From civil unrest to the crossroads of the West: The young refugee’s journey to Salt Lake City

Story and slideshow by BLAKE HANSEN

 The current worldwide refugee issue continues to grow. In fact, the World Economic Forum reported in June 2017 that one out of every 113 people on the planet is now a refugee. A refugee is made every three seconds due to life-threatening violence and persecution worldwide.

Under United States law, “a refugee is someone who is located outside of the United States, is of special humanitarian concern to the United States, demonstrates that they were persecuted or fear persecution due to race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group, is not firmly resettled in another country and is admissible to the United States.”

In order to be granted access to a new life here in Utah, refugees go through an extensive approval process. But do you know what that process is and what it’s like for young refugees to start an education here?

Refugees must first receive a referral to the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) for consideration as a refugee. After receiving a referral for application, refugees must apply and then wait for an interview where a USRAP official will decide whether or not they are eligible to be considered a refugee. Only after that interview, which can sometimes be months to years of waiting, can one be granted official status as a refugee.

Before and after receiving official status, refugees typically live in refugee camps until they are granted access to the U.S. These camps are mostly makeshift communities as there are more people in need of help than the help that is available. Some camps are better equipped than others. A lot of the time, however, people will build or rebuild huts or tents out of the available supplies lying around in the camps.

Refugees who live in these camps are almost always dependent on the local organizations for things like food, water and living supplies. The UN Refugee Agency is a leading organization that provides care for refugees but most camps are managed by the UNHCR as well as other assorted local entities as the needs continue to increase.

The UNHCR gives refugees a stipend of roughly $30 per month, which is never enough to live off of. In fact, most refugees actually do their best to return to their old line of work once living in refugee camps.

The UNHCR estimates that “60 percent of working age refugees are employed to some degree. Even 13 percent of children labor some, a number missing school as a result.”

In Salt Lake City, refugee children are getting help accessing education, but not without a fight. Alexx Goeller is the refugee youth services coordinator at the state Refugee Services Office and she oversees state budget allotments for programs that help young refugees to integrate into life and education here in Utah. “This funding is directly correlated with how many refugees the government allows to enter the U.S.,” Goeller said. The recent cut in refugees allowed into the U.S. directly correlates to the proceedings in her office. “People here are already seeing the effects of the cutting. Less funding not only affects new refugees who are trying to integrate, but it also affects refugees who have been here for five years and are still utilizing these programs,” Goeller said.

Speaking of education, the UNHCR also reported that roughly “3.5 million refugee children did not attend school in 2016. Only 61 percent of refugee children attend primary school, compared with a global average of 91 percent.”

Out of the refugee children who do make it to primary school while in camps or otherwise dislodged from their homes, only 1 percent of those children move on to any form of higher education. This is compared to the rest of the world’s 36 percent average for making it to a form of higher education.

Michelle Love-Day, associate director of educational equity at Granite School District in Salt Lake City, is in charge of the district’s student refugee programs. She manages multiple district-wide programs and they are meant to help integrate these children who haven’t had very many opportunities in terms of education.

The Tumaini Welcome and Transition Center, a Granite school district program managed by Love-Day, helps newcomer students successfully transition into their home schools. Participants receive an intensive two-week instructional program focusing on academic and social skills in English.

The district also has a language academy for the older kids that takes place at Cottonwood High School as well as a summer school for all school ages called Jump Start. These programs are all meant to help refugee children integrate into the American schooling system successfully.

“These refugee students have a lot of resilience, they’re eager to learn. They want more and they come ready. Their resilience is astonishing,” Love-Day said in a telephone interview. “The students coming to us are bringing culture and language that you couldn’t even imagine. I couldn’t imagine being a teacher and not being able to use my skills in a different country.”

Granite School District also has a community center with community integration programs for all refugees. These programs are for parents, students and refugees without kids alike. Everyone can benefit from the community programs that Granite offers. For more on those programs and tools please see “What happens to Refugees who come to Utah?


This slideshow requires JavaScript.

