temple was the most beautiful building,” he said.

While Lavulo shares his memories of his trip to Tonga, four family members cook and serve to customers who wait in line to purchase lunch.

On the north wall, there are frames of Tongan beauties and pageant queens. One of Lavulo’s five daughters, Anamarie Lavulo Havea, discussed the female beauty standards in Tonga. The heavier-set women are found to be beautiful. Thin women are considered unattractive. But, she said, when women move to the U.S. they consume a lot of junk food and become even heavier.

Tongan food, however, is particularly wholesome and healthy, because the main ingredients are fruit, vegetables and lean proteins.

Havea is the youngest of Lavulo’s five daughters. She is married and already has children of her own. She has worked in the family business since she was very young. She and her siblings ran the restaurant while their parents served an LDS mission in Papua New Guinea in 2014. Now Havea cooks. On a typical day, she said, 100 to 150 patrons dine at the restaurant. As many as 250 meals are served on a busy day.


Anamarie Lavulo Havea and her nephews work behind the counter, while David Lavulo is overseeing the restaurant.

There is a large poster with an autograph from Will Tukuafu, a Tongan player, from Salt Lake City, who played for the Seattle Seahawks with number 46. His message is “To Pacific Seas, thank you for the great food and continued support for the community.”

Havea added, “This is that food, that you would find in the South Pacific and is what a lot of our NFL players eat.”

According to Susi Feltch-Malohifo’ou, the executive director of Pacific Islanders Knowledge 2 Action Resources (PIK2AR), food in the Pacific Island is related to family prestige and prosperity. She said, “People with more weight, and why we are overweight, signifies that your family has money to feed you. If you are thin that means your family is poor, and there is no food to feed you.”

The Pacific Seas Restaurant and Market is where Pacific Islanders meet for an authentically cooked food and mutual support. Customers seem to be regulars because they know each other and the Lavulo family. The sound from the football game on TV is mixed with lively conversations in the native language. The large pots of steaming taro leaves and cooking meat fill in the dining room with aromas.

For them, the peaceful islanders, Feltch-Malohifo’ou, said, “Food is love in the Pacific Islands culture, and it shows everything with food and service.”










Refugee Services Office, Catholic Community Services support integration of refugees in Utah

Story and slideshow by BLAKE LANCASTER

When a refugee resettles in a new country, oftentimes they are in a new community with new rules, a new language and a new culture. How do they approach this challenging situation and become integrated members of American society? Organizations such as Utah’s Refugee Services Office can help with the transition.

Gerald Brown is currently an assistant director and state refugee coordinator at the Refugee Services Office, which is one of these organizations. The Refugee Services Office help refugees learn English, find and gain skills for employment and build connections with locals who can help show them the way things work in their new community.

Brown became interested in working with refugees during a year-long trip to Egypt with the YMCA where he experienced a culture with hardship unlike what we know in America. This sparked his passion for social justice. He went on the service trip expecting to help people, but when he finished he realized he learned the most.

Since his eye-opening service trip, Brown has worked in refugee agencies from Houston to New York to Cuba before becoming one of the godfathers of major Utah refugee programs.

For several years, Utah held monthly town hall meetings to discuss the state of refugee resettlement programs in Utah. In 2008, Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. approved the addition of refugee services and Brown was appointed to direct and lead the new program toward success.

Brown hasn’t stopped serving refugees since then and can be credited with the efficient success the Refugee Services Offices is able to accomplish when it comes to the integration process.

“If you can accomplish integration, then you have the strongest community possible,” Brown said.

From all of his experiences, one of the things Brown has learned that he stresses is understanding the important distinction between integration and assimilation.

Integration can be defined as incorporating individuals from different groups into a society as equals. Though similar, assimilation means to adopt the ways of the new culture and fully become part of it resulting in an immense loss of cultural identity.

Danielle Stamos, public relations and marketing director for Catholic Community Services, said it is important we make it acceptable and comfortable for refugees to continue their traditions and maintain their culture.

