Burmese refugee liking life in America

by BRETT PERFILI

Every year immigrants and refugees come to the United States seeking change, looking for opportunity and trying to discover some success in their new country. And as most Americans wake up on weekdays and head to work to make a living, Sebastian Palsuk, a Burmese refugee, is right there with them doing the same.

Palsuk, 31, has been living in Salt Lake City since he arrived from Malaysia in 2007. He is currently working for the LDS church at the Humanitarian Center on 1665 S. Bennett Way. He works in the production area, where he sifts through carts full of clothes sent from all over the country. He sorts the clothes, separating items that are in better shape from those that are more worn. The clothes are then moved to be sold at Deseret Industries stores located around the country.

He enjoys his job and everything about the United States.

“Whatever I want to do I can. Policy is very good for me,” Palsuk said. “If I want to work I can.”

Palsuk left behind a world of frustration where he was beaten and jailed. He once lived in a place where every move he made was monitored. Palsuk was told what he could and could not do. Here in the United States his world of aggravation has morphed into a land of freedom.

However, this was not always the case. He was a teacher at a primary religious school in a Christian village in Burma during the 1990s. One day the Burmese military showed up at the school and told Palsuk that he needed to allow Buddhists in his school. Palsuk did not like the idea, because he does not agree with Buddhism and did not want students of that religion attending his school. He was beaten for being uncooperative. Members of the military struck him in the head and pulled him out of the school. He was then arrested and sent to jail for four months in Burma.

Palsuk said that is something he will never forget, but wishes he could.

After he was released from jail things did not get any easier. His father advised him to move to Malaysia. There he was arrested again for not having a passport. He was sent to jail for a year.

Palsuk said the prisoners were always sweaty from the heat and dizzy due to the lack of food.

At night, when guards and prison workers could not see them, a group of Christians would gather and secretly pray and worship. The jail tolerated no religion of any kind, and if caught the prisoners were punished more.

“Every day we make worship and devotion,” Palsuk said.

When he was released from the Malaysian prison he learned he was not allowed to return to Burma, unless he wanted to go back to jail there.

So, he applied to get into the United States as a refugee. He was eventually granted permission to make the journey to America.

When he arrived in 2007, he worked with the International Rescue Committee in Salt Lake City to get started on the right foot. In December of 2007 he joined the IRC as an interpreter for incoming Burmese refugees. He found this helped him to learn to speak English more fluently. The IRC is an organization that helps the resettlement process for refugees by arranging places to stay, resources and providing finances.

The first job Palsuk landed was working for a Crystal Inn in Salt Lake City as a housekeeper. However, he was not learning about America and lacked communication with Americans, so he decided to quit and try to find a job where more interaction with people existed. Learning to speak English is Palsuk’s top priority.

His current job at the Humanitarian Center is ideal.

“I get more experience and also know more English,” Palsuk said.

Bart Hill, the center’s development manager, enjoys working with Burmese refugees.

“They are hard working,” Hill said. “They want to improve their situation. They have as good or better work ethic than others.”

Palsuk is doing just that.

He has his high school diploma, and is taking English classes at night through the Humanitarian Center. He plans to attend Salt Lake Community College. He said he wants to be a businessman, but could not find the words to explain exactly what kind.

His job at the Humanitarian Center is temporary; Palsuk is allowed to work there for only one year. But, he knows that what he has learned working there the past seven months will help him when he is forced to seek other employment. The LDS church will assist him with his job search when the time comes.

When he is away from his busy day sifting through used clothes or learning English, he is at his North Salt Lake apartment hanging out with his two Burmese roommates, Mangcung and Zawzawnaing. He likes to gather with them and others and play soccer in the park on Saturdays. He also keeps himself occupied during his free time by working on the Toyota that he was able to obtain through a bank loan.

This is also something Palsuk has found to be a privilege in the United States.

“I want to buy a car, I can,” Palsuk said. “Everyone in my country can’t buy a car. Whoever is working they can buy a car.”

His favorite aspect of this country, though, is the people. He has found Utahns to be very kind and helpful.

“People are good for me,” he said. “When I need help they help me. In my country no way. If you got into trouble they didn’t help.”

And for the people who know Palsuk, the feeling is mutual.

Elease Thompson, Palsuk’s job coach at the Humanitarian Center, loves working with him.

“He is one of the kindest men I have ever met,” Thompson said, making Palsuk blush. “I don’t know why some girl doesn’t snatch him up. He is so willing to help a woman.”

Palsuk’s goal is to become a U.S. citizen in five years.

Although Palsuk has bad memories of Burma and Malaysia, he is on a path to create good memories in his new country.

