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.


LoL Hawaiian Grill: Lots of love and laughs in this Sandy restaurant

Story and photos by ALEXANDRA OGILVIE

The restaurant Lol Hawaiian Grill is kind of hard to find, hiding in a strip mall at 9460 S. Union Square in Sandy. The inside is very clean, with bright colors and welcoming music. The smell of slow-cooked pork is enticing as soon as the door is open. There isn’t room for many people with less than a dozen tables, and the kitchen is visible right behind the register.

Seven years ago Lana and Lopi Toleafoa opened their restaurant in American Fork, and about a year ago moved it to Sandy. “When we started out, some of our friends said, ‘Well, you have to find a spot where there are lots of Polynesians,’ but unbelievably, and amazing for us, our clientele, our customer base, is about 70 percent locals from Utah,” she said. “But they love our food.”

And love their food they do: their average on Yelp is four and a half stars out of five. Lana Toleafoa said that’s because “it’s very unique in that all our recipes are made by our family; they’re family recipes and yes there’s a lot of teriyaki barbeque chicken out there, we’ve been known to have the best.”

Of course, Toleafoa said, the most important ingredient used in any mom and pop restaurant is love. “I think it makes a difference that we love what we make.”

Ana, whose family is from Hawaii, loves the authenticity of the food. “A few things they ‘got right’ first of all is flavor. I can tell sauces are scratch made. The overall flavor profile is right on. Second is, the cuts of meat from the short ribs having some fat on them, chicken thigh as opposed to breast and even turkey tails. All cuts you would see used on the island.”

In addition to raving about the food, almost everyone on the first page of Yelp reviews talked about how nice everyone who works at the restaurant is. “You’re treated like family when you come here!” BJ Minson, a regular, said.

Sarah, another regular, wrote, “I love LoL Hawaiian Grill! Friendly staff every time just like being back on the North Shore!” Toleafoa loves learning the story of everyone who comes in, called “talking story” in Hawaii. “We love meeting new customers and getting to know you people every day.”

LoL Hawaiian Grill always offers the basic dishes: barbecue chicken; kalua pork, which is slow cooked until tender; kalbi ribs, a Korean-style dish that is very popular in Hawaii; and garlic shrimp. But if diners want loco moco — rice, a hamburger patty and an egg — they have to come in on a Wednesday. “We find that people look forward to those specials on those days,” Toleafoa said.

“We also make Polynesian dishes, you know, we don’t just focus on Hawaiian,” she said. “What we do have are very popular and people love what we make.” An example of a Polynesian dish they serve is Samoan oka, which comes with traditional Hawaiian poke. Both are made of raw fish, cured with some form of acid, much like Peruvian ceviche.

Lana and Lopi were both born in Tonga and lived in New Zealand before moving to Hawaii and ultimately to Utah when their daughter Juanina was accepted to Brigham Young University-Idaho.

Lana and Lopi Toleafoa, owners of LoL Hawaiian Grill.

“We love our little island, we love the beach, we love the sand, and the ocean, so it’s been a huge, huge adjustment,” Toleafoa said. “But our kids wanted to get off the Rock.”

The LoL in LoL Hawaiian Grill stands for “Lana or Lopi,” but it could also stand for “laughing out loud,” “labor of love,” “love our life,” or “lots of love.” Toleafoa said, “We like to laugh out loud too! It’s catchy; it’s easy for people to remember.”

Despite being in the restaurant almost all day every day, Toleafoa and her husband love being restaurateurs. “It’s a lot of hard work, it gets pretty tiring, but we love what we do, so we hope to grow,” she said. “We work for ourselves, even though it’s really hard work, we’re the first in and the last out kind of thing, so it’s not easy. But just having that option where you don’t have to clock in, clock out, not having anybody to tell you what to do or jump here and jump there.”

They do it to feed their community: “We love that everyone loves to share the spirit of Aloha.”

“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.”










Women of the World: a safe haven for Salt Lake City’s refugee and immigrant women.

Story, photos and slideshow by DEVON ALEXANDER BROWN

Thanks to the steadily rising influx of technology companies, the Salt Lake City metropolitan area is becoming affectionately known as Silicon Slopes, a burgeoning parallel to California’s Silicon Valley.

But it wasn’t career advancement opportunities that brought Samira Harnish, a former semiconductor engineer for Micron Technology Inc., back to Utah. It was the chance to make a difference and fill a necessary void.


Samira Harnish standing in her office at Women of the World, located at 3347 S. Main St.