No escape from danger: LGBT refugees fled to Kakuma Camp for their lives, only to be greeted with hostility



Homophobia is pervasive in Kenya, and some LGBT refugees at Kakuma Camp say they have faced discrimination from fellow refugees and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) workers that has exacerbated living conditions in the overcrowded facility.

Mbazira Moses, a gay refugee currently living at the Kakuma Camp, said in an email interview, “I have been exposed to persecution and hostility ever since the time I arrived in Kakuma.”

Moses was assaulted and stabbed by a fellow refugee on Oct. 11, 2017. After reporting the incident to the police, Moses said nothing was done.

He claims he has been assaulted several times, but said police have never investigated. Instead of receiving help, Moses was jailed along with 18 other LGBT refugees who had peacefully protested their unfair treatment at UNHCR headquarters in Nairobi.

LGBT refugees peacefully protest at the UNHCR Headquarters in Nairobi.

After speaking with a lawyer, Moses was told to accept whatever charges were filed against him, as this was the only way he could expect assistance from UNHCR.

Established in 1992, Kakuma Camp is located in the northwestern region of Kenya. Ethiopian, Sudanese and Somali refugees fled their war-torn countries and came to Kakuma refugee camp, which is divided into four zones.

With an influx of new arrivals in 2014, Kakuma surpassed its capacity by over 58,000 individuals. The camp has expanded and currently holds 77,092 refugees, according to the UNHCR Kakuma informational pamphlet.

Moses said many of the staff at Kakuma Camp are homophobic and view the LGBT community as cursed. Individuals are not given the same opportunities as other refugees. They are not employable because of their sexual orientation and are not given proper medical treatment. Many medical centers refuse to serve them at all, he said, and if they are treated, they are often refused medication and treatment for HIV.

Moses Mbazira holds the LGBT flag in his tent at Kakuma Camp.

According to Moses and many other LGBT refugees living at Kakuma Camp, they face eviction due to homophobic neighbors, leaving them homeless in the camp. UNHCR has placed the LGBT community in a housing section next to the river, where they face flooding and mosquitoes. Many of the refugees have malaria and are not given the treatment they need. The homes themselves are just tents, not properly covered to protect from the rain.

Thirteen UNHCR employees stationed at Kakuma Camp were contacted about Moses’ allegations of mistreatment toward LGBT refugees in the camp. Only four responded, and they said they could not comment.

“Agony has brought action,” Moses said. “Many of the LGBT members who have been granted asylum and refugee status under UNHCR within Kenya, receive consistent persecutions and grief by the host community and other members living within the camp. We (LGBT Community) have articulated our concerns to UNHCR but have been overlooked. This has caused a need to call on UNHCR to permit us a convention letter that will grant us a fair free movement to seek asylum in a country where we reserve the same rights as other refugees regardless of our sexual orientation.”

Barnabas Wobilaya, 36, is a gay Ugandan refugee and HIV/AIDS activist who was resettled in Salt Lake City. He fled Uganda and arrived in Nairobi, Kenya, in January 2015. Wobilaya became an HIV/AIDS activist in Uganda because he had two siblings who lost their lives to HIV. Because of his activism, he was exposed as a gay man in the newspapers, lost his job, and had to move around a lot for his own safety.

“When you get to Kakuma, there is no housing. You arrive at the camp, and they give you land. You build your own house. They give you poles and a tent to put up yourself, some people use iron sheets for their roof,” Wobilaya said.

“The LGBT people are always the last people to get the services they need, always,” he said.

“Their cases are not being worked on. They have been there for years. Three years, five years. Cases of LGBT refugees are supposed to be fast because their need is so immediate. We suffer. I know people that have been in Kakuma since I arrived in Kenya that have still never seen their files. They don’t know what’s going on. Nothing happens.”

The resettlement process is in the hands of the Government of Kenya. Because Kenya still maintains largely homophobic outlooks  and policies, many LGBT folk are treated as criminals rather than asylum seekers and refugees.