Stuck in the middle: Some bisexuals struggle to overcome stereotypes

by MISSY THOMPSON

They are called fence-sitters, undecided or confused. Generally they are not accepted by straight or gay people, although the straight community lumps them in with the LGBT community.

Bisexuals have been marginalized for many years because they are underrepresented within the LGBT community. Stereotypes surround them like a cloud.

One misconception is that they are promiscuous because they are attracted to both sexes. However, many don’t fit this stereotype because they believe in monogamous relationships, whether it’s with a man or woman.

“There is not a lot of respect for bisexuals,” said Bonnie Owens, a senior at the University of Utah and an intern at the campus LGBT Resource Center. “Some people believe it’s just a transition period.”

Bisexuals are included in the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) acronym that has become the most widely accepted term for describing members of this population. But, the problem with bisexuality being part of the LGBT acronym is that they are not accepted by either gays or straight individuals, Owens said.

“There’s a saying: ‘Bi now, gay later,'” she said, referring to the misperception that bisexuals will eventually become gay or lesbian.

Owens and LGBT Resource Center Director Cathy Martinez are working to reaching out to misrepresented LGBT communities — including bisexuals — by making them feel as if they are part of the community. Although no definite plans have been made, Owens believes they need to be included considering they are part of the acronym.

“We are bringing bisexuality into a light of inclusiveness,” Owens said. “[The media] have sexualized bisexuality.”

But making bisexuals feel included in the LGBT community will be difficult because they are looked down on by gays, lesbians and straight people.

“Female bisexuality is more acceptable,” Owens said. “For males it is more of an issue of if you are [gay] or aren’t. A man is questioned more and thought of as testing the waters. It’s much less accepted.”

Bisexuality in younger males is questioned even more. Tom Campbell, 17, a senior at Tooele High School in Tooele, Utah, has been out about his bisexuality for a year. He has seen some people be completely supportive of his lifestyle, while others are less inclined to treat him the same as they did before they learned he is bi.

“There are a lot of people who treat you different in high school,” Campbell said. “Kids give you a lot of crap [for being bisexual]. My doctor even put me on anti-depressants.”

Campbell believes it’s difficult for people, especially high school teenagers, to understand that having equal interest in males and females is normal for him.

“I’m asked if I’m gay a lot and I say, ‘No, I’m bi, there’s a big difference between the two,'” he said. “I have a strong attraction to both [men and women]. I like variety.”

He has also seen the difference in the way bisexual women are treated compared to bisexual men.

“When you’re at a dance club and two girls are dancing together in a cage it’s OK,” Campbell said. “But when I’m up there with another guy, it isn’t.”

Campbell is a member of the Tooele High stage crew where he helps build and design scenery for the plays the school produces. Some of the crew members who know he is sexual orientation have treated him differently.

“It’s funny because when you’re with [stage] crew it’s like your family, but I’m not myself,” he said. “It’s the people you’re around that make you feel comfortable and OK with your sexuality.”

Although lesbian and gay have overshadowed the ‘B’ in LGBT, it is a lifestyle that bisexuals accept despite pressure from both the LGBT and straight communities.

For instance, Wendy Lynn, 43, an environmental studies student at the U, never questioned her bisexuality and has embraced her lifestyle.

“I didn’t realize I was different,” Lynn said in the Ray Olpin Union building over a cup of coffee. “I thought it was acceptable if men were with men and women were with women. I reasoned this as an 11-year-old.”

Lynn was raised in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and during a
Primary lesson — a Sunday school-like teaching session for children — challenged a teacher who couldn’t give her the answers she wanted. She was taken to the Bishop, who told her not to vocalize her thoughts.

“I didn’t realize I was voicing an anti-opinion,” she said. “I stopped attending church at age 12.”

Her sexual orientation didn’t come up again until after she was married at the age of 18. When she was driving with her husband one day, Lynn saw a woman who she believed was beautiful. Lynn didn’t think twice about telling her husband that they should ask the woman to go out to dinner with them. Later, she wondered, “What was I thinking?”

“I was in a marriage and at that moment [of seeing the woman] all I wanted to do was spend time with her,” Lynn said. “A time came when it was clear to my husband that I was different. But I didn’t plan on pursuing it.”

Lynn and her husband divorced after three years of marriage. Eventually she began a 10-year relationship with a woman. Lynn said they would still be together if it weren’t for her partner’s alcohol abuse.

The only time Lynn felt accepted by the LGBT community was when she was with a woman. Her life revolved around this community while she was with her girlfriend. She hung out at bars that her friends frequented. But, once she began a relationship with a man, Lynn lost the majority of her friends.

