Their brothers’ keeper — Utah charity targets refugee men

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.”



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Birds need a nest in Salt Lake City

by Mack Christian Culp

Everyone needs a place to call home. Even birds need a nest. And for the first time in the post-World War II era, the United Nations reports world-wide refugees have exceeded 50 million people. The European refugee crisis mostly consists of Syrians. Propelled by fear and desperation, 50 million refugees have faced one hurdle after another.These men, women, and children have been forced to leave their homes to escape persecution, and war. Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, the United States, and many other countries have closed their borders or imposed travel restrictions on these refugees. The unwanted people of Europe.

The unwanted people of Salt Lake City, Utah may include, but are not limited to: gays, men, women, those over 29, coffee drinkers, non-skier/snowboarders, non-Mormons, and people with low incomes. Yes, each of those have been linked to restrictions placed on housing applicants in the Salt Lake Valley in the last month.

The Salt Lake Tribune reported that nearly half of renters in the Salt Lake valley are living on the edge of homelessness and financial disaster. The struggle to lay claim to some small corner of space is something we expect to see in crises abroad, but not exactly in our hometowns.

I’ve scoured listings for apartments online this past year, looking for decent affordable housing close to school at the University of Utah. To my surprise, I didn’t fit the criteria for most renters. It may have been unintentional at the time, but now it has provided me with an insider’s view on the subject of the displaced in the Salt Lake Valley. Renting out rooms for a few months here, a few months there.

According to the online listing service ApartmentList, 25.6 percent of the Salt Lake City’s tenants fork over between 30 cents and 50 cents of every dollar they earn on monthly rent, and another 23.1 percent are severely cost-burdened, meaning they spend more than half their earnings to rent apartments or houses.

The burden of paying for an overpriced apartment or home to live is one thing, but navigating the internet and it’s listings is another quest altogether. No laws bar these relationships between renters and landlords formed on the dark web. So let’s go there.

“I have to be very careful about what I say. You don’t want to discriminate against anyone,” said Melina Dibble, a certified leasing agent in Salt Lake City. “Because we are managed by a property management company our laws are a little intense. Private owners do their own thing.”

Your rights may be overlooked if you decide to look for affordable options not provided by pricey property management companies like Dibble’s. PM companies are required to allow all people to apply for housing because of  fair housing laws from the federal government. But it’ll cost you. It’s often less expensive to rent from homeowners directly. These landlords can pick and choose the characteristics of their ideal renter; by things like age, sex, or religion.

“People who own homes looking to fill a room have specific wants and needs … you might feel like you’re being discriminated against, [because] how are you going to find a place?” said Dibble.

Being the gatekeeper of refugees, or the displaced enables you to open or close the door to whom you wish. Being as ethnocentric as you please is accepted here in Salt Lake City. Take a look at listings on, Craigslist, or any other site.

Two listings for a one-bedroom apartment from

1107 E Michigan Ave., · Salt Lake City, UT

Available December 1st. Looking for someone between ages 22-30, college students and LDS standards. No drinking alcohol or coffee or smoking/drugs allowed in house or property. Must be Clean and respectful. Must be responsible. No Drama.

1443 w 1335 s near freeway · Salt Lake City, UT

Student & working?  Private room; $350 includes all Utilities/HS internet/ Washer-Dryer/Eveything! Please read: Private Room is UNFURNISHED. bathroom-kitchen etc are shared. ONE PERSON IN ROOM ONLY/no couples or shared. Looking for MALE roomate. LDS/Christian standards a must. No smoking; respectful, honest, no drugs or alcohol foul-dirty language etc. –  Nice, clean and quiet place to live, I am Interested in renting to student who works and needs a CLEAN, QUIET, and SAFE place to live. … foul odors free; very important. Person interested must be responsible. Must be over 18 years. 

These are just a few examples of the hyper-similar string of listings I found in my extensive search for a nest in the past year. Strapped for money like so many other young aspiring adults in the Salt Lake Valley, I felt like this string of listings were my only option. Although, Salt Lake Mayor, Ralph Becker has outlined an initiative for 5,000 additional affordable apartment options in the next five years, his plan won’t help people in my situation. “Private” landlords still freely discriminate protected classes and other marginalized groups and that’s not going to change anytime soon that I can see.

After-school program works with refugee community in Salt Lake City

Story and slideshow by JAVAN RIVERA

Watch the children as they wait to get into the Dream Center. Video courtesy of Susanna Metzger.

It’s a perfect picture of ordered chaos. Children run, screaming with joy and enthralled with the sheer delight of playtime. With the simple act of holding up their hands and the waving of two colored flags — one red, one yellow — two volunteers bring the disorder to a more reasonable level. The children begin to line up, still chatting with one another, but preparing for the evening’s activities. So begins another Monday night at The Utah Dream Center.

The Utah Dream Center is a nonprofit organization located on the west side of Salt Lake City that focuses the majority of its efforts on helping the refugee community that exists there.