Harnish immigrated to the United States from Baghdad, Iraq, in the late 1970s. She studied engineering at Utah State University, but frequently suffered discrimination due to her race and gender. She also endured depression because she felt isolated in her new community and found it difficult to express her feelings. The need for female advocacy and empowerment drove her to establish Women of the World, a nonprofit organization based in Salt Lake City, in 2010.

Harnish knew from an early age that she wanted to help others. As a result she’s amassed over two decades of volunteer experience and before founding Women of the World, she served as a medical interpreter for local organizations like Catholic Community Services, the International Rescue Committee, the Huntsman Cancer Institute and the Refugee and Immigrant Center – Asian Association of Utah.

But it wasn’t until her stint as an interpreter that she came to realize the true wants and desires of refugee and immigrant women.

“I actually listened to them to know what they want,” Harnish said. “They say, ‘I wish we had a woman that could hear us and guide us.’ When you are foreign in a country you don’t know anything. You need someone to guide you and to give you advice.”

And as she listened to the desires of refugee women from disparate cultural backgrounds, Harnish said they came to the same conclusion: they wanted a space of their own. Where they could freely share their concerns, interests and dreams without being overshadowed by the men in their lives.

Although Harnish stepped up to meet their needs, for a while she was alone in her efforts. For five years she operated without an office or case managers, simply visiting refugee homes, gathering contacts and securing much needed donations.

Salt Lake City is the nation’s second largest resettlement site for refugee women. It also has the largest proportion of single mothers and women-at-risk of any resettlement community. Four out of five refugees are women and many are survivors of teen marriage, domestic violence and rape. Once resettled they must juggle the effects of these traumas with unique economic and social challenges.

Yet, until Harnish founded Women of the World, there was no local organization dedicated to assisting such a notable demographic. And the women are grateful.


Thank you letters displayed in the Women of the World office.

Apiel Kuot, a refugee from South Sudan, is one of these women. She said she was stressed and scared when arriving in Utah in the fall of 2016, but Women of the World helped her with winter clothing, a television and other essential household goods. She also learned to start thinking positively.

“I can’t count the things they’ve helped me with because there are so many things I have received from them,” Kuot said in a telephone interview. “And they give me encouragement which is much better than anything else someone can give.”

Now a year later, she is confident and self-reliant and is planning to earn a social work degree.

“There are some women who are at a camp that will soon be in this place, but they don’t know where to go with their issues,” Kuot said.  “I trust Samira and Women of the World and I will tell them because they (WoW) always give me positive things, not negative things.”

The Women of the World office, located at 3347 S. Main St., is considered a second home by women like Kuot. Women hailing from countries like Iraq, Nepal, Myanmar, Iran, Rwanda, Somalia and Uganda come there for help navigating community resources and often engage with one another over hot tea and desserts, sharpening their conversational English skills in a pressure-free setting. Most of the women learn of Women of the World through word of mouth.

“We love to warm everybody’s heart,” Harnish said, while preparing a cup of hibiscus tea. “I love the way everybody comes in here and feels comfortable. Some of them that wear hijab, they take it off because they know the windows are tinted and there are no men so they feel very secure.”

Women of the World seeks to empower women by promoting self-reliance through service, education and economic development programs. As a nonprofit, Women of the World operates without government funding, instead relying on charitable donations and an annual fundraiser held the day after International Women’s Day. Harnish says she prefers to operate without federal assistance because it allows her to tailor Women of the World’s services without worry of a pushed agenda.

“When the government gives you the money, they always tell you to go that way or this way, you know, their way,” Harnish said. “I’m here to listen to them (the women) and do whatever they ask.”

Harnish and the case managers she employs work to help women create resumes, tighten interviewing and job skills, plan for entrepreneurship and acquire mental health and legal assistance. More importantly, they help instill in participants a deeply rooted sense of self-confidence through their practical English program. Launched as a two-month pilot program for six women with no English skills, by its conclusion all six women were able to gain employment.

When discussing self-reliance, terms like education and employment tend to rank paramount. While earning potential is indubitably connected to the ability to provide for oneself and family, Women of the World knows it is only one aspect and it differs by individual.

McKenzie Cantlon, a case manager at Women of the World, worked with refugees in Buffalo, New York, and the United Kingdom before relocating to the Salt Lake Valley. She says the economic and social support refugees receive has been phenomenal in all areas, but she’s noticed a problematic pattern: proximity to services.

In Utah, voluntary agency affiliates like Catholic Community Services and the International Rescue Committee are based in Salt Lake City. That means refugees located farther north or south do not have the same access to essential resources. For this reason, Women of the World stresses self-reliance above all else.

“For some women self-reliance might be having the courage to leave the house and go grocery shopping or taking their children to the park,” Cantlon said in an email interview. “For other women this might mean going to school, getting a job and supporting their children without the help of others. Women of the World works to promote every kind of self-reliance.”