“[Gays] have their own social network,” she said. “It was my social life. When I chose to be with a man [my life] was gone and now I have very few friends. [Bisexuality] is not a choice for most people,” she said. “Because it was for me, people can’t accept that.”

Lynn has been in a relationship with the same man since 1998. They were married, then divorced. Now, they are living together again, but are no longer married.

“For me, I grow more spiritually when I’m in a committed relationship,” Lynn said. “You don’t learn enough about yourself when you’re not. You have to find a partner who mirrors you, it’s easier to survive that way. I commit everything I can to one relationship, otherwise I get lonely.”

Since she has been with a man, her parents have been more supportive about her sexuality. Because they don’t see Lynn with another woman it’s as if they can pretend she is straight.

“I can be honest with who I am,” she said. “My boyfriend doesn’t care what [other people] think. He will always support who I am.”

Ultimately it doesn’t matter to Lynn whether her partner is male or female.

“I will never stop being attracted to men and women,” she added.

Lynn’s philosophy is that in any population, 10 percent are gay and 10 percent are straight. Everyone else – mainly bisexuals – fall in the middle. That large gray area is where she, and many others, fit in.

“Some people who are bisexual may just be experimenting,” she said. “Sexuality is fluid and more people are deciding that it’s OK to be different.”

Because Lynn is older, she has seen many of the hardships bisexuals have faced over the years. Most of the time, she said, they weren’t necessarily persecuted, but definitely had a hard time fitting in with both the LGBT and straight communities.

Lynn has lived in Utah, California and Montana, but the only time she felt her life was threatened was in Wyoming where LGBT individuals have been killed because of their orientation. On another occasion at the gay club, Sun, in downtown Salt Lake City, a group of men surrounded the exit. Lynn, unaware they were there, nearly walked out but was pulled back inside before she could get hurt.

“I look conservative, I’m never dishonest,” Lynn said. “I’m not one of those in-your-face people. I feel safe sitting here in the Union when a few years ago, I never would have.”

Nevertheless, bisexuals still have to fight for approval from society.

For instance, the Utah Bisexual Support Group was only recently allowed to hold meetings at the Utah Pride Center in downtown Salt Lake City.

“We are viewed with as much suspicion in the gay community as in the straight,”
Lynn said. “Bisexuality for me has very little to do with who I choose — whether male or female. I don’t take sex seriously, but there has to be a serious attraction. In that case I don’t want to limit myself.”

Campbell and Lynn are just two of many bisexual individuals living in Utah who don’t feel at home in the gay and lesbian or straight communities. Until one, or both, sides decide to accept them, bisexuals will continue to live in limbo.

Mundo Hispano publisher discusses her life, newspaper

by JAIME WINSTON

Sandra Plazas is the coach of a soccer team for at-risk youth, vice president of an advertising agency and publisher of Mundo Hispano, a newspaper she owns with her mother.

Large businesses advertise in the publication, including Nordstrom and Coca-Cola. The advertising agency, Hispanic Marketing and Consulting-La Agency, has been Plazas’ most financially successful endeavor and the soccer team encourages teenagers to do well at school and in life.

“But it was not always this nice,” Plazas said

Originally from Bogotá, Colombia, Plazas fled to the United States in 1991 when she was 20.

Her mother, Gladys Gonzalez worked for the Colombian branch of Chase Manhattan Bank when the company was threatened by guerilla warfare. The bank closed its doors and officials offered to help Plazas and Gonzalez relocate to New York or California. But the family chose Utah instead because of their faith in the Mormon church.

It wasn’t easy for Gonzalez to find work in Utah. “She was either overqualified or underqualified for every job she applied for,” Plazas said. Gonzalez eventually found a job cleaning floors at banks in Utah County.

Plazas also faced struggles when she arrived. “I couldn’t hold a conversation,” she said. The only English that Plazas knew was the little she learned in high school. “Now I love the United States, but at that point I didn’t,” she said.

In addition to new challenges, Gonzalez and Plazas also shared journalistic experience. Gonzalez had three years of college experience in the field, but left when her daughter fell ill with meningitis and was put in the hospital for about three weeks. “She felt that she wasn’t there to take care of me and that’s why I got sick,” Plazas said. “She wanted to make sure I was safe.”

Years later, Gonzalez returned to school to pursue a degree in business. But Plazas followed in her mother’s journalistic footsteps and graduated from Externado University of Colombia in Bogotá with a degree in journalism and communication.

In 1993, Plazas and Gonzalez put their education to use and started Mundo Hispano. They saw a need for a Hispanic news publication in Utah and began cutting and pasting articles on a dining-room table.

