Community remains in the heart of Salt Lake City refugees

Story and photo by HAYDEN S. MITCHELL

All over the world refugees are fleeing their homes from violence, oppression and fear. These families are all looking for a new place to live where they can feel safe. In 2016, Utah became home to a little over 1,200 refugees from multiple countries: Iraq, Iran, the Congo, Somalia and Sudan. The New Americans are experiencing the shock and awe of a new country and culture, places that are vastly different than anything they had ever seen before, according to a PBS story.

When first coming to Utah, refugees have a variety of feelings and emotions ranging from exhilaration to fear. Two individuals, Aden Batar and Romeil Analjok, who have resettled in Utah, discussed how similar their experiences were. They were introduced to a different language, new environments, foreign foods and smells. Add to that, they said the residents of Salt Lake City dressed and acted differently than they had seen before in their home countries. This can create an overwhelming burden for any refugee.


Romeil Analjok, holding a trophy his daughter won playing basketball. Sports helped the family feel like a part of the community.

“It’s America man, of course it is going to be crazy. I did not know what to expect when my family first came here,” said Romeil Analjok, a refugee from Sudan, who created a new home for himself and his family in Utah in 2004. “Language was the biggest problem along with not knowing anybody … so I enrolled in school hoping to learn English and meet new people.”

While at school, Analjok met a couple of people whom he remains friends with today. He was grateful that they interacted with him during his first few days in class. He did not know how they would talk to him or act around him, but they treated him like everyone else, with respect. Analjok appreciated how quickly he made friends. It made the transition from Sudan to Utah easy and encouraged him that he could create a home for his family and be a part of a community once again.

“Romiel’s story is common for many [who are] moving their families,” said Francis Mannion, a priest who has seen an increase in refugee parishioners within his parish. They need somewhere to start.

For this reason, there are organizations like the International Rescue Committee or Catholic Community Services that will help new arrivals. These groups are in place to assist with the transition and make an adjustment easier for refugees coming to the United States.

In addition to established organizations, becoming part of an open and caring community is vital to helping families transition into a new community. Community allows refugees to make new friends, participate in all sorts of activities, or even worship together. Mannion made it clear that faith is not the predominant force that makes it easier for those going through the refugee process — it is community. A community can hold people up when they struggle the most.

“Every week in Sudan, we gathered with our friends and family, just celebrating everything good we had in life,” Analjok said. “I was happy to be a part of something every week … it gave me something to look forward to.”

Analjok said he felt out of sorts until he found a stable, welcoming community. He treasures it. In his community were fellow refugees from the Sudan who generously donated their time to helping him find friends and a new church, Saint Patrick’s, located at 1058 W. 400 South in Salt Lake City. Becoming involved with this church allowed Analjok some networking in the business world, eventually leading to a new job opportunity.

He said finding a new community can be a lifesaver for refugees. Without this connection, families and individuals can sometimes feel like they are on their own. Typically the countries that these refugees are coming from have a strong sense of community. They must rely on each other significantly to survive, eat and exist. This is why it can be such a challenge for refugees in America because it is solely their responsibility to provide for themselves and their families.

“Having a strong, loyal community around you will always make everything easier in life,” said Mannion, pastor at St. Vincent de Paul. “As refugee families come to church through the years, you can see the change happen. They start off nervous and still, and gradually became an active member of the community.”

Aden Batar, immigration and refugee resettlement director with Catholic Community Services, said refugees can have a hard time adjusting because they are coming from a life we have very little knowledge of. Life in countries like Iran, Sudan and Somalia is not easy. Batar, a refugee from Somalia who now helps other refugees in the resettlement process, said it is a real struggle every day for people living there to provide for their families and keep them safe. He said families are forced to flee because they are being oppressed or they fear potential threat and violence. Batar added that most people never anticipate leaving their home and are not prepared when it happens.

Such disruption can negatively impact people and even cause Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in many individuals, Batar said.

Analjok said, “When we came to Utah we were welcomed by a lot of refugees who came here before us.”  He reiterated the importance of community to his family’s resettlement. “They made me very comfortable and treated me well. It was also nice to see them all doing well,” he said. “It gave me hope for me and my family.”

Issa Moursal, determined not to fail


Issa Moursal was riding in a truck with his cousin when he felt a burning sensation on the back of his neck. As he reached back to feel what had burned him he noticed blood running down his neck and soaking his shirt.

“I looked at my cousin and the same bullet that grazed the back of my neck had hit my cousin and killed him,” Moursal said. He sat and reflected for a second remembering the terrifying moments.

Moursal, now 38, grew up in Chad, Africa, in a French colony. Moursal had aspirations of becoming a lawyer. He studied hard and for long hours with that goal in mind. He would walk to school with no shoes, and sit under a tree for class, which was typical in Chad where the economy struggled.

Scenes of Niger, Africa. Photos courtesy of Issa Moursal.

Scenes of Niger, Africa. Photos courtesy of Issa Moursal.

In school, Moursal learned to speak two languages. French was his primary language and Arabic was his second language.