“When I was in Kenya, I could not find a job,” Wobilaya said. “Kenyans know that many refugees from Uganda are gay. They are very homophobic. You go to the store to buy something, and they say ‘Uganda?’ and then they kick you out. You cannot buy things, if you can’t speak Swahili they will not give you service. They then say ‘these are gays’ in Swahili and you know to leave or else you will be beaten.”

LGBT refugees attempt to drain the water from the river that flooded their tent in Kakuma Camp.

Wobilaya was evicted from homes three times because his landlords discovered his sexual orientation. Many LGBT people are forced to live in Kakuma because landlords refuse to rent to them in Nairobi.

The UNHCR used to give refugees a stipend of 6,000 Kenyan shillings, which is about $60 U.S. per month. With that, they were supposed to pay their rent, medical bills, transportation cost and phone bill.

“Today they give them $45, but you have to pass an assessment that your living conditions are horrible, many people have to live in one room, a lot end up on the streets as sex workers so they can afford to live,” Wobilaya said.

“Now that I am in the States it is difficult to find ways to help. They tell me ‘we are dying’ and I can’t do much. After I pay my rent and bills I send my leftover money to my LGBT friends in Kenya. So I ask, let us help these people. Let’s fundraise. Help them to buy food,” Wobilaya said.

At Kakuma camp, World Food Program ( WFP) in partnership with UNHCR provides food distribution (maize, peas, flour, cooking oil, soap, salt, porridge) and some essential items like soap and toothpaste to every refugee within the camp.

However, the food supply has been continually decreasing, Wobilaya said, leaving LGBT refugees at a disadvantage since they are unable to find work and buy their own food. UNHCR has not created a system to notify LGBT members about their case progress levels, and they feel they cannot turn anywhere for support.

Wobilaya encourages the  LGBTQ community in Utah to help. “We in the LGBT community are one big family, so advocate for your brothers and sisters; that’s the only thing I ask.”

You can contact Tayyar Sukru Cansizoglu, the UNHCR head of sub-office in Kakuma, at and you can donate to the LGBT Kakuma refugee community through a fundraiser established by a Salt Lake City LGBT activist.






Wesley Ryan



I have always tried, to the best of my ability, to stay politically and socially aware. There is only so much you can take in before news fatigue sets in; for me, it was refugees. It wasn’t because I didn’t like refugees. I just didn’t know where to start and since there was so much going on I always felt overwhelmed.

Being clueless about almost everything involving refugees, I immediately became nervous. However, I quickly took the time to research refugees: what constitutes a refugee, how to become one, the problems they face, resources they can use and the most common countries refugees come from. From there I was able to get an idea of what kind of stories I would want to write.

My problem was remaining objective when I wrote. I am an incredibly vocal person, which doesn’t really work in journalism. I would constantly have to go back and erase sentences because my opinion was showing. To cope with this I tried to insert the quotes and facts before anything else. Then I would go in and add the rest of the article to make it flow.

Being an outsider to this community, I knew I wanted to hear personal experiences. But I didn’t know who to talk to or how to go about this, especially since it’s such a personal, and at times tragic, point in their life. Thankfully, the people I found were incredibly welcoming. As a matter of fact, I was always welcomed, which made the experience more enjoyable. It didn’t change the fact I had little information going into it, but the lack of knowledge only made this type of reporting more fun. I was able to learn about things I never knew was even a problem.


Ever since I was a child I have always been a talkative and vocal person. It didn’t matter what the subject was, I wanted to be a part of it. Hearing stories brought me an immense amount of joy, but my true love was storytelling. However, constantly being told “you talk too much” can beat down a kid’s self-esteem. To release this pent-up energy out into the world I would write and think of jokes. As I got older, I started to see the importance of words and why you should use them carefully. This desire for the truth led me to journalism. Journalism was a way for me to tell actual stories, stories affecting real people.

Being born in Los Angeles County in California, you meet a variety of people, the most notable being people in entertainment. I was regularly surrounded by entertainers, but when I graduated from Canyon High School and entered college I had to figure out a career I enjoyed and would be viable. I knew, from the people I met, entertainment would be nearly impossible to jump into, so I thought of my next favorite thing, writing.

