Story by KRISTINE WELLER
When refugees arrive in the U.S. they are matched with one of nine nonprofit organizations. There are two such organizations in Utah, the International Rescue Committee and Catholic Community Services. The problem is, however, these organizations only help refugees for their first two months in the U.S. and these asylum seekers often need sustained assistance.
This is why Utah has the Know Your Neighbor program. The Know Your Neighbor program recruits volunteers to fulfill needs and create connections between refugees and community members.
Megan McLaws is the program’s volunteer coordinator. She matches volunteers with newcomers who require assistance. The main categories volunteers assist with are tutoring and mentorship, programs and classes, Refugee Community Based Organizations (RCBOs), and the goat farm which is a special category of RCBO.
McLaws said that when the pandemic started, the program had an influx of volunteers, more than they had a need for. The program wasn’t matching people unless it was virtually, which made it difficult to give every volunteer an opportunity. However, now that people are going back to work, they don’t have as much time to volunteer.
“We’re having the opposite problem where we have a lot of opportunities, and we have a lot of volunteers, but they are getting back to work and have busy schedules again,” McLaws said.
Lexie Hanks is one of those volunteers who has a busy schedule but fits different volunteer opportunities into her day-to-day life. She said it’s best to fit opportunities in where you can, even if it’s just for an hour or two a week, since there is no shortage of needs for the refugees.
“Volunteering can be tiring work, but it’s worth it,” Hanks said.
One of the volunteer opportunities that Hanks takes advantage of is the goat farm. The goat farm is an RCBO within the program, but it is unique because it relies heavily on volunteer support. Hanks said when volunteers go to the farm, they usually feed and water the goats as well as do health checks. However, Hanks has also vaccinated the herd and re-tagged them.
The farm is run by Somali Bantu, Burundi and Bajuni communities right outside Salt Lake City. Hanks explained that this farm is very important in preserving and passing on cultural practices related to goat farming.
“Through helping and volunteering in that way, it gives refugees a piece of their home,” Hanks said.
Hanks started working with the Know Your Neighbor program during the pandemic, in the summer of 2020, so for her first volunteer opportunity she was paired with a Burundi family. She helped their kids with homework virtually.
The children in this family were in the same grades as two of Hanks’ own children, one in kindergarten and the other in third grade. Hanks’ kids came to like the children across the screen and on Fridays when she was helping them with virtual learning, she said they would often ask, “are our friends on?”
Hanks would then tell her boys that they would have to wait until the other kids are done with their learning before they can say hello.
Virtual learning, however, wasn’t easy. Hanks said the kids would often hold up their homework to the camera, and she would have to quickly write information down so she could help them. The language barrier also made things more difficult.
“Kind eyes meeting kind eyes,” Hanks said, was basically the only communication she had with the parents. This is because they had recently arrived in the U.S. and hadn’t learned much English.
Kim Langton, another volunteer, has more experience with helping refugees learn English and teaching in general. Langton has a degree in education and has been teaching and working with children since 1975.
In fact, after retiring, Langton said he lost his fulfillment. He said he missed helping children and that’s why he began volunteering.
Langton, more specifically, volunteers for the Umoja Generation. The Umoja Generation is an RCBO under the Know Your Neighbor program. Langton is also on the board of this RCBO and has been volunteering there for nearly three years.
Part of what Langton does is help refugee children learn conversational English. English learning is important, he said, because if students don’t understand English they won’t do well in other subjects.
Further, Langton said it’s critical for refugee students to do something that interests them when learning English, and that they do it with others in the Utah community. It’s an easier and more fun way to learn, plus they can make new friends.
That’s why Langton first finds something that the kids are interested in and bases a lesson around an activity. He said a lot of kids like soccer, so one of his lessons involved writing up English words that are related to the sport, talking about each word, using the words in a sentence and going out and playing some soccer.
Langton’s grandkids also love soccer. He described them as “soccer fanatics” since they have been in competitive leagues and traveled in Utah from St. George to Ogden for tournaments and games.
Since Langton knew his grandkids loved soccer, he invited them to the English lesson based around it. He said his grandchildren didn’t expect the refugees to be as skilled as they are, because of their background with the sport, but they were humbled.
“They said, ‘Wow, we didn’t know they were gonna be so good. Those kids are fantastic.’ And they were, so it was a good way to start teaching them English around something they’re intrinsically interested in,” Langton said in a Zoom interview.
Langton also is a mentor for a refugee named Didier. Didier and Langton have been working together for about a year. Langton helps with anything he needs, including homework, finding scholarships and getting his food handler’s permit.
They communicate virtually over Zoom and text since Didier lives in West Jordan and Langton lives in Glenwood, a three-hour distance. Despite the distance, however, Langton said his mentee feels like one of his grandkids. He said they are close, and that he’s learned so much from their relationship as well.
Langton said he has learned a lot about Didier’s culture. Didier is from the Congo and Langton has heard his family play their traditional music. Langton said he also was able to better understand the refugee experience after talking about it with Didier when helping him apply to a college scholarship.
“I think he’s taught me a lot more than I’ve taught him,” Langton said.
This is one of the main goals for the Know Your Neighbor program, for refugees to make connections with local community members. Further, Langton explained that it’s not just the volunteers who should become friends with the refugees.
He said it’s the responsibility of everyone to make these new arrivals feel welcome and appreciated, adding that refugees are deserving of all kinds of love.
“They’re wonderful students, wonderful people,” Langton said, “hearts as big as any I’ve ever known.”