Utah’s increasingly important role in the refugee crisis: What one organization is doing and how you can help

Story by: Monique Morrison

The Refugee Crisis and Resettlement Agencies

According to the UN Refugee Agency there were over 50 million refugees throughout the world, and at this time the United States of America accepts 80,000 refugees into our country annually. From these 80,000 about 550 come to Salt Lake City, Utah in search of safety, prosperity, and the chance to live out a fulfilling life.

In Utah, there are two main refugee resettlement agencies: the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and Catholic Community Services (CCS). These services assist refugee families throughout the entire resettlement process and continue to work with them once they arrive in America.

According to Amy Meyer, AmeriCorps VISTA and volunteer coordinator for IRC, resettlement agencies contact the refugees before resettlement, give them the necessary tools to migrate into America and provide them with assistance for up to two years in establishing a life in the United States. Specifically, she says that the IRC provides refugees with furnished homes, assists them in finding jobs, teaches English courses, enrolls adults and children into school, and assists them in gaining American Citizenship.

In Salt Lake City there are approximately 550 refugees resettled annually, just through the IRC. These families are under IRC case management for up to two years or until they gain self-sustainability. After two years, though, most families are self-sufficient and may still come to IRC for any additional help, but are not under direct case management. In total, there are about 1100 refugees being served through the IRC annually; however, the IRC only employs 50-60 full-time staff members. In order to competently and effectively serve refugee families, IRC relies heavily on volunteers and donations.

Volunteer and Donations

Annually, the IRC has about 750 volunteers that come through, whether it is one-time volunteers, monthly volunteers, or 6-month volunteers provided through their internship programs. Interns are provided with a more extensive and longer lasting career opportunity than one-time volunteers, and are able to work directly with refugees. Conversely, one-time volunteer opportunities are available to those with limited time and they usually help out with the IRC’s annual donation drives.

Upon arrival, refuges are provided with a fully furnished home, seasonally appropriate clothing, food and 6 months worth of toiletry items and cleaning supplies. Because of limited funding, most of the items refugees receive come from donations brought to the IRC. The IRC has three annual donation events: the Winter Clothing Drive, Light One Candle, and Spring-Cleaning. The Winter Clothing Drive collects and distributes winter clothes for refugees of all ages. Light One Candle provides local families with opportunities to fulfill refugee families Christmas wishes. The Spring-Cleaning Event collects and distributes toiletries for refugee families.

Outside of these events the IRC does collect certain items year round: toiletries, furniture, cleaning supplies, bicycles and electronic items. One thing the IRC does not collect, however, is clothing.

Jesse Sheets, donations coordinator for the IRC, says that there are certain health code restrictions that make it difficult to distribute used clothing to refugee families, and aside from that, the IRC has a very high standard to uphold of what they give the families. So, the IRC will give families clothing vouchers that can be used at various clothing stores for necessary items.

Technology and Transportation

For refugees, two of the most crucial elements for adjusting into American society are having a mode of transportation and access to the Internet. Sheets says that the IRC needs more bicycles and computers. Bicycles are an important mode of transportation that allows refugees to travel farther for work and school without costing them money. Fortunately, the IRC has created a strong relationship with the Salt Lake City Bike Collective, who provides many bikes to refugees annually. Aside from bikes, computers’ are also a necessary tool for refugees to integrate into our society and live a successful life in the United States.

“Its not like we’re trying to bring [refugee’s] into the western style of life and capitalism and say that stuff is necessary to be successful, but if you try to say this person should be successful, but we’re not going to allow them to have a computer or access to the internet in a system that requires a computer and access to the internet, these things are actually tools that help people build their life and regain control of their future” says Sheets.

Today, the Internet is used in almost every aspect of life — and for a refugee, having access to the Internet is crucial. It can be used to search for a job, communicate with family members across the world, and help teach English. It is also especially helpful for students as computers are being used in almost every grade from elementary through college. Having the ability to access the Internet at home allows refugee student’s to stay caught up on their work.

How You Can Help

Because of IRCs smaller permanent staff and limited number of funds, the organization relies heavily on the help of volunteers and donations. The IRC has created a landing page describing various volunteer and donation opportunities: rescue.org/getinvolvedslc. There you can find all of the necessary resources to getting involved, be it with the donation of your time or of donation of tangible goods.