Salt Lake City is one of only a handful of major cities across the United States that regularly takes in refugees. The west side of Salt Lake City and the neighborhoods surrounding the Dream Center in particular, have become saturated with people from countries spanning the globe.

The goal of the Dream Center is to help reach out to the community that resides in what the director of the center, Alfred Murillo, likes to call, “the west side strip.”

This section of Salt Lake City encompasses the neighborhoods of Glendale and Poplar Grove. These neighborhoods are filled with children that come from dozens of countries, and it’s these children that the Dream Center program known as The Open Door works with on a weekly basis.

The Open Door is an after-school program under the direction of Susanna Metzger that works in tandem with the Utah Dream Center to try to create a relationship with the community and provide a place where the children can go to learn and have fun. The partnership is now thriving, with children thronging to the dream center every Monday night.

“The relational aspect is the key thing,” said Jeff Friel, one of the regular volunteers at The Open Door.

Friel said he believes the ability to get to know the children on a weekly basis is very important to the core of the program. Whether that’s something as simple as figuring out which children don’t speak English well, or just seeing the children’s knowledge base grow as they come back week after week, he feels that it’s those connections that make the program work.

“We can focus on knowing where they’re at (academically),” Friel said, “and we can actually grow and seeing how we can actually be a part of their lives.”

The Open Door, which is open Mondays from 6- 8 p.m., began four years ago under the leadership of Bonnie Strickland Beck. Strickland was the director of outreach at a local Salt Lake City church known as K2 The Church, and first made contact with Murillo in 2007.

According to Murillo, Strickland had heard about the various programs and events Dream Center did in the community, and she was interested in creating a program that could work with the children in the direct vicinity of the organization.

Due to the high number of programs coordinated at the Dream Center, he suggested that Strickland and her team work with the idea, and that the Dream Center would help where it could.

Murillo sees his job as being there to help bring programs like The Open Door to life, but not necessarily to micromanage them.

“The idea of the Dream Center is to empower those who have a dream,” Murillo said, “and to fulfill what they want to do.”

Metzger, who now heads The Open Door, was there as a volunteer early on. She said how much the program has grown since it first began. With weekly attendance fluctuating between 30-50 kids, the program has seen a dramatic uptake in children participating.
The Open Door currently operates on a simple schedule based around tutoring, activities for the children, free time and a meal provided by the volunteer staff.

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Throughout the school year, volunteers from the program start every Monday evening near 5 p.m. by setting up the various tables, chairs, and crafts and tutoring supplies needed for the program. They then begin heading out into the neighborhood to gather the children and walk them back to the Dream Center where they can begin check-in.

“We try to bring them in small groups for check-in to help maintain order,” Metzger said.
The children waiting to sign in at the front table are allowed to play outside in the parking lot of the Dream Center.

Once check-in is complete, all the children gather in the main area of the Dream Center and are usually taught a short lesson through the use of either a basic story, or a skit performed by the volunteers.

Friel said the Christian volunteers respect the diverse ethical and religious backgrounds of the refugee children. Because the majority of the volunteers come from various Christian churches or organizations around the Salt Lake Valley, they try to show consideration for the children’s backgrounds by only bringing in Christian-themed lessons during the time of year when they are relevant.

“We do Christ-based lessons around Christmas and Easter,” Friel said. “The rest of the time we stick to really basic principles; stuff like respect, honesty and honoring each other.”

After the object lesson, the children are divided into groups based on age and are sent to different sections of the building.

“There are three groups,” Metzger explained. “Red and yellow are the younger children, and green is the older group.”

The younger children in the red and yellow groups split off into two activities. While one group works on reading or getting help with their homework, the other group does arts and crafts or plays simple games.

The green group, which focuses on children ages 11-16, works on its own during this time. The Open Door has recently partnered with the Pregnancy Resource Center of Salt Lake City to work with the “high risk” children that occupy the neighborhoods surrounding the Dream Center.

Terri Kerr, one of the volunteers who is part of the partnership with the Pregnancy Resource Center, said the curriculum for the green group is separate from that of the rest of the children. It’s designed to help those involved to think positively about their future, and also focuses on the proper way to interact with people and how to form healthy relationships.

Currently, The Open Door only has around 20 volunteers, something that Metzger would like to see change in the future. With as much as the program is able to achieve, it is still limited by the fact that the children in the program outnumber the volunteers by a ratio of almost two to one.

With more volunteers, and more time to invest, Metzger said her dream would be to see the program expand to the point that it can become a part of the children’s everyday lives, especially with the older children.

“We see a lot of the older kids come and go,” Metzger said. “I would love to see that part of the program grow in particular.”

The Dream Center is empty at the end of the night. The shouts of excited children no longer fill the building. Instead, one hears the voices of the volunteers as they gather to debrief for the evening. They discuss the events of the night, finish cleaning up and prepare to do it all over again.