Courtney Bullard began working as a case manager for Women of the World in the summer of 2016. She lived in the Middle East for five years and attended graduate school in London. Bullard said she’s seen tremendous success from refugees working with Women of the World, but true economic independence isn’t always an option. Regardless, self-confidence is the first step to its path.

“There are a lot of barriers that refugees face upon coming to the USA because of how the resettlement process is set up,” Bullard said in an email interview. “We have women who might always rely on government assistance because of their various situations, however, when they advocate for themselves whether it might be asking for higher pay at work or looking the cashier at the grocery store in the eye at the store — I consider them on their way to self reliance.”

Regardless of definition self-reliance does not manifest overnight. Rather, it’s often an arduous journey that requires discipline and dedication. For Kaltum Mohamed, a Sudanese refugee, it’s taken four years to reach her dream of opening a restaurant.


Kaltum Mohamed standing in front of her food truck “Mother of All.”

Mohamed was resettled in 2013 after years of moving between refugee camps. After receiving assistance from the IRC for 10 months, she met Samira Harnish. Through their shared Arabic language, they quickly formed a powerful friendship.

Harnish said Mohamed approached her early on with the desire to open a restaurant — refusing to allow any obstacles to deter her confidence. However, after attending a few practical English classes she stopped showing up.

“The last day she got really upset and said she just wants to find someone to give her a loan,” Harnish said. “I told her, ‘No one is going to give you a loan unless you finish that program. You go in there and finish.’”

So Mohamed persisted. She now operates Mother of All, a food truck that can be found at The Black Diamond Store and The Front Climbing Club in Salt Lake City.

“They (WoW) help me too much,” Mohamed said reflectively in her South Salt Lake apartment. “And I always tell everyone, don’t give up on the things you need. Continue doing it and face everything with confidence.”

To commemorate the successes of refugee women like Mohamed, Women of the World holds an awards banquet and social mixer at the end of every year. In addition to inspirational stories, small ethnic meals are brought and shared by members of the community and musical entertainment is provided.

This year’s event will be held Dec. 9, 2017, from 2-5 p.m. at the Salt Lake County South Building Atrium on 2100 S. State St. It is Women of the World’s 7th Annual Celebration for women who achieve their goals and is free and open to the public.



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Flying into mountains: A refugee’s point of view

Flying into mountains: A refugee’s point of view

Story and photo by JACE BARRACLOUGH

“Say what you will about America, there’s definitely a lot more opportunities here.”

Dario Jokic is a student at the University of Utah. He’s also an aspiring film director and a Fox 13 studio technician. He has spent most of his life in Utah and has no problem integrating himself into different social circles. With no accent or visible cultural differences, people are shocked to find out he’s a Bosnian refugee.

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Dario Jokic edits news at Fox 13 Utah.

Jokic came to Salt Lake City when he was in the first grade. His family’s case worker told them Utah was a mountainous desert with people who practice polygamy.

“We thought we were literally going to fly into mountains … and the first thing that was going to welcome us there was one man with six women,” Jokic says.

The Jokic family was grateful for the welcoming they received from their new friend. They were also a bit relieved.

“She was a really sweet and energetic lady who spoke our language,” Jokic says.

He says the hardest part about his resettlement and integration was learning English.

“I hated English,” he says. “I remember my first time in ESL (English as a Second Language) class, they put me with the wrong teacher who was teaching English in Spanish.”


Gerald Brown, Utah’s state coordinator for refugee resettlement, says ESL is the state’s most costly of all the services offered to refugees who resettle to Utah. However, he says it’s still not enough.

“That funding is very, very limited. You cannot do a decent job with that funding alone,” he says.

Though Brown says there is some help from the private sector, the majority of the funding comes from the federally funded U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement.

Brown also doesn’t see it getting any better due to recent decisions made by the government. According to the 2016 Refugee Services Office’s Report to the Governor, the State of Utah spent $171,000 on the program. However, Brown predicts that number will drop, which is bad news for non-English speaking refugees like Jokic was.

“The current [presidential] administration has different priorities,” Brown says. “It’s becoming less every year and this year we’re really worried what the budget is going to look like.”

Utah’s Gov. Gary Herbert said in a January 2017 press conference that Utah is still a pro immigration and refugee state, but made it clear those types of issues are strictly handled at the federal level. He also said Utah tried to intervene in the past but was issued a lawsuit as a result.

Gerald Brown speaks highly of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ (LDS Church) influence on the state regarding refugee resettlement. Unlike Jokic’s experience with publicly funded ESL classes, the LDS Church funds its own classes to help struggling refugees be successful.

