By: Victoria Workman
Imagine what it would be like to flee your home country and journey to a place you know nothing about. You don’t speak the language. You don’t know how the economic and social systems work. You don’t know the customs. All that you DO know is that in order for your family to survive, you must leave your country. This is the reality of refugees moving to Salt Lake from various areas around the globe.
Hartland apartment complex (just off of 1700s and Redwood) has been reported by Desert News as a home for more than 1,000 children and adults from various places across the globe, including areas like: Somalia, Peru, Sudan, Central and Eastern Europe and Mexico, as well as the United States. Over three quarters of the individuals living at this complex do not speak English. Two primary refugee agencies in Salt Lake have made Hartland a place of resettlement for these families.
Because many of the families coming over knew little of the English language and American culture, they were unable to productively assimilate in society. The University of Utah recognized the disadvantages of these families and formed a partnership to help teach a basic set of living skills that they were previously ignorant to. The classes include things such as: English speaking and lifestyle courses, homeowner education, health education, bill pay and much more.
Art is highly valued in Hartland’s culture. Though the facility offers a variety of resources for its members, the main activities they participate in are art based and chiefly include dance. Kelby McIntyre is a theater professor at the University of Utah, and the main dance instructor at the Hartland center. Though she loves her job as a professor, she explains, “This is out there; different. Why be stuck in an office all day when you can be doing things like this!”
The center goes beyond anything like the Boys and Girls Club of America or a day care. It is a place for children to express and debunk misconceptions about their home culture. The entire system is based off a co-creation process between the instructor and members.
“We do a lot of fusion. We get moves from the African culture, from my culture, and just mix,” McIntyre says. “Reciprocal conversation allows genuine engagement. I want the youth to know that anything is possible. Their voice, talents and experiences are valued.”
The center isn’t like school, where the participants feel forced to go and perform. The children can be seen rushing to the facility after school, eager to find out what activities are in store for their day. The older children are even more dedicated to the center, some traveling long distances or taking public transportation in order to participate. The kids that participate in these activities vary in race and age, but all share a commonalty in the love of dance. McIntyre explains that she tries to offer different options for the kids, but the majority vote always comes back to dance. Dance is a very important form of expression for these children.
The dance is never random. Participants perform spoken pieces, monologues, duologues, original scripts and dances that are relevant/pertinent to them. The older students recently got the opportunity to perform three routines at a One World Utah event, a ‘community enrichment program that seeks to break down cultural barriers and stop further marginalization.’
For performing at these events and sharing their stories, the children are always rewarded. Some rewards are small, like getting to keep the costumes they performed in. Others are more exciting, like getting to visit the big water park across from the center. The children love being involved with the community, love their teacher, and love getting to share their culture.
Joann (age 15) explains that, “You don’t have to be experienced in dance. You come, learn, be a leader, and learn how to dance.”
The older children already have big plans for their future. Regina (age 19), is aspiring to be a dance instructor. I got the opportunity to attend one of these classes, where Regina and Joann taught me one of the routines they were learning. I was able to add my own ideas to what they were teaching, and learn new movements that were expressive of their culture.
Censuses of the past showed that Black, Hispanic, Polynesian and low income families were extremely underrepresented in college level attendance. These findings motivated University representatives to literally walk the streets and knock doors on the west side, in order to determine why there was a lack of presence from these areas.
The main response from this community was the difficulty in attending while having to work, as well as being home in time to care for dependent children. The University made quick arrangements to purchase the Hartland complex in order to keep rates at reasonable prices for tenants, and establish a center for children to stay while parents were in class.
The center started out as one room in an apartment where children would dance and play until their parents came home. Today, the center has expanded to its own facility next to the apartment complex, where many children of refugee and low income backgrounds come to hang out.
When asked if there was anything they would like the community to know, Naomi (age 12) was quick to exclaim, “tell the community they should come! It’s fun program to come after school to on Tuesday. And you can invite your friends! You guys can dance together.”
Few people know about the partnership with the University and Hartland community. This partnership was established to make college attainable for more people. Some may think that Hartland Community Center is only available for refugee families, when in actuality it is open to any family coming from a low-income background. So, if you or anyone you know loves to dance and is interested in learning more about different cultures, Hartland is a place for you.