Plazas said the early years of the publication were the hardest and many told her there weren’t enough Hispanics in Utah to keep the newspaper running. “There were times I was burned out and I said I don’t think I can make it anymore,” she said.

Plazas and Gonzalez didn’t give up. To increase publication and target the Hispanic market, they enticed advertisers by offering free advertising space. It encouraged businesses to trust the publication, showing them that the newspaper was serious in its goals.

One of the main goals of the newspaper is to serve as a connection between the Spanish and English speaking communities in Utah. If Plazas ever decides to sell the newspaper she wants the buyer to have the same ambitions she does. “We believe this can be a bridge of understanding,” Plazas said.

For more than a year, the mother and daughter team printed 1,000 copies per month with two pages in both English and Spanish. Since the Spanish articles usually turned out much longer and it affected the format, only the editorial is in both languages today.

The newspaper also focuses on resources for Utah’s Hispanic population. To do this, Plazas and Gonzalez need to have cultural understanding.

“There are 25 cultures within the Hispanic community in the state,” Plazas said. “There are different dialects and they don’t want to be boxed as a whole.” Since there is such diversity among Spanish readers, the newspaper uses dialect from Spain, where the language originated.

The newspaper has had success reaching the community with 10,000 copies distributed each month and 2.7 readers per copy. The publication has a reporter in Mexico and one in Colombia. Plazas wants to find correspondents in Argentina and Europe as well to enhance the newspaper she runs with her mother.

Plazas works closely with Gonzalez at the newspaper, she also spends time with her children on the soccer field. Before she became involved in journalism, Plazas said she was a tomboy and loved soccer. She was the only girl on her high school’s team. The coaches of opposing teams wouldn’t worry about her though, until she started scoring goals.

Plazas’ children, Carlos, 15, and Paula, 12, also play soccer. She started a team so her son would have a chance to play when he didn’t make it onto another team. “My uncle used to tease me and tell me I bought a team for my son,” she said.

Today, many of the same players are still on the team, which started around 1998. Each team member has to keep a high grade point average in school, be well-behaved at home and help their community in order to play.

“They were all at-risk kids,” Plazas said. “Some counselors have told them they don’t have what it takes to make it.” Most of the players are considering college; some are looking for scholarships in soccer. “Before, those kids didn’t even know what a scholarship was,” she said.

Plazas said the soccer team has been her greatest accomplishment because she helped change the children’s lives for the better.

Another area Plazas makes a difference is politics as a member of Utah’s Hispanic Legislative Task Force. The group meets at the beginning and middle of the legislative session to study bills being presented and decide their position on them.

“In legislation right now there are immigration bills right and left,” Plazas said. She encourages others not to ignore issues surrounding migrant communities and said they work low paying jobs, yet pay taxes that benefit Utah.

Immigration bills are just some of the issues Mundo Hispano covers. At times, Plazas and Gonzalez argue over how to cover problems in the community. “Sometimes she feels that she’s right just because she’s my mom,” Plazas said. Despite their disagreements, Plazas feels that the newspaper serving the Hispanic community.

Mormon church lends help to refugees

by BRETT PERFILI

Every year people throughout the world come  to the United States for something better, whether it’s opportunity, a place to live or lifestyle. Some of these people are refugees who have fled from their native countries to seek better chances in their lives.

According to the United States Department of State a refugee is a person that may be fleeing from their country to get away from war or persecution on account of race, religion, or nationality.

A refugee must first go through the requirement process to get into the United States. The process is not a short task. It can take foreigners years to gain permission to get into the United States, said Patrick Poulin, resettlement director of the International Rescue Committee in Salt Lake City.

Typically, refugees making the jump to the United States ride a bumpy road to success.

Elissa McConkie, resettlement operations officer for IRC, said over a telephone conversation, they usually can’t speak English. They are typically poor and most likely have little working experience. 

Seventeen IRC locations stretch across the United States. The Utah location at 231 East and 400 S. receives major help from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which takes a heavy load off for the organization.

“There are several levels of support from the LDS church,” McConkie said. “If we didn’t have support from the LDS church our job would be much more difficult. It contributes so much.”

IRC takes in refugees and attempts to start the newcomers on the right foot throughout the first few months of their stay. The agency makes the arrangements allowing the refugees to obtain food, jobs and shelter. Staff members and volunteers contribute to the committee by helping make these necessary accommodations, and by personally working with the refugees.

Every year fluctuates on the amount of refugees from countries around the world coming into Utah. McConkie estimates there are approximately 900 that come to Utah a year. Out of those, 450 come through IRC. Catholic Community Services, a different agency located in Salt Lake City assisting refugees, receives the rest.