“One of the reasons Salt Lake City and this area is a good place is because of the LDS Church,” Brown says. “They’ve put a tremendous amount of resources into helping refugees.”

While resettlers are learning English in hopes of finding better jobs, they can utilize programs like the refugee table at the Jenibee Market hosted by Jeni Gochnour.

“We provide the table and give 100 percent of their sales back to them,” Gochnour says. “They sold around $300 [at the fall event]!”

Ann Howden, of the group Serve Refugees, donates her time by teaching refugees how to sew. They make bags, pillows, blankets and other items to sell at the refugee table in order to help their families financially.

The Jokic family, themselves, know all too well the sting of trying to make ends meet without proficiency in the English language. Jokic’s father, formerly an economics professor in Sarajevo, had to take a job at a glass factory soon after arriving in Utah. Since he didn’t speak English, and his degree was from another country, it made it impossible to continue his teaching career in the U.S.

Jokic’s mother, however, did speak English and was able to find a job as a counselor for the Department of Workforce Services. She also acquired jobs as a translator for various medical facilities.

Even though there were difficulties, Jokic expresses his gratitude for the change.

“I’m very privileged to be here,” he says. “I know there’s a lot of negative things being spread about the United States, but my life would be totally different if I wasn’t living here.”

He continues, “If I was [in Bosnia] I wouldn’t be going to college. … Say what you will about America, there’s definitely a lot more opportunities here.”

Jokic gives advice to refugees dealing with the trials that come with resettlement.

He says, “Don’t be afraid to ask for help [and] look for people that will care about you.”


Big Budah, Dario Jokic and Jace Barraclough preparing for Fox 13’s “The Place.” Photo courtesy of Big Budah.

Educated and underemployed: refugee student seeks second degree

Story and photos by DEVON ALEXANDER BROWN

Over 60,000 refugees have been resettled in Utah since the 1970s. Prior to the Trump administration, Utah’s designated voluntary agency affiliatesCatholic Community Services and the International Rescue Committee — were resettling roughly 1,200 refugees a year. While agencies do what they can with the resources they have, many refugees find the adage “it’s not what you know, but who you know,” continues ringing true.

Firas, a refugee from Iraq, has personal testimony of the value of networking. He resettled in Salt Lake in March 2014 by way of the IRC, but he has an uncle whom he lived with after resettling, and who continues to offer emotional and financial support.

Firas, who asked to have his surname withheld, holds a degree in civil engineering from a university in his native Iraq, but was dismayed when he found that using his professional training in the U.S would be difficult. The IRC helped him secure an entry-level position in the customer service sector a few months after arrival, but he felt unmotivated and underutilized by the position because of a desire to continue his profession.

“They [the IRC] will explain that it’s not going to be easy to go back to your job,” Firas said. “This is the general talk about this topic … it’s not going to be easy. Because you’re going to face different stuff, regardless of the language challenge.”

But after some time in Salt Lake, and while living with his uncle, Firas stumbled upon good fortune.

“My uncle is here so we met at the mosque and fortunately I met one of the refugees who came through the same process,” Firas said. “That guy actually was part of the NAAN program [New Academic American Network] … he was asking me what was my major, what did I do in my undergrad. He told me he just finished his master’s at the university which is how I learned ‘OK you actually can go back.’”


The UNP main office. University Neighborhood Partners was created in 2001 to empower SLC’s westside residents. Many refugees are resettled on the west side of Salt Lake.

The New American Academic Network is a partnership facilitated by University Neighborhood Partners in conjunction with the University of Utah, the University of Utah International Center and the Department of Workforce Services. Because many refugees arrive without the means and proper credentials to work in their respective fields, the goal of the program is to empower refugees and immigrants through access to higher education. In Firas’ case he is working toward a master’s degree in structural design.


The UNP Partnership Center opened in 2004 and brings together over 30 university partnerships and 20 local nonprofits.

Although he was able to enroll at the U through the network, he was forced to initially enroll as a non-matriculated student because he did not meet university requirements. Firas, like local students attending graduate school, was required to pass the Graduate Record Examination, but because his native language isn’t English he also had to pass the Test of English as a Foreign Language exam. Although challenging, Firas passed both exams on his second attempt. He credits his time in customer service with accelerating his English fluency.

Partnerships like the New American Academic Network are essential for educated refugees looking to move beyond underemployment. The Academy of Hope, a fellow partnership facilitated through the U, offers no-cost certificates in professional management, web design and human resources management.

Claire Taylor, director of the Academy of Hope, says language, though a primary challenge, is but one of many obstacles refugees face on their path to higher education.

