Diversity is complicated for refugees in Utah

by BRADY LEAVITT

In a state that is 93 percent white, Gerald Brown represents diversity.

Brown is white. He wears bow ties and peers through round-rimmed glasses. When asked if he speaks foreign languages, he says, “Only Southern.” When asked what his epitaph might read, he says, “A Holy Man.” And when asked if refugee caseworkers are tough, he says without hesitation, “Shit.”

Brown, 57, is the director of the Refugee Services Office in the Utah Department of Workforce Services. He works as a sort of traffic cop at the intersection of politics and nonprofit groups, coordinating efforts to help refugees integrate into Utah’s communities and culture.

Brown became director of the Refugee Services Office in February 2008 after Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. ordered its creation. Huntsman and the state legislature appropriated $200,000 to fund the office, the first time state money has been provided specifically for refugees. The sum is small, Brown said, less than 10 percent of the money he receives from the federal government. However, it as a sign that the state is willing to invest in refugees, he said.

“I need Huntsman for another term,” Brown said, referring to the upcoming elections. “He gets it.”

A self-described “lefty activist type,” Brown wants democratic Sen. Barack Obama to be elected president in November. He figures that with a Democratic president, Republican Gov. Huntsman will be re-elected in Utah and not called to a cabinet position in Washington.

Before Gov. Huntsman’s executive order, the Refugee Services Office consisted of “one guy and a cubicle,” Brown said. Now the office has six employees and one volunteer coordinator.

While he enjoys working in Utah, Brown’s fondness for the state and its governor only goes so far. He expressed frustration with the organizational difficulties of his job. One of his office’s goals is to build a network of trained volunteers to assist caseworkers. But, he said, the bureaucracy is slowing it down.

“Do we have trained volunteers on the ground yet? Nope. Because we’re still meeting,” Brown said.

Brown began his work in the field of refugee services assisting Cambodians at a YMCA in Houston in 1981. It was his first-hand experience that inspired him to be an advocate and an activist. The most effective activists, he said, are those who have had similar exposure to diverse populations.

Brown both praises and criticizes Utah in this respect. He accuses many Utahns as being insular and in many cases ignorant when compared with other groups of people he has worked with.

Peter Robson works as an interpreter for refugees at the Asian Association of Utah. He said that he included his work experience at a refugee resettlement agency on his resume. As he interviewed for jobs this past summer, many employers would ask him about it.

“These were well-informed people, but they were surprised that there were real refugees in Salt Lake,” Robson said.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Utah’s population in 2006 was identified as 93.5 percent white and only 5.1 percent black, Asian, Native American or Pacific Islander.

Robson, 23, is a native Utahn. Growing up in his east Salt Lake City neighborhood he was separated, and not just from the refugee community, he said.

“It’s easy to insulate yourself and separate yourself from anyone who is less-privileged,” Robson said.

Robson said his experiences working with the refugee community have changed his underlying career goals – salary and other considerations are no longer as important as the satisfaction that comes from helping people.

Robson is similar to many people that Brown knows in Utah. Brown said he is baffled by how simultaneously sheltered and eager the volunteers he finds here are.

“Utah County is the volunteer capital of the U.S.,” Brown said, “It’s like the perfect job.”

Brown said that diversity is edifying and that people need to begin to realize that the world is getting smaller and people are more reliant upon each other than ever.

While Brown may feel that Utah is not a hub of diversity, he maintains that Utah is the “Wild West for resettlement work,” meaning that he feels so much is possible because people and organizations are so willing to help. And despite his criticism insularity, Brown said that one of the reasons it is so easy to work with people in Utah is that they are conservative and relatively nondiverse. ”

They have no complicated experiences,” he said, “and people seem generally nice.” Brown epitomizes in many ways the unique and unlikely diversity of Utah.

Diversity, Brown said, is a two-way street – a street on which he directs the traffic.

And doing so, Brown said, “I have had the privilege to get to know the world.”

A big change is coming for the IRC in SLC

by MATT BERGSTROM

Imagine you have just contracted a life-altering disease. You find a specialist who knows how to treat it and the two of you work together to improve your quality of life. Now imagine that after six months you are told you have to go to a new specialist. The new doctor is just as qualified, but knows very little about your specific needs. You now have to go back and find a system that works for you both.

This is what life is like for newly arrived refugees in Salt Lake City. They are given six months to grow accustomed to one aid organization, and then their case is handed over to another, Patrick Poulin said. Poulin is the resettlement director for the International Rescue Committee in Salt Lake.

The IRC is an international nonprofit organization that specializes in resettling refugees from around the world in the United States.

The IRC is also the first doctor in the scenario given above.

When the U.S. State Department decides who will be given a new home here, they approach groups like the IRC and ask them how many refugees their organization can take on. The IRC then gives them a number. When the two agree which cases will be handled, the IRC is given all the information on each person being resettled.