A year after I enrolled to the California State University, Northridge, I transferred to the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, Utah. Here, I was able to fully explore my love for writing. I have articles published for various companies from an advertising agency I worked for, freelance jobs I am offered, my blog and now Voices of Utah. I don’t plan on stopping this path I am going down. As a matter of fact, after I graduate in 2018 I plan on pursuing a career in writing, preferably something involving comedy or journalism.

Blake Hansen



I had a lot of expectations going into this class that were shattered pretty quickly.

Included in those was my expectation of the beat when we first started researching for story topics. I’ve always been generally interested in large political topics including immigration and refugee issues.

Me6-smallHowever, I didn’t think I’d be interested enough or find enough information to make multiple stories and I was sorely mistaken. I’ve found myself very enthralled with the worldwide refugee situation and locally in Utah too. Integration for these people is a crucial issue that we haven’t found a solid system for yet and I think more stories about this topic can help move it forward.

I also realized that while I value studying journalism and having knowledge about all that it entails, I have no desire to be a journalist. This class has pushed me to the edge of my sanity on multiple occasions and while I love researching and trying to make a difference, I have learned in this class that the news system and “tightly deadlined” nature of conventional news writing is not for me. At least not the conventional kind. I hope to someday write stories and pitch documentary ideas to utilize my passion and skill in film and combine that with my learned skills and degree in journalism.

As a result of my reporting this semester, I have not only knocked a major career path off my list of possibilities, but I have also gained a greater love for telling stories visually. The class has helped me grasp those skills in a new way by forcing me to spend more time writing and learning how to use words to create a visual idea. These new skills will make me a better visual storyteller.


Freelance Cinematographer | Journalist | UofU Communication Journalism | Adventure Seeker

Blake Lancaster



This course was rather interesting. I came in with the intentions of improving my journalism writing and writing skills as a whole, which certainly did happen, but I also explored and learned about a whole new piece of our community here in Utah.

Before I walked into the first day and heard the topic of our beat was to be refugees, I had slim to zero knowledge on refugees in Utah. This led to me being both nervous and interested in getting going with the course.

Now thanks to new reporting skills, not only have I gained an awareness of refugees within our community, but also a fascination. It was great to hear from people like Aden Batar from Catholic Community Services, Gerald Brown from the Refugee Services Office and everyone else I had the pleasure of interviewing. They were able to teach me about refugees within Utah, their journeys, show me what their organizations do for them, what us as individual members of the community can do to help and so much more.

Blake Lancaster getting his picture taken by his mom on his 21st birthday.

An interesting part of the interview process was how I in fact felt like an outsider when interviewing those who were well experienced with refugees. If I had any inside knowledge on the beat topic this semester, I feel as though the reporting would have gone smoother. Every interview, however, more or less told me that one of the hardest aspects of being a refugee is feeling like an outsider and a lack of friends in their new country. It made me want to be less of an outsider when it comes to refugees in Salt Lake City.

As a result of my reporting this semester, I feel levels ahead in regards to my journalistic skills, especially my interviewing ability. I feel like a better writer and I feel thankful I got to learn about fefugees in Salt Lake City, their integration process and about the local organizations that assist them with this process.


Blake Lancaster, 21, is a senior at the University of Utah who currently works at a restaurant called Franck’s. He is focused on graduating in 2018 with a degree in communication (and an emphasis in strategic communications) and a minor in business minor. When he isn’t at school or work, he’s likely snowboarding in Big Cottonwood Canyon when it’s cold or playing video games with his friends and roommates at home.

Katie Undesser

Screen Shot 2017-11-28 at 9.39.53 AMMY STORIES: 


Throughout the Fall semester, the students in Voices of Utah were to focus on the beat of refugees. Some students chose the angle of the process to become a refugee while others chose an angle such as refugee farmers. All of us had the opportunity to discover our own angle within the beat and were able to report on that angle.

Over the course of my student journalism career I discovered that although writing may be fascinating and fast-paced, it is not for me. Journalism takes zero mistakes, which means that my writing would have to be damn-near perfect. I’m not saying that one day it might not be perfect if I kept practicing, but I am saying I am choosing not to continue to practice it.

