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Refugees in Utah: Immigrants Today


Young men playing soccer in Salt Lake City on World Refugee Day, 2010. Photo by Lew Miller, used by permission of the Utah Refugee Services Office.

Refugees in Utah

Political instability in parts of the world have brought new waves of immigration to Utah. Refugees are people who are forced to leave their homes, and refugees are not new to Utah. The Mormon settlers initially came to Utah because they feared persecution and violence if they stayed in Illinois.

Persecution still exists

Unfortunately, violence and fear are still a part of many people’s lives in some countries. 

In the 2009 fiscal year, the United States government could offer asylum, or refugee status, to up to 80,000 people from different areas of the world. Utah could take between 8,000-9,000 of those refugees for resettlement.  In order to qualify to come to the United States as a refugee, a person must meet strict criteria. 

Refugee camps


Refugees with a historical flag of Iran on World Refugee Day, 2010. Photo by Lew Miller, used by permission of the Utah Refugee Services Office.

One of those criterions is that people must have fled their homes and started living somewhere else because they were afraid that something or someone at home would hurt them because of their ethnicity, religion, or something else. 

Many people live in refugee camps along the borders of their homelands or in a neighboring country. By the time a refugee makes it to Utah, he or she might have lived in a refugee camp for many years. A younger person might even have been born at the camp. 

Many refugee camps, especially those near areas of war, are ramshackle.  The refugees in the camps sometimes have to live in tents without electricity or plumbing, and infectious diseases like typhus, dengue fever, and malaria can spread due to a lack of sanitation and clean drinking water. 

Adjusting to life in Utah

These refugees have come from Bosnia, Tibet, Sudan, Iraq, Somalia, Burma, Afghanistan, Iran, the Congo, Turkey, and other countries.

To make it easier to adjust to American culture, these refugees keep up their traditions, getting together to dance, drum, play music, wear traditional clothing, eat the foods of their homeland, and participate in traditional arts.

But still, refugees face huge adjustments when they move to Utah. For a child living in a war-torn country or a refugee camp, education probably wasn’t nearly as important as getting somewhere safe or meeting daily needs like food and water.  So a new refugee student may not be able to read or write, or may know nothing about math. This makes going to school in Utah very difficult!


New Utahns on World Refugee Day, 2010. Photo by Lew Miller, used by permission of the Utah Refugee Services Office.

How would you do?

The alphabet

Think about what it would be like to be a refugee. Even if you do know how to read and write in your language, in you probably won't know how to speak English, and you may not even use the same alphabet! 

Many languages use different writing systems than the one you are reading right now.

This says “Arabic alphabet”--in Arabic: أبجدية عربية.  That writing looks as strange to you as these letters look to many new refugees.

Different cultures

Beyond the language problems, the way that everybody dresses in Utah is very different from the way people dress in Burma or the Congo, for example.  Or perhaps you grew up in a place where women aren't allowed to show any skin except their wrists, ankles, and eyes. But in Utah, you might see a woman walking down the street in shorts and a tank top!     

The food will be completely different, of course, but so will the way you buy it!  Maybe at home, you had your own farm and grew your own food, or maybe you went to a local market, or traded with a neighbor.  Either way, shopping at a big grocery store will be a very different experience. And when you prepare to pay, the money will be very different and confusing, and you’ll have to communicate with a clerk you don't understand.

At your house, you may not be familiar with any of the appliances in your kitchen.  You may never have seen a microwave or a refrigerator before, and you may not be used to running water – which means that you may have also never flushed a toilet before.  You may not be familiar with a television or computer. Even the way people make beds in Utah might be very strange! 

Support for refugees

With everything so drastically different for the refugees that are resettled in Utah, many of whom have never even seen snow, the community becomes an important tool in getting them up to speed and able to support themselves.  Volunteer mentors and resettlement agencies guide new refugees through the process of getting used to Utah, and starting a new life in America.

Still, as with so many of the immigrant groups that came before them, refugees sometimes encounter prejudice, suspicion, and impatience as they struggle to get acclimated. 

If you are ever feeling impatient with someone, or worried about how different they might be, it helps to think about what you’d do if you ended up living somewhere halfway across the world in a completely different culture--and all because you couldn’t go home.