The next job is deciding which of the IRC’s 17 U.S. regional offices will handle each case.

Once the local office has the information and has arranged for the refugee to enter the country, the staff have six months to do everything they can to help people get resettled and become self-sufficient.

According to the IRC’s Web site, staff and volunteers work together to help refugees obtain “the tools of self-reliance: housing, job placement and employment skills, clothing, medical attention, education, English-language classes and community orientation.”

This is where the second specialist gets involved.

After six months of assistance from the IRC the refugees and their cases are transferred to the Asian Association of Utah.

The AAU, which is also a nonprofit organization, works with refugees to improve their situation by upgrading housing, finding permanent employment so they can become completely self-sufficient. The goal of the AAU is to have refugees settled into a job, a community and a way of life that will best facilitate their individual needs.

Both organizations have similar goals, but Poulin says it’s a difficult transition for someone coming from a completely different world to have to adjust to a new aid organization so quickly. That is why he and the IRC have been trying to extend their involvement with refugees from six months to as many as 24 months. Poulin feels this is ample time for refugees to get settled into their new surroundings and firmly anchor their new life in America.

Lina Smith, program director for resettlement for the Asian Association of Utah, agrees with Poulin. “I think whatever works for the refugee, I’m for it,” Smith said.

The AAU currently handles all refugee cases in the state including those managed by other nonprofits.

Smith said the IRC will begin working with refugees for up to two years beginning in January. She feels this will help ease the workload of the AAU’s four full-time caseworkers who currently oversee more than 80 cases each. Her organization will still be there to help refugees who need assistance after the first two years.

Smith and Poulin agree that a more equal share of the responsibility between the two organizations is beneficial for the refugees and the nonprofits. But they still worry about money.

Both organizations receive funding from the State Department, but Smith and Poulin feel that it is not enough. Currently, refugees receive $425 a month on which to live.

Poulin said Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. has set aside an additional $200,000 from the Utah state budget for refugee services in 2009. Poulin also says The George S. and Dolores Dore Eccles Foundation has promised the IRC a $50,000 grant.

Poulin is convinced the additional funding will help greatly with the overall success of their program. He said, “If we are able to provide more quality services to refugees … then we are successful.”

Refugee caseworkers work long hours in Salt Lake City

by MICHAEL OLSON

Originally from Rwanda, Africa, Valentine Mukundente and her parents were relocated to Salt Lake City as refugees. Before they came to America, however, Mukundente and her family were sent to a refugee camp in Zambia where she spent her high school years. In Zambia, Mukundente worked as a translator for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees while her family waited to be relocated to America. She had learned French and Swahili as a child in Rwanda and English while in high school.

Mukundente is a resettlement caseworker at the International Rescue Committee in Salt Lake City. She has worked there for more than a year.

“I love working with refugees because I used to be one,” said Mukundente. Armed with experience as a refugee she is able to keep from getting burned out from the extreme demands on her time as a caseworker. Instead, she finds it easy to relate to the refugees she helps because she was a refugee herself.

Life as a refugee caseworker is not easy on family life. Mukundente recently married a man she knew from Rwanda. He came here as a refugee and now they have a 6-month-old baby boy.

“It’s difficult because we don’t have time to go home,” Mukundente said about their schedules. Sometimes they have to pick up a refugee family from the Salt Lake International Airport in the middle of the night.

Caseworkers take them to their new house and show them how to use the stove and other appliances. This is the first time most Africans and Burmese have seen a stove or a light switch, Mukundente said.

Sometimes refugees will visit the IRC’s downtown office on 400 South to ask questions or for help reading their mail, often just as Mukundente is on her way out the door to go home to her family. But she gladly stays late to help them. After all, she used to be a refugee herself.

Seven caseworkers are currently employed at the IRC. Mukundente is responsible for 30 cases, but some caseworkers handle as many as 70 cases at a time.

“That’s too much,” she said. If she were to focus on one of her 30 cases a day, it would take a month to get through them all.

A case may consist of a single refugee, or it could be an entire family, some with as many as 11 members.

Caseworkers at the Asian Association of Utah are just as busy. Lina Smith, the director of Utah Refugee Employment and the Community Center at the Asian Association, supervises six caseworkers, who handle between 50 and 70 cases each.

Smith has been with the Asian Association for eight years. Five of the six caseworkers she employs are currently or were at one time refugees.

“I find the refugees don’t get as burned out,” Smith said. “They have been through what the people in their cases are going through.” That motivates them to get the refugees through the difficult process of adjusting to life in Utah.

Of all the places for refugees to be resettled, Utah is one of the best locations in the nation, said Gerald Brown, director of the Refugee Services Office of the Utah Department of Workforce Services.