He attended high school in Niger and would visit home during his summer vacations. One particular summer Moursal returned to his village for vacation. As Moursal and his sister went to get firewood some government officers from Chad approached them. The officials asked Moursal to tell them where his father was. Moursal’s father was an officer in a rebellious tribe that was trying to overthrow the government. Moursal refused to tell them.

“I knew if I told them [where my dad was] that they would not only kill him, but kill me also,” Moursal said. “So I refused to tell them and they started beating me.”

Moursal’s sister pleaded with him to tell them but Moursal knew the consequences and kept his fathers whereabouts secret. The officers arrested Moursal and took him to a city about 20 miles from his village where he would spend the next week in jail.

While in prison Moursal came in contact with a Catholic priest who knew Moursal from his congregation and had sent Moursal to school in the first place. The priest asked city officials to release him and they did.

After being let out of prison Moursal left for Sudan where he would begin fighting for his tribe and against the government.

“The government is corrupt in Chad,” Moursal said. “They can arrest you for not even doing anything and can kill you if they want with no reason.” Moursal’s tribe joined forces with another and together, they were able to overthrow the government in December 1990.

Issa Moursal holds a traditional mask from Niger. Photo courtesy of Issa Moursal.

Issa Moursal holds a traditional mask from Niger. Photo courtesy of Issa Moursal.

Afterward Moursal was assigned to be part of the security team that would protect the new vice president. Things remained calm for a period of time until the tribe that had helped to overthrow the original government decided to try to take over the new government.

Moursal and his cousins were in a truck protecting the vice president when they were shot at. Moursal recalls the situation being frantic and chaotic. “That is when I felt the burning on my neck,” Moursal said. “I looked and my cousin was dead.”

The fateful event led Moursal to decide to flee Sudan and seek protection. “I had to go into hiding for just a couple of hours,” Moursal said. “Then I traversed across a river and then was smuggled across the border to Nigeria and then to Niger.”

By the time he arrived in Niger, his neck was badly infected. “I went to the University hospital and met a nurse from my tribe to help with my infection,” Moursal said.

Even though Moursal had escaped the war he still had the desire to fight for his people and go back. “The nurse convinced me to stay,” Issa said. “She told me go to talk to the United Nations and they would help me.”

An official from the United Nations listened to Moursal’s plea and decided to protect him with the stipulation that Moursal study and then work for the United Nations. He agreed.

For the next two years Moursal began to realize his dream yet again. He had two years of law school under his belt when he was awarded a scholarship.

After getting the good news of the scholarship, Moursal encountered yet another obstacle in his path. The United Nations had enough lawyers and needed to pull Moursal out of law school and place him in a technical school. He agreed to continue and finished his degree in library science in spite of not being able to become a lawyer.

After a seven-year stay with the United Nations Moursal was offered the chance to come to the United States as a refugee. “They came and interviewed us to see if we could make it in the States,” Moursal said. “I was not convinced that I would be going but knew I had as good as chance as any.”

Moursal was one of 3,000 possible candidates to come to the U.S. Only 27 were selected; he was among the 27.

When granted asylum by the U.S. Moursal needed to find an organization that would accept him and help him with the transition. He came in contact with the International Rescue Committee, which helped Moursal with the final details of his arrival.

On June 4, 1997, one year after Moursal was asked if he wanted to come to the U.S. he arrived in Utah. He was a little different than most of the refugees, though. Usually a refugee needs help getting started.

“Finding a job, paying bills, and other tedious tasks can be a big problem for newcomers,” said Michelle Amussen, a student in the Occupational Therapy program at the University of Utah, who helps the new refugees get settled.

“Most of the time they don’t speak any English at all and this seems to be their biggest downfall,” Amussen said. “If you can speak English it is much easier to find a job, understand mail and paperwork, and navigate through the system.”

Two weeks after his arrival Moursal’s resilience began to shine. He found his first job without the help of the IRC at a Marriott, booking rooms in French.

“I don’t want to be a parasite for society,” Moursal said. “I want to be able to do it on my own and be successful.” He is currently working at Franklin Covey as the International Operation Coordinator and is studying business at the University of Utah working toward his MBA.

Issa Moursal with Mona and Melissa.

Issa Moursal with friends Mona and Melissa. Photo courtesy of Issa Moursal.

“Life is good here,” Moursal said. “I have a successful job and a nice house a beautiful and wonderful wife and two kids.”

“We [the Moursal family] are raising money so they can build wells for the village.” Moursal said. “This is what drives me to get my Ph.D. and get more money so I can help more people. What keeps me here is that everyone in the village has this hope for me to succeed. You have all these people looking up to you and you don’t want to let them down,” Moursal said.

“Success is easier to come by here in the states,” Moursal said. “There are many opportunities to get a good job and support your family.”

Moursal has had a big advantage coming to the U.S. with an education and a background learning languages. “English is the key to success here in the States,” Moursal said. “If you do not speak English you will be stuck with a low-paying job and not be able to move up.”

Issa Moursal's son, Quintin. Photo courtesy of Issa Moursal.

Issa Moursal's son, Quintin. Photo courtesy of Issa Moursal.

Moursal has lived in Salt Lake City for 11 years. His continued success is warranted by his determination not to fail. “I still have the scare that reminds me of where I have been and what I have survived,” Moursal said. “I know I can fight through almost anything.”

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