Story and slideshow by PETER JOHNSTON
Leul Mengistu hits the gas pedal of his company van. The light has turned green and he is late for an appointment with Julia, a female refugee from South Sudan. A banner with a blue, yellow and red logo that reads, “Catholic Community Services,” has been slapped onto the van’s side.
Though Mengistu helps female refugees like Julia at Catholic Community Services (CCS) he has a new focus demographic: refugee men.
“I don’t want them to fall between the cracks,” he says, one hand on the steering wheel. There are programs for women and children and youth, but men are often forgotten in refugee assistance efforts.
The International Rescue Committee reports that “refugee men, a category not prioritized by the humanitarian system for support, are often not able to access support that they need and, even more often, feel themselves to be excluded from it.”
According to CARE International, a relief organization that primarily targets women, “among humanitarian actors, donors and government agencies, there is a common perception that men are best able to look after themselves and negotiate the complexities of displacement unaided.”
The report says this perception leads to less attention for the problems of male refugees.
Mengistu acknowledges that women and children are often the most disadvantaged groups fleeing conflict in their home countries. However, he also says he deals with many refugee men who have not received needed support from other organizations because of the common belief that men are “best able to look after themselves.”
Mengistu has responded to widespread ignorance toward male refugees with the Men’s Wellness Support Group — a program that will bring together 10 to 15 refugee men for weekly classes. Each “cohort” of men will learn about topics ranging from building a budget to coping with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Weekly instruction will be led by men: Mengistu, a couple of class facilitators, and guest speakers specially tapped because of their area of expertise. David Harris is one such guest speaker. He is slated to teach the class on physical health and comes from a background of pediatrics and insurance management.
Harris says he sees cultural adjustment as the greatest priority of the Men’s Wellness Support Group. “They [the refugee men] need to protect their own culture,” he says, but they also “need to understand how stuff works [in the U.S.] so that they can get along.”
Mengistu once directed a support group for women that focused primarily on health. However, he too says the new support group’s objectives go beyond just physical wellness. “I want them [the refugee men] to be very competitive,” he says. “Everybody’s smart, but now it’s camouflaged!”
That intellectual camouflage refers to the invalidation of refugees’ prior work experience and professional talent in the United States.
Mengistu’s boss, Aden Batar, is the director of Immigration and Refugee Resettlement at CCS. He explains the “camouflage” problem from his own perspective.
Batar left Somalia with his family in the mid 1990s with a law degree from his home country. He says that degree and legal experience went unrecognized in the U.S.
“Can you imagine how frustrating that would be?” Batar asks. Today, he says, refugees can more easily get college degrees that match the ones they earned previously because NGOs and governmental agencies provide financial help. However, “back then [he] was lost in the middle because [he] didn’t have those systems.”
Even with revamped nonprofit and governmental aid, Batar says the Men’s Wellness Support Group “fills a gap.”
Eighty percent of CCS cases are women and children, Batar says. Men aren’t seen later unless they have a demonstrated problem.
Despite widespread apathy on the issue, Utah’s history with refugees makes it an appropriate birthplace for the program. In 2015, when 30 governors called for the cessation of Syrian refugee resettlement, Gov. Gary R. Herbert announced Utah’s continued commitment to assist refugees.
Batar also highlights the strong public-private relationship among CCS and local religious organizations as a positive sign of Utah’s tolerance of refugees. “The most welcoming state in the U.S. is Utah,” he says.
While the Men’s Wellness Support Group has public backing, it faces significant challenges.
For one, cultural conflicts between refugees’ old way of life and their new one in America could foster misunderstanding and resentment. David Harris, the guest speaker who will handle the physical health section, underlines that the program’s facilitators and guest speakers may not understand all cultural nuances of refugees’ backgrounds. “We may say something that we feel strongly about or think is obvious when they disagree or don’t think it’s obvious,” Harris says.
The key, he says, will be for facilitators to “listen really closely to what [the refugees] have to say and what their concerns are rather than being very dogmatic.”
Participating refugees will come from more than three countries. Mengistu has recruited men from Burma, Somalia and Democratic Republic of the Congo for the support group so far. His proposed solution to bridge cultural divides is to recruit participants who speak one of only two languages — Karen (a language spoken in Burma) and Swahili.
Logistics also pose a problem. Mengistu will need to resolve the scheduling conflicts of refugee men who work night and day shifts and CCS interpreters who work business hours. The program director says he and the guest speakers will adapt to the schedules of the refugees.
Regardless of the program’s potential problems, Mengistu envisions far-reaching implications for the Salt Lake City community. He says refugee men will integrate with the larger community, enjoy more family unity and become more self-sufficient fathers.
The first of the weekly classes launched April 5 with a cohort of seven participants — two from Burma, five from East Africa. If all goes well, these seven men will walk away from the CCS classroom on May 24 with the skills to start a career and find daily joy. A tall order — but like Mengistu says, “I don’t want them to fall through the cracks.”