“People here tend to be willing to help,” Brown said. Some social workers have a tendency to become jaded, but that seems to happen less in Utah.

Brown said that the perfect workload would be 20 cases for every caseworker. Because of the shortage of caseworkers it is very important that they set boundaries to avoid getting burned out.

For example, caseworkers decide whether to give out their personal contact information.

“I have some caseworkers that give out their cell phone numbers and then they have to choose whether to answer it or not,” Smith said.

The IRC’s Mukundente usually chooses not to give out her cell phone number, but some refugees still find it out from friends who know their number.

When they call they usually just have a question that can be taken care of later. Mukundente asks the refugee if it can wait until during work hours when they can talk about it. If it is a genuine emergency, such as when a child falls and breaks his arm, Mukundente directs the family to call 911 or a person at the IRC who handles emergency situations and can translate for the refugees.

“We tell them when they first get here to call 911 in an emergency, but they forget,” Mukundente said. “The first person on their minds is their caseworker.”

Despite the stress and the long hours, Mukundente loves her job.

“People have something in their blood, something they like to do,” she said. “This is not a job you do for money. You do it because you love it.”

IRC Salt Lake City extends its care

by MICHAEL OLSON

It all started with an idea, Albert Einstein’s idea.

As a German refugee, Einstein came to America to escape the tyrant Adolf Hitler. Einstein used his influence and money to help others escape from Germany.

Thanks to Einstein an American branch of an already existing European relief agency was founded in 1933. This branch later grew to become the International Rescue Committee.

The IRC is a nonprofit organization that helps refugees around the world rebuild their lives. Their local offices are located in downtown Salt Lake City, with other offices spread across the U.S. from New York to Los Angeles.

Refugees are people who had to flee their homelands because their lives were in danger. They cannot return to their homes so they need new ones, and that is where the IRC comes in.

“The U.S. is by far the largest humanitarian provider,” said Patrick Poulin, resettlement director for the IRC. “In Salt Lake City we receive between four and five hundred refugees a year.”

This year, its 75th anniversary, the Salt Lake IRC is increasing its ability to help with the beginning of the extended case management program. This will lengthen the time IRC has to help refugees from six months to 24 months.

The program is starting small out of necessity, according to Stacey Shaw, the caseworker who was hired at the beginning of 2008 to develop the new extended program. Of the seven caseworkers employed at the IRC, Shaw is the only one currently handling cases in the new program.

Eventually the IRC would like to give extended care to all of the refugee families it helps, but without state funding it will not happen.

“It is a matter for the state, if they decide to do it or not,” Shaw said.

Right now the 26 cases Shaw handles are the only ones in the 24-month program due to lack of funding. In fact, the only reason the program exists at all is because of a private grant made to the IRC.

It takes five years before refugees can become U.S. citizens. Before this year the IRC could only help them during the first six months, just enough time to get families on their feet by setting them up in a place to live, and providing them with the funding to feed and clothe themselves.

Currently the IRC’s new program can only accommodate the families that will benefit most from the extended care. These families are usually chosen because of mental or physical health issues.

Casemanagers pick refugee families up from the airport, help sign the lease on their home and help find them jobs. They also provide refugees with transportation to and from doctor’s appointments for health checks.

Many of these refugees have a difficult time understanding and speaking English. One of the IRC’s roles is to provide caseworkers and volunteers to help them break through the language barrier.

“Some people need a ton more dental or doctor appointments,” Shaw said. “We are here as a safety net to make sure they don’t fall through the cracks.”

The IRC also helps refugees get health insurance and register their children in school. It also teaches them skills some people take for granted, such as using public transportation, budgeting their income and sorting important mail.

Sometimes refugees will get confused by a piece of mail, Shaw said. It could be anything from an important bank statement to a doctor’s bill.

“We can do these little kinds of prevention before it becomes something big,” Shaw said.

Usually after six months the IRC hands off care of refugee families to the Asian Association of Utah where they continue to receive assistance.

“It is not necessarily a seamless switch,” said Poulin of the IRC. What happens when it comes time to renew the lease, or if a refugee loses a job and needs help to find a new one?

The Asian Association, like the IRC, is a nonprofit organization and helps refugees in any way it can. However, switching agencies during the refugee’s adjustment period can be difficult because they have to get used to a new agency.

“Six months is not enough time to become self-sufficient,” said Gayane Manukyan, a volunteer coordinator for the Asian Association. Refugees tend to get lost when switching caseworkers and agencies. “If you stay with the same family from the first day it is easier.”

The ultimate goal of the IRC is to empower refugees to support themselves. Shaw and the extended case program are a means to reaching that goal.

“Since we’ve been working with the families, we feel we have a unique opportunity to continue helping,” she said.

By taking care of little problems refugees have now, their transition into life in America will be made easier, Shaw said. “Having a contact like me can prevent a crisis from happening.”