“A common challenge is not being able to afford the cost of certificate classes,” Taylor said in an email interview. “Another common challenge is carving out the time in their schedules to be able attend all of the classes.”

A relatively new program, the Academy of Hope saw one student enrolled in 2016, but Taylor says the 2017 Spring semester provided a cohort of students. So far seven participants have been refugees.

Thanks to the New American Academic Network, Firas is able to finish his master’s degree. Yet even with tuition assistance, he says it is not easy to support himself and complete his program and the engineering internship he is currently involved with.

“Fortunately my uncle is here and he supports me until now,” Firas said. “I was living with him at the beginning and he and his family helped me a lot. It’s difficult to have a place in a different culture, different society.”

Firas understands that case workers in the IRC are limited in their reach and ability to assist refugees on an extended individual basis. But he also thinks a more thorough and personalized approach in the early stages of resettlement would be beneficial — especially for refugees who are professionally trained.

Gerald Brown, assistant director of refugee services for the Utah Department of Workforce Services, is in agreement. He says his experience with refugees reflects a need for lengthier case management.

“Every new refugee needs case management for at least two years and I would argue for longer than that for many of them,” Brown said in a telephone interview. “It just to me makes common sense. A case manager helps a refugee kind of come up with a plan to meet their needs, to thrive in this community and then sort of follows the plan, helps them adjust over time, [and] gives them information when they need it.”

Although Firas hasn’t obtained his master’s degree yet, he is close and hopeful. And because of his personal good fortunes, Firas says he makes every effort to inform other refugees about lesser known resources that can help them get back on their professional footing.

“I’m still referring anybody who came as a refugee — who has a graduate or even non-graduate [degree],” Firas said. “Either go into community college or to the university … this is the option you have and how to go back to what you like.”

Refugee programs and Utah: How effective are federal grants?

Story and photos by ALAYNIA WINTER

What is the largest problem refugee organizations face?

Short Answer: It’s funding.

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) is a federally funded and state administered financial assistance program for low-income families with dependent children and pregnant women during their last three months of pregnancy. TANF provides short term financial assistance and aids recipients in finding jobs that will allow them to support themselves.

In 1996, TANF replaced older welfare programs. Today, TANF provides annual grants to all U.S. states. The funds are used to pay for benefits and services distributed by the states.

According to The Department of Workforce Services 2016 report, the majority of refugee services are federally funded through the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) and the TANF program (with the exception of $200,000 provided by the State of Utah).


The Refugee Education and Training Center for the Refugee Services Office is located at 250 W. 3900 South in Salt Lake City.

Currently, Utah’s Refugee Services Office administers approximately $4.3 million from TANF and $8.9 million from ORR for refugee services in Utah. Health services receives over $3 million and case management is allocated over $2 million. Skills and employment training and youth services respectively receive approximately $3 million.

Many critics of welfare programs speculate there are better ways to spend and distribute the federal assistance money.

The 1996 welfare reform act, known as the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, completely changed the concept of welfare. States have control over how and where TANF money is spent.

According to The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CPBB), this money has not been used well. A 2015 fiscal study on TANF funds reported “34% of funds were going to causes not related to family and youth assistance.” The 34% of funding was labeled “other programs.”

In some instances, TANF money can go to a free and public workshop on improving marriages, or a health profession education grant for low-income students at a public high school. One doesn’t necessarily have to be financially “needy” to participate in public welfare programs such as these. The long-term societal benefits and changes can be difficult to measure; however, the money does seem to be going toward refugee programming and public programming in the “other programs” category.


An “I Am A Refugee” banner in front of the Refugee Services Office building.

Regarding how refugee TANF money is spent, “The caseload has grown. So, the bigger the load, the more time you spend putting out fires,” said Gerald Brown, Utah state refugee coordinator and assistant director for the Refugee Services Office.

The current administration’s decision to cut funding and the looming uncertainty of the future for many refugee organizations in a time with a historically high number of refugees spurs much debate.

According to the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, the U.S. government plans to cap the number of refugees from around the world at 45,000 in FY 2018. That is the lowest level since 1980.

Refugee resettlement organizations in the U.S. are worried about this drastic reduction. This news brings an inevitable slash in budget as well. Refugee organizations had been pushing the Trump administration to set next year’s refugee cap to at least 75,000, and said this diminution would force many to close their doors or lose valuable programs.

As Utah philanthropist Pamela J. Atkinson, of the Pamela J. Atkinson Foundation said, “Refugees are people who, rather than give up or give in, have chosen to take the higher and harder road and are grateful for the generosity of strangers who reached out with a willing and helping hand.”

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