“Not only do they preserve their culture, but they also share their culture with the community in Utah,” Stamos said. “I love when we see refugee communities creating their own events taking some of their traditions from their own countries and implementing them here.”

Catholic Community Services is another organization with programs in place to help refugees integrate into Utah. Catholic Community Services provides case managers to refugees as they are resettled in Utah who help them get on their feet. They provide them with housing, teach them the way the American system works when it comes to everyday life, help them learn the language, find them jobs, and much more.

One way Stamos suggested the everyday community member could help with integration is approaching refugees and being welcoming and friendly. If, however, you’re really feeling ambitious and eager to get involved, finding an organization that helps refugees and interests you to volunteer with can be rewarding to all parties involved.

“Once you work one-on-one with a refugee you can see daily how easy it can be to help support them in their goals and support them in maintaining their culture,” Stamos said. “There will always be a lot of fear out there of change and things that are different, but if we instead embrace it we can see how much more strong and beautiful our community and relationships can be if we share and work together.”

Nirmala Kattel provides a unique understanding of assisting the integration process of refugees as she is a refugee herself as well as an employee at the Refugee Education and Training Center.

The Refugee Education and Training Center is located at the Meadowbrook campus of Salt Lake Community College where Kattel also attends as a student. Kattel said one of the center’s most popular services utilized by refugees is help with jobs similar to Catholic Community Services, but the Education and Training Center is there to help after refugees no longer have their initial case manager.

Another popular service at the center that Kattel has noticed are the English classes. Some refugees come with very limited knowledge of the English language, which is a key hurdle for refugees to clear as once they can surpass the language barrier, it makes the rest of the steps in the integration process a little easier.

Kattel came to Utah as a refugee from Nepal in 2009 and quickly learned that isolation is another of the bigger barriers refugees face upon arrival for her and other refugees alike. She had to wait six years before the rest of her family was able to resettle in America.

“Refugees who come alone feel isolated and depressed missing their families and their past lives, so involvement and engagement in outside activities can help them through these feelings,” Kattel said.

Kattel said the elderly refugees can especially struggle with the isolation and loneliness. Since they don’t have a job or school to go to, it confines their reasons to leave their home. This seclusion can lead to difficulties with learning English and understanding the system of our community as a whole.

“The system is hard to understand at first. Refugees from almost everywhere come from somewhere with a totally different system in their countries or the refugee camps they waited in before coming here,” Kattel said.

Showing interest in refugees as a person and who they are culturally can help them with almost all of their integration barriers. Additionally, it can make them feel more comfortable in sharing their culture with their new community. Kattel said a friend with experience in the community always proves to be a valuable asset to refugees trying to make sense of their new home and sharing their cultural values.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Catholic Community Services remains a helping hand for those in need in Salt Lake City

Story and slideshow by HAYDEN S. MITCHELL

“All we want to do [as an organization] is help folks in our community,” said Aden Batar, immigration and refugee resettlement director at Catholic Community Services, located at 745 E. 300 South in Salt Lake City.

The primary goals of CCS are to help those in need and create hope for people who have none. According to its pledge, “Catholic Community Services of Utah has been empowering people in need to reach self-sufficiency.” CCS does this by lifting up those in the community, regardless of gender, race or religion.

In 1945, the Rev. Duane G. Hunt of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City saw there were many people in need of assistance. These folks were poor and no help was coming their way. So, with that, Hunt started an organization to contribute to his community. According to the CCS website, this organization started by creating adoption centers, poverty assistance, foster care, counseling and transit programs.

“There have always been people in need … that is way we must help if we are able to,” Batar said. “Not everyone can do it themselves, which is why organizations like this are around.”

Following 1945, Hunt’s organization continued to expand, beyond his death in 1960. It grew from a single office to four different sites and buildings that deliver social services to folks in need of help in Utah, specifically Northern Utah and the Wasatch Front. As the organization grew it strove to help more and more people in need of assistance. The Rev. Hunt’s organization joined the United Way Agency in 1951, allowing them to help more people, according to the CCS website.