McConkie said the money from the government is not sufficient for what the refuges need. The federal government gives the IRC $425 for each refugee who comes in.

“That is not a lot of money,” McConkie said. “It [the church] helps us stay within our budget.”

The church grants vouchers to the refugees to Deseret Industries. The vouchers go directly to the newcomers so they can go shop themselves, McConkie said. Most of them are not used to Utah’s weather, thus, with these vouchers they can make sure they are seasonally prepared.           

“We would be purchasing these items if it wasn’t for the church,” McConkie said.

The government requires that refugees contain certain necessities in their homes, such as hygiene and basic foods. The church provides these products at cheaper costs through theWelfare Square mini store, which offers these certain goods at cheaper costs.

Most importantly, the LDS church offers jobs to the refugees through Deseret Industries stores, the LDS Humanitarian Center and the manufacturing center.

“They get a sense of work,” said Poulin, IRC’s resettlement director. “It’s a great opportunity.”

When the refugees begin work, they learn a trade they can take with them when they move on. The employment received for the refugees through the church is not permanent. It lasts only a few months. They are being trained.

Not only do they receive working experience, but are assigned a mentor that works with them. The mentor follows up with the individual once the training is over.

“Our goal is for everyone in our training to have a mentor,” said John Yancey, LDS Humanitarian Center assistant manager, during a telephone conversation. “That person is not only helping to look for jobs after training here, but housing and other things in life.”  

McConkie said the church hires people on a monthly basis, but it does depend on the time of year. She also said the training grounds for the refugees are very supportive environments.

“They can learn what’s expected of them,” McConkie said. “They are so excited to be working.”

A certain goal the IRC wants to achieve is not to see refugees return once they have gone through the program.

“When a refugee gets a job we don’t hear from them as much because they don’t need us as much,” McConkie said.  

And for the refugee’s sake this can happen more often than not due to the support from the LDS church.

Salt Lake graphic designer builds business from scratch

by LANA GROVES

Cal Nez remembered working at a small but growing graphic design business in Utah in the late 1980s. He was content being an artist and working on logos and designs, but the pay was small for the number of awards his designs were receiving.

“We were the ad agency, graphic design [company] of that era,” he said. “We were taking every award. The designs in there, they were mine.”

Nez, a member of the Navajo Nation, realized that he was working at minimum wage or less, and not receiving as much credit for his work as he should. After another couple of weeks contemplating the issue, Nez decided to quit and open his own business.

Nez explained the decision to his pregnant wife, Yolanda, and set out in his car to New Mexico in search of work. He introduced himself to Peter MacDonald, former chairman of the Navajo Nation, and showed his portfolio.

“I picked up two jobs that meeting,” Nez said. “The dollar amount was quite significant for someone who was making 6 dollars an hour.”

Nez started out designing the Navajo Nation poster in 1989 and has since gone on to create the design for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, former Gov. Mike Leavitt’s re-election campaign and others.

More than 20 years after that fateful day, Nez is the one of few Native Americans in Utah to own a business in Utah.

Nez said he was one of the first design company owners to create a web site for his company, Cal Nez Design, Inc., which is a prospering graphic design and advertising company. He said the thrill of finishing designs for a client still makes it worth the effort.

“Right now I just finished a project for the United States Marines,” Nez said. “I get this energy. I love art; I love that challenge.”

In addition to running his own business, Nez started the Utah Native American Chamber of Commerce in April 2008 by sending out letters to registered businesses in Utah.

“We’ve started small, but it’s going well,” said Sandy McCabe, a board member and owner of Sandy’s Kitchen. “Cal has done a lot.”

Nez remembered the path he took to become a business owner. He spent six years in a boarding school run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs that he despised. The schools were part of an effort in the 1800s that required Native American children to attend English-speaking schools to assimilate them into American culture. By 1902, the United States government had opened 25 federally funded schools.

Despite that turmoil, Nez said he first realized his potential as an artist at the school.

He left his grandparents in New Mexico at 16 to live with a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints family in Utah and studied at South High School in Salt Lake City. Nez said his experience in Utah changed his life, and although he thinks of his Navajo heritage with pride, he also considers himself an active LDS church member.

Now, Nez has a family of his own. He remembers when his first daughter, Courtney was going to school for the first time.

“I sat out there literally all day to make sure she was going to come back to my arms,” he said, remembering the terrifying experience of his first school.

Nez’s son, Colby, is in high school, and Nez said he is proud of the school work he brings home.

Besides spending as much time with his family as possible, Nez continues his business and produces designs for other organizations. He cherishes his Native American roots and includes that in his designs as much as possible.

“I can go out there and oil paint any concept you can imagine,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any sign that looks alike.”