SALT LAKE CITY — The University of Utah launched a new research center on integrating refugees into American communities Wednesday, marking the latest indication of the state’s receptive tone toward refugees at a time when some others are tightening the hatches.
The researchers at the first center of its kind west of the Mississippi will be examining the challenges refugees face when they come to the U.S., university officials said. One top concern for refugee families is how to keep teenage children in school and away from drugs and alcohol, said Caren Frost, director of the university’s new Center for Research on Migration & Refugee Integration.
Kids can feel like they don’t fit into their adopted country or culture they came from, she said.
“Feeling isolated can lead to substance abuse, not graduating from high school,” she said “Parents are very, very concerned about that.”
But immigrant parents may not have the language skills, background on American culture or time away from work to help as much as they’d like, Frost said. Many are also still dealing with painful histories of their own.
About 1,200 refugees are typically accepted for settlement in Utah every year from countries like Bhutan, Myanmar, Congo, Iraq and Somalia. One teenager whose family came as refugees from Somalia more than a decade ago made headlines early this year when he was critically wounded in a police shooting that authorities said happened after a botched drug deal.
Despite the hardships refugees face, Utah has a history of helping people successfully resettle in the state tucked into the Rocky Mountains, Frost said.
That’s due in part to the Mormon church’s push encouraging members to welcome refugees with a campaign titled “I Was A Stranger.”
The embrace of refugees by the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has roots in the history of the faith, which counted many immigrants among its early members, said Mormon scholar Matthew Bowman. The church has been sending missionaries overseas since the 1850s, and now sees most of its growth in Africa and Asia.
“Leaders of the church are looking out a couple of decades at what the church will look like in 2050,” he said.
Mormons can also see echoes of their own ancestors, pioneers who crossed the country looking for a place to settle and practice their beliefs.
Dieter Uchtdorf, a native of Czechoslovakia, is perhaps the faith’s most charismatic top leader, Bowman said. His story of being forced to flee his family home in war-torn Europe has been widely shared among members of the church.
A majority of Utah residents are Mormon, including Gov. Gary Herbert. He made headlines last year when he didn’t join other Republican governors who threatened to stop accepting Syrian refugees out of terrorism fears, though he did order a review that led to a state police detective being assigned to the team of people that helps refugees transition into the state.
Naima Mohamed said she came to Utah with her family after fleeing war in Somalia 10 years ago.
“I was lost and hopeless because of limited language ability as well as culture shock,” she said. But with the mentors who encouraged her, she earned her master’s degree in social work from the University of Utah.
Integration isn’t only up to the newcomers, said Fatima Dirie, a community liaison for the Salt Lake City mayor.
“Who are the refugees? How do they feel?” she said. “When you have a community that’s open and welcoming, it makes the whole thing easier to handle.”