The St. Vincent de Paul Thrift Shop and Soup Kitchen were opened in 1967, as an extension of the Rev. Hunt’s organization. It began providing food and clothes for the homeless, which continues to this day. Over 1,000 meals a day are served to needy Utahns at the St. Vincent de Paul Dining Hall located in 437 W. 200 South in Salt Lake City. It is a mid-day and evening meal service, according to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul,

Ethan Lane, a local high school student who has volunteered at the soup kitchen over the last couple of years, spoke very highly of the work they do, saying, “Having a reliable place to go get a nice meal is important.” Lane added, “Without this place providing the service they do, there would be a lot more hungry people here in Utah.”

That is why it is important for community organizations to continue their work by maintaining the places like the soup kitchen and increasing their reach. Poverty and hunger continue to be an issue in Utah. According to the U.S. Census, more than 10 percent of the population is living below the poverty line. That is one in every 10 people living in Utah. Add to that, Utah is ranked fourth in the United States for the highest rate of very low food security.

Not only has Hunt’s organization made efforts to help the hungry and homeless in our community but they also strive to help others in need like immigrant and refugees, says Batar. The Rev. Terence M. Moore added the refugee resettlement program to Hunt’s organization in 1974. The refugee foster care program was established the next year to assist unaccompanied minor refugees.

Shortly after the organization began assisting with refugees it added immigration services in 1981. Included in those services was aid to the disabled and the Utah Immigration Project. Both immigrants and refugees are facing a new environment but they are coming from vastly different situations. Immigrants are choosing to resettle in a new location whereas refugees are being forced to leave their homes and find a new one, according to Although they don’t all come from the same situations they need some of the same assistance.

“Refugees and immigrants have the same difficulties adapting … they have a hard time with the language, the weather and the feeling of being home takes a while,” Batar said. “It is important for them to understand that they have help and they are not alone in a difficult time.”

Soon after the additions of the refugee and immigration services, the organization changed its name to Catholic Community Services of Utah but the mission remained the same. According to the CCS website, that mission is “to practice gospel values of love, compassion and hope through service, support and collaboration.”

“We are a medium-sized non-profit organization that provides some great help to our community,” said Danielle Stamos, public relations and marketing director at CCS. “We will continue to expand our efforts to help in all aspects of our organization … making people’s lives easier is what we try to do.”

Stamos said CCS will continue to contribute to the needs of others by helping those weakest become strong and functioning members of the community. “Hopefully, in the future we will be able to help more people, knocking down the number of people in need,” Stamos said. That may be a harder challenge for the CCS refugee services compared to the organizations other programs. The problems come from political controversies and new policies centered on refugees. With threats of policy change and residents angry about potential safety concerns, the number of refugees getting help may be reduced.

Bradford Drake, executive director of CCS, said in a newsletter, “Even in the wake of this uncertainty, CCS continues to do what we have always done — provide help and hope to those most in need.”

Drake wanted to reassure the staff, volunteers and those who receive assistance from CCS, that the organization will continue to help refugees transition into a new country, culture and lifestyle.

Of course, any organization is only as good as their volunteers, Stamos said. Without volunteers CCS would never be able to reach its full potential. So, if you want to get involved with some volunteer work, the website lists multiple opportunities. One can volunteer to assist refugees, or monetary donations are always welcome.

With all the challenges facing people today, it’s nice for people to know a resource like Catholic Community services is available to assist them.


This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Tom Huynh brings experience as Vietnamese refugee to West Valley City Council

Story and photo by EMILY ANDERSON

When he first arrived at Philippine First Asylum Center (PFAC) in the island province Palawan from Vietnam, Tom Huynh was shocked by the “horrible” conditions of the camp.

“It was a sad place, very depressing,” Huynh said. “But people had no choice.”

He was immediately placed in a 12-by-12 room with seven other people. His unit was given a card identifying everyone in the flat, which allowed them to obtain two cups of rice, one piece of broccoli and two pieces of fish to be divided among the occupants each day.

