Every Wednesday and Friday morning, I arrive at the Catholic Community Services of Utah building in Salt Lake City, where a colorful mural depicts likewise colorful people giving and receiving help. I’m an intern there for the Preferred Communities Department, where I assist the star source of my story, Leul Mengistu, with the fledgling Men’s Wellness Support Group.
Can someone say, “conflict of interest?” I in fact reported on the same program I am working to launch. I scratched my head for a bit over whether I was the right person for the feature or some other reporter-in-training should handle it. But then again, I was and am the only student in COMM 1610 with close access to the Men’s Wellness Support Group. So I gave it my scout’s honor to be as unbiased as possible and proceeded to write.
My focus was difficult to drill into. Should I tell the story of a single refugee in the support group? What about a feature story on Mengistu and his program? But there were problems with these: no male refugees were yet recruited and I doubted 850 words could fit a good feature on Mengistu’s past and his program’s future. It was Mengistu who delivered the story’s focus — a local charity was starting something new in the world of refugee resettlement: a curriculum-based program tailored to men. There’s the slice of the ham I wanted!
Leul Mengistu and Aden Batar were the best possible sources for such a story. Both men experienced the difficulty of American integration and were now heading programs to help people like them. I especially loved Mengistu’s quote: “I don’t want them to fall between the cracks.” It proved a good backbone for the story and captured the urgency to help male refugees today.
Batar surprised me when he dropped this bomb of a quote: “The most welcoming state in the U.S. is Utah.” I doubted him and thought, “Really? The beehive state? What about New York or California? Massachusetts or Washington?” But because it came from the man in charge of the Department of Immigration and Refugee Resettlement, it carried some legitimacy.
I intended for the story to shed light on why the Men’s Wellness Support Group is needed and what Mengistu is doing to start it in Salt Lake City. However, certain grandmothers made the valid point that although the story is about refugee men, it fails to include their perspective. The story’s done and submitted, but if I had another go, I would include a lead about one of the very refugees who currently needs help.
I’ve given up a lot for stories.
My time, money, grades and even eyesight have been swallowed by my voracious appetite for a good story. My eyesight left when I read books by the light of a Happy Meal glow toy when my parents thought I was sleeping. My grades went after I couldn’t put “Fablehaven” down in elementary school.
In high school, I wrote the beginnings of stories about people trying to cheat fate or run futuristic governments. But my dreams of being a novelist took a turn when I went on an LDS mission and discovered the flesh-and-blood face of stories.
I met people all over Louisiana who suffered. Old ladies whose kids never returned home, fathers who raised children in the shells of battered houses. These people had stories that changed my own. My narrative was no longer about Peter Johnston climbing the academic ladder or Lisa and Jeremy’s son wasting time with a book — it became one of Elder Johnston praying with and for the downtrodden in New Orleans and Baton Rouge.
Nearly a year later, I’m an Eccles Scholar with a major in International Studies at the University of Utah. A main focus of mine is my internship at Catholic Community Services, where I’ve developed a support group for refugee men in Salt Lake City. Theirs is an untold story, and I aim to help them write a better one for themselves in this strange land called America.
I doubt the cards hold a job in print journalism for me. But I am still a storyteller and will both write and build the stories of people who need it most.
Stories have given me so much.