Something about me is that I am a firm believer in strengthening your strong points. Writing is not one of my strong points. With that said, one of my strong points is communicating with one another. This was the aspect of journalism that I found extremely enjoyable.

Being able to interview someone I never met before and hear what they have to say really encouraged me to want to know more. For example, after interviewing the principal of Utah International and hearing how passionate she was about all the cultures it made me excited to learn more about the school, which in the long run helped my reporting.

First, I would like to say that this class turned out to be nothing like I thought it was. When I enrolled in the class, I was under the impression that it was a discussion about the many voices of Utah and how they were expressed in such a conservative state. I did not know what a community engaged learning class was and I was not prepared to be in a journalism class. However, I think I ended up surprising myself with my writing.

The best part of this class was it required me to go outside my normal realm of thinking and my knowledge of Salt Lake City. As a result of my reporting this semester, I was able to learn about Granite School District, which helped me out even further with volunteer opportunities within the schools. I was also able to get a bigger picture of what it is I would want to do with my career, which is not journalism.

To conclude, Voices of Utah was an excellent experience for the outside world of school and how you need to act. Professor Mangun gave us multiple openings to reach out for a career path as well as set us up for success with our LinkedIn profile and Lindsey Kass.


Katie is currently a student at the University of Utah studying strategic communication with a minor in business. She expects to graduate in May 2018.

Katie has been an active member of the Utah Alpha Pi Beta Phi Fraternity on her campus since 2014 and currently serves as the policy and standards chairman for the 2017-2018 academic school year. She was recently inaugurated into Order of Omega, which is an undergraduate inter-fraternal society recognizing mean and women who have attained a high standard of leadership.

She is the program director at The Little Gym of Salt Lake City where she takes part in training the incoming staff as well as helping the gym director in her duties.

Katie has great time management skills, is very organized and works every day on advancing her communication skills. She enjoys working in a social environment that allows her to work in a team.

Kaya Danae



I was initially completely stumped on where my beat would go. I was thrilled to be focusing on refugees as that closely relates to the profession I want to pursue, but wasn’t sure what stories I could come up with locally.

After reaching out to multiple LBGT activists in Salt Lake City, I was incredibly lucky to meet Connell, who put me in direct contact with an LGBT community living in a refugee camp in Kenya. This experience really showed me how important it is to be persistent and make contacts. I definitely went out of my comfort zone introducing myself to people, but it was good preparation and I have been pleasantly surprised with the community interest in this crisis that is happening across the world.

After getting over my self doubt (I had a really hard time establishing myself as a real journalist) and being very critical of my own writing, I think I am starting to find my voice. This is a topic I am very passionate about, so that definitely made it easier. I do want to improve painting a picture for my readers, but since I was just relaying information I heard, that was difficult for me to do in an honest way. I imagine that when I’m on the ground experiencing what I am covering, that will be more plausible.

There were two aspects to this beat that were discouraging that apply to any and all stories I will cover in the future. I had interviews fall through, pushed back, and I had a lot of my contacts never respond to me. I do enjoy the search and challenge of gathering information, but I know that I will be on a shorter timeline in the future and that’s something I’ll need to practice. The other aspect I found difficult was separating opinions and facts. All of the interviews I conducted were very emotional and I was tempted to pour my heart out onto the story. While I did have a call to action at the end of each story, I tried very hard to make objective pieces. I am looking forward to have the opportunity to work on opinion pieces, though.


Kaya Danae is an aspiring international relations correspondent with a passion for human rights advocacy. Danae studies journalism at the University of Utah. As a contributor to Voices of Utah, Danae chose to focus her beat on the mistreatment of LGBTQI refugees, specifically in Kenya. Her passion for international human rights advocacy began during her gap year through Global Citizen Year, where she lived with a host family in Senegal and learned the importance of immersion for understanding and portraying an issue accurately. As Danae progresses in her career, she hopes to emphasize unheard voices and shed light on injustice.