As Huynh was standing in line to collect the food during his first few days in the camp, he met a man in his 60s. The man told Huynh that he had a lot to learn in the coming years — the refugee camp was a whole new world.

The pair arrived at the front of the line. The fish given to the man was rotten, although there was a heap of fresh fish behind the refugee who had been assigned to pass out the rations. Huynh said he protested the unjust treatment, but the man stopped him. He told Huynh the pile of newly-caught fish was being saved for the distributor’s family and friends.

After thanking Huynh for standing up for him, the man said, “Tom, promise me that if you’re ever in a position of power, you will treat people fairly.”

Huynh said he has always remembered the man’s plea and it has influenced the way he lives his life.

Vietnamese refugee Tom Huynh has served on the West Valley City Council for six years.

Since coming to the U.S., Huynh has pursued a career in politics while working as a real estate agent. He was elected to the West Valley City Council in 2011, and is in his second term in the District 1 seat.

Huynh’s journey to government leadership began with his father’s efforts to defend his own government.

Journey to Safety

In the aftermath of the Cambodian-Vietnamese war, in which the Socialist Republic of Vietnam invaded Democratic Kampuchea to remove the Khmer Rouge from power, the Vietnamese military continued to fight against armed Cambodian groups who opposed the new regime until 1989.

The government continued to tap all men above age 18 for military service. Many of Huynh’s friends had been drafted to patrol the Cambodian borders. Many were killed. Some returned home with missing limbs, he said.

Huynh’s father, a South Vietnamese soldier, was killed in the Vietnam War when Huynh was 5 years old. This left his mother to care for her children alone, which included bribing military officials to keep Huynh out of the military.

When the financial pressure on his mother became too great, Huynh said he fled the country on a boat with his 15-year-old sister Tiet in 1986 to avoid being conscripted.

Between 1975 and 1995, others were leaving the country to escape economic despair brought on by U.S. sanctions and destruction left in the wake of the Vietnam War.

Huynh and 99 other refugees packed into a boat that was approximately 10 feet by 30 feet. The group was so densely crowded that Huynh was confined to a singular spot the entire trip.

At one point on the journey, the boat became lost. The party ran out of food and water, then people began dying.

“Everyone was scared to the point that they were like, ‘I see you and you see me, but we’re not human beings anymore,’” Huynh said. “They knew they were going to die.”

It was a miracle that Huynh made it to the refugee camp, he said.

“At that moment, I was not a religious guy,” Huynh said. “But I looked into the sky and I said, ‘I really don’t want to die. I’m only 19. So please help me out.’”

When he arrived, Philippine First Asylum Camp hosted about 3,000 people on approximately 1 square mile of land. The refugees were desperate and crime rates were high.

“There was everything there,” Huynh said. “I witnessed a fight where someone stabbed someone else about 2 or 3 feet from me, for no reason really — it was over the water.”

Huynh was trying to avoid being lured into crime like the other men his age in the camp, he said, so he volunteered to pass out mail to other refugees.

“I didn’t want to waste my time,” Huynh said. “I like to work, and the employees at the camp center could see that.”

After three months, he was promoted to deputy of the planning commission. His job was to keep records of how many people were staying in each housing unit, then assign rooms to new arrivals.

“It kept me very busy, all day every day,” Huynh said. “I was lucky, because then I stayed out of trouble.”

Despite the success he found in the camp, Huynh wanted out. The refugees were plagued with rampant alcoholism, drug addiction and violence, while many young women were forced into sex work as a means to make money.

Six months after Huynh arrived at the camp, representatives from the U.N. came to interview refugees to be considered for admission into the U.S. They prioritized people like Huynh, who were children of South Vietnamese soldiers. However, there was one stipulation — refugees had to provide multiple documents to prove their parents’ position.

“My dad sacrificed his life, so I had the privilege to go to the city center to speak with the delegation,” Huynh said.

Huynh slid his father’s military ID — one of the few things he brought on the boat — across the table at his meeting with a U.N. official. This was the only document he had, because his mother, like many other South Vietnamese, burned documents connecting their family to the American forces to avoid persecution from the new government.

The official, whose name Huynh recalled as Pam, told him that although she wanted to sponsor him, she couldn’t. The ID wasn’t enough documentation to prove that he was the son of a South Vietnamese soldier.

Huynh said he began to worry that he would never be able to leave the camp.

Then, as part of what Huynh called another miracle, there were a series of coup attempts on the Filipino government — one of which resulted in a fierce battle on the streets of Palawan.

The U.S. government became concerned about the welfare of refugees on the island, so it gave a number of those living in PFAC another opportunity to be interviewed for acceptance into the country. Huynh was given a second chance to get out.

Although Huynh was unable to obtain additional documentation, the official he met with told him he had been cleared to leave the camp, and would be transported to the Philippine Refugee Processing Center (PRPC) in Bataan. His next and final stop would be the U.S.

He left PFAC in 1987. Soon after, the U.N. stopped accepting refugees into the camp and began reducing its size. Some people volunteered to return to Vietnam, while others fought the guards and committed suicide.

Huynh was elated to be relieved of the uncertainty associated with being a refugee.

“You don’t know where you’re going to go, where you’re going to end up or how your life is going to be,” he said. “Are they going to send you back to Vietnam? Are they going to send you to Canada, Australia or somewhere else? You just don’t know. Your destination, your life, depends on someone else. It leaves you feeling powerless and useless.”

While at PRPC, Huynh met missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who were teaching English.

He said he was curious about the religion, because he had been on a quest to find the right religion for him since his plea to God earlier on the boat. Huynh’s family was Buddhist, and he previously attended Catholic and Baptist churches.

“I just wanted something that felt comfortable,” he said. “At the Mormon church, I had a sense that they were nice people.”

When Huynh was processed and relocated to the U.S., he was baptized into the church and served a mission in Washington, D.C., from 1990 to 1992. Huynh credited the changes the religion forced him to make and the lessons he learned on his mission for many of his life’s successes.

“I wanted a different path in my life, and my decision brought me to where I am today,” he said.

Ongoing Political Journey

Huynh later graduated from Brigham Young University with a degree in Asian studies. Upon graduation, he was appointed president of the Vietnamese Community of Utah. He hopes to eventually go to law school, but for now he wants to continue his political career.

“Politics are very complex,” Huynh said. “In China, Vietnam or any communist country, they don’t trust government. They don’t trust police. Then when [people from those countries] come here, they stay away from government and police — but I want to be different. I want to do something to help people around me.”

His determination to forge a path for marginalized communities in politics not only increases the diversity of voices at the table, but also encourages other minorities to be involved in the community.

“It is inspiring to see someone so close to home break down socio-cultural barriers and proving that we are capable of taking on larger roles like politics,” said the Vietnamese-American Student Association at the University of Utah in a prepared statement. “The younger Vietnamese-American can often feel detached from the government due to lack of [Vietnamese] representation, often discouraging them from participating in civic engagement. Tom Huynh’s position as the West Valley City Councilman empowers the younger generation and encourages them to strive toward active political awareness.”

Caren Frost, the director of the Center for Research on Migration and Refugee Integration at the University of Utah, said in a telephone interview that civic engagement is the last step of integration for a refugee. She feels that as Huynh continues to succeed, his political involvement will extend beyond Vietnamese-Americans to inspire all refugees in Utah.

“If a refugee is visible in the community participating in government, then all refugees will feel more comfortable taking the next step and getting involved,” Frost said.

As a city councilman, Huynh focuses on mending the problems of not just refugees, but other groups who are also frequently forgotten. He reaches out to senior citizens in the community to listen to their perspective. Since 2013, Huynh has gone on twice-monthly ride-alongs with police in an effort to solve the city’s crime problem.

“In government, you can change things,” Huynh said. “And that